Few of us, having lived through the last half of the 20th century, would discount the massive cultural changes that have transpired during our lifetimes. But understanding these phenomena, digging into the real causes of the transformation, proves rather daunting. Given the nature of historiography, no one has the capacity to fully describe, much less to fully understand the past. Every thoughtful historical monograph, as Alfred North Whitehead said, in his Adventures in Ideas, is “a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background.” A highly-readable, descriptive narrative of important developments during one decade (from the mid‘60s to the mid-‘70s) is provided by Amity Shlaes in Great Society: A New History (New York: Harper, Kindle ed., c. 2019). The “great society” was a phrase appropriated by Lyndon Baines Johnson to represent his aspirations as president, and it became one of the most ambitious social engineering endeavors in American history.
Shlaes begins with a telling vignette of Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America: Poverty in the United States—a 1962 treatise widely discussed in the final year of the John F. Kennedy administration. Semi-humorously, Martin Luther King quipped: “You know, we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book’” (p. 73). Harrington was a self-identified socialist who had been briefly involved in the formation of Students for a Democratic Society. When Lyndon B. Johnson became president in 1963 he and many in his administration (most especially Sarge Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law and LBJ’s poverty czar) were quite taken by Harrington’s ideas. Given an office in the White House, Harrington noted: “‘the abolition of poverty would require a basic change in how resources are allocated.’” Shriver mentioned this to LBJ, an aspiring Franklin D. Roosevelt, who “told him that if serious economic redistribution was necessary to realize the long-delayed completion of the New Deal, then redistribution might be worth it” (p. 3).
Whether or not LBJ’s endeavors would bring about the “great society”—great because it is good—Amity Shlaes seeks to show. So she begins with JFK’s “New Frontier,” brought into being by the election of 1960. The nation was then prospering, amply illustrating The Affluent Society described by Harvard economist John Kenneth Gailbraith. Businesses such as GE and GM were fiscally sound and most working men made good money. The president himself was notably pro-business, sending “his progressive advisor” Galbraith off to India as an ambassador rather than embracing his socialist ideals. But he also made clear overtures to labor unions, issuing an executive order enabling federal employees to unionize. However, when he gave a speech indicating his admiration for Britain’s National Health Service the stock market plunged and he quickly retreated into the security of the status quo. JFK was no FDR, seeking to engineer societal change. There were, to be sure, pockets of poverty, but by-and-large the Ozzie and Harriet world of the ‘50s gave much impetus to considerable optimism for the coming years.
Cynically discounting such optimism, however, a group of students met in 1962 near Port Huron, Michigan, in a camp developed by Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers and named “Four Freedoms”—the items listed by FDR in his last inaugural address. Styling themselves the “New Left” and led by the likes of Tom Hayden, they felt “it was like God was sending us a message.” Many of the youngsters imagined they were attending something of a “participatory democracy,” but in fact their input was unimportant, for the real message had been carefully crafted months before by Hayden, Harrington, and operatives funded by the UAW. Harrington and Hayden were “Catholic activists” and were also “drinking buddies” (p. 77). One of Reuther’s union officials considered the students were “our kind of youngsters,” and his brother Victor provided ample funding for the group’s endeavors by helping distribute the “Port Huron Statement,” substituting the word “statement” was for “manifesto” in order to distance it from the Communist Manifesto! Much of the “Statement” had been earlier incubated in Reuther’s UAW “propaganda mills” which constantly decried income inequality and the fact that “‘the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock’” (p. 78). Indeed, Walter Reuther was determined to distribute the wealth by nudging the nation toward a “social democracy.” And for that he needed “an American president to lead his redistribution revolution” (p. 62).
FDR, of course, had earlier moved “the country toward socialism while sustaining democracy” (p. 63). So Walter Reuther needed another FDR. But he knew JFK’s New Frontier would not update the New Deal. When John Kennedy was killed, however, Lyndon Baines Johnson proved more amenable to the Reuther agenda. Indeed, one of the first persons LBJ called was Walter Reuther. “‘I’ll need your friendship more than I ever did in my life,’ Johnson said. Reuther promised ‘every possible help I can offer’” (p. 87). Within a few months Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union address, and a new national tilt toward “social democracy” was underway. This was evident in a 1964 speech at the University of Michigan, wherein LBJ set forth “a vision as fantastic as the vision of Port Huron, as transformative as that of Reuther” (p. 97). Poverty must end, civil rights must be insured, and a “Great Society” must be brought into being.
Thenceforth came a cascade of legislation and federal programs, launched without concern for financial accountability, justified simply as what “ought” to be done by compassionate Americans! The list is almost interminable—medicare; medicaid; civil rights injunctions; minimum wage edicts. LBJ was on a roll and his triumph in the election of 1964 apparently illustrated the people’s support for his programs; the “Great Society” was an effective expansion of the New Deal. But implementing the agenda proved far more difficult than passing legislation! Take, for example, a rather simple prescription, the minimum wage. Designed to reduce unemployment, it in fact increased it! “Black and white youth unemployment had run about the same until the middle of the 1950s, 8 to 11 percent. But when Congress raised the federal minimum wage by a third in 1956, unemployment rose far higher among black teenagers than among whites, to 25 percent” (p. 183). The War on Poverty flooded communities with money that counterproductively encouraged irresponsibility, enabling men avoid work. When you could get $200 a month from welfare, why work hard to earn the same amount!
Equally vain were the Great Society’s housing programs. Facing depressed sections in the nation’s great cities, progressives pressed for federally-funded housing projects. After all, Walter Reuther had declared: “The choice before the people of every major urban center is simple and clear. It is build or burn.” Government housing for the needy had long been a progressive ideal, and their projects revealed an architectural aesthetic. Consider what was erected in Washington, D.C. to house the newly-created Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was was, architecturally, a monument to “Brutalism,” a movement celebrating massive, concrete, featureless, geometric structures. But to most Americans it signified a “brutalist” bureaucratic obsession. No matter what experts said, “brutalist” had to mean what it sounded and looked like, possessing brute power” (p. 230). To deal effectively with city slums, old neighborhoods were razed and replaced with soaring, sterile concrete structures—“projects” designed improve living conditions for the impoverished. Yet with a rapidity impossible to imagine these “projects” in St. Louis, Chicago, and elsewhere became cages of squalor and crime. They would be, in a rather short time, simply demolished.
But unlike the brutalist housing projects, Great Society programs persisted. President Nixon tinkered a bit with some of them but dared not seek to reverse them. Indeed, he pursued policies, such as wage and price controls in 1971, that were flagrantly socialistic! Ronald Reagan, both as Governor of California and President of the United States, spoke frequently and passionately against some of them, but Democrats successfully obstructed most all of his proposals. Half-a-century later, Shlaes says, with trillions of dollars expended, one can only look back at the Great Society and lament its many failures.
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In The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (New York:. Simon & Schuster, c. 2020; Kindle Edition), Christopher Caldwell provides a helpful lens with which to understand current developments in America. He begins by noting how deeply the ‘60s shaped subsequent decades. Indeed: “For two generations, ‘the sixties’ has given order to every aspect of the national life of the United States—its partisan politics, its public etiquette, its official morality. This is a book about the crises out of which the 1960s order arose, the means by which it was maintained, and the contradictions at its heart that, by the time of the presidential election of 2016, had led a working majority of Americans to view it not as a gift but as an oppression” (p. 3). This was because many of the “reforms” pushed through in that decade “came with costs that proved staggeringly high—in money, freedom, rights, and social stability” (p. 6).
Caldwell’s disillusionment provides a stark contrast to the ‘60s utopian optimism. Following the traumatic assassination of John F. Kennedy, the welfare state rapidly expanded—Medicare, Medicaid, Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts—and was expected to fulfill the aspirations of the “best and the brightest” who engineered it. Most importantly, Caldwell argues: “Civil rights ideology, especially when it hardened into a body of legislation, became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform” (p. 5). Here the law of unexpected consequences held true, for the “changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible,” and we are in the midst of a titanic struggle which will determine which will prevail: “the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation. The increasing necessity that citizens choose between these two orders, and the poisonous conflict into which it ultimately drove the country, is what this book describes” (p. 6).
In particular, the march toward desegregation, launched by the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling in 1954, inevitably eroded the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association. Equality, rather than freedom, became imperative! Inevitably, the “sanctity of private property” was softened whenever racial discrimination called for correction. Though some legislators, debating the civil rights laws, feared unanticipated consequences (e.g. mandated school busing, lowering school admission standards, hiring quotas, etc.), they were dismissed as devotees of an antiquated social system. Nevertheless, many of their fears materialized, and lawmakers “who opposed the legislation proved wiser about its consequences than those who sponsored it” (p. 22). Rather quickly civil rights leaders and federal bureaucrats moved from eliminating segregation to calling for widespread social and economic changes. Then, only two months after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles exploded in a deadly race riot, revealing that more than “civil rights” was at stake.
In fact, more than delivering justice to the black population was envisioned by the progressives now governing the nation. “Not just excluded and exploited Southern blacks but all aggrieved minorities now sought to press their claims under this new model of progressive governance. The civil rights model of executive orders, litigation, and court-ordered redress eventually became the basis for resolving every question pitting a newly emergent idea of fairness against old traditions: the persistence of different roles for men and women, the moral standing of homosexuality, the welcome that is due to immigrants, the consideration befitting wheelchair-bound people. Civil rights gradually turned into a license for government to do what the Constitution would not previously have permitted. It moved beyond the context of Jim Crow laws almost immediately, winning what its apostles saw as liberation after liberation” (p. 34). So “women’s liberation” hitched its wagon to the civil rights movement, demanding “equality” for the sexes. Consequently, while in 1960 married and unmarried women shared similar attitudes regarding most everything today they differ in most all things! Feminists vigorously promoted contraception, abortion, and full equality in the marketplace. But they also unleashed “irresistible demands for further sexual freedoms. Just as Americans were getting comfortable with the things feminism had meant to Betty Friedan and her followers (liberation from household drudgery and loneliness, a fair shake in the workplace, equal dignity elsewhere), feminism began showing signs of what it would blossom into half a century later (gender studies, queer theory, a questioning of all rules about sex)” (p. 56). Such “freedoms” deeply changed the culture.
Another culture-changer was the war in Vietnam, beginning with “an act of presidential deceit,” the Tonkin resolution. But within four years the war had proved so unpopular that everyone running for president in 1968 promised to extricate the country from what seemed to be a quagmire. Militarily the war might have been won, but politically it was lost—particularly among the younger elites. Thus a Harvard anti-war student said: “On the one hand we were angry about the war, about racism, about the countless vicious acts we saw around us. But on the other hand, we viewed America as one great wasteland, a big, monstrous, mechanized, air-conditioned desert, a place without roots or feeling. We saw the main problem, really, as: THE PEOPLE—the ways they thought and acted towards each other. We imagined a great American desert, populated by millions of similar, crass, beer-drinking grains of sand, living in a waste of identical suburban no-places. What did this imagined ‘great pig-sty of TV watchers’ correspond to in real life? As ‘middle-class’ students we learned that this was the working class—the ‘racist, insensitive people.’ Things already going on at the time of the Vietnam War inclined privileged people to look on ‘average’ Americans as the country’s problem” (p. 78).
The counterculture evident in this student’s lament asserted itself and would spread its tentacles throughout every crack in America. An alienated elite would ultimately dominate virtually all important institutions (schools, media, churches) and demand societal transformation funded by the taxpayer. Endless funding of proliferating anti-poverty, anti-racist, anti-sexist bureaucracies continued, and not even Ronald Reagan could arrest it. “Having promised for years that he would undo affirmative action ‘with the stroke of a pen,’ lop the payments that LBJ’s Great Society lavished on ‘welfare queens,’ and abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education, he discovered, once he became president, that to do any of those things would have struck at the very foundations of desegregation. So he didn’t” (p. 110). Reagan tacitly complied with the “second constitution created by the civil rights movement which led, by the end of the century, to increasingly strident racial politics.
This was manifestly evident in the metastasizing power of “affirmative action” and “political correctness”—important planks in the nation’s new constitution, largely shaped by judicial decrees. It is now clear that by passing the 1964 civil rights laws Americans “had inadvertently voted themselves a second constitution without explicitly repealing the one they had” (p. 172). In fact: “Affirmative action was deduced judicially from the curtailments on freedom of association that the Civil Rights Act itself had put in place. Political correctness rested on a right to collective dignity extended by sympathetic judges who saw that, without such a right, forcing the races together would more likely occasion humiliation than emancipation. As long as Americans were frightened of speaking against civil rights legislation or, later, of being assailed as racists, sexists, homophobes, or xenophobes, their political representatives could resist nothing that presented itself in the name of ‘civil rights.’ This meant that conflict, when it eventually came, would be constitutional conflict, with all the gravity that the adjective ‘constitutional’ implies” (p. 172).
One of the ultimately disastrous consequences of this shift surfaced in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush, following race riots in Los Angeles, signed a Housing and Community Development Act. “It inaugurated the process we have seen at many junctures in this book: the sudden irruption of civil rights law and diversity promotion into an area from which it had been mostly absent, in this case mortgage finance” (p. 178). This act opened the gates to “the financial crisis that, in the following century, would nearly destroy the world economy under the presidency of Bush’s even more reckless son” (p. 179). Sandwiched between the two presidents Bush, Bill Clinton manipulated the mortgage finance system, denouncing “the dearth of private housing credit in poor, black, urban neighborhoods” fomented by racist white bankers, and demanding low mortgage rates for blacks buying homes. In Caldwell’s judgment: “Sometime between the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws and the long Bush-Clinton march through the country’s financial institutions, the victims’ perspective had won. Now any inequality was an injustice, and one did not need a clear account of what had caused it to demand redress from the system” (p. 180).
Another realm dramatically unexpectedly changed was the institution of marriage. Other than a few gay activists, no one imagined it possible that same-sex marriage would ever be legally imposed on the nation by a Supreme Court mandate (Obergefell v. Hodges) in 1916. But homosexuals adroitly fused their “liberation” agenda with the “radical feminist cause of delegitimizing” traditional, heterosexual marriage “and the traditional idea of masculinity” it implied (p. 216). Gay activists wanted “not just tolerance but a conferral of dignity. . . . . Civil rights was always this way: dignity was an integral and non-negotiable part of what was demanded, and a government interested in civil rights must secure it, no matter what the cost in rights to those who would deny it” (p. 217). “As Rosa Luxemburg had written of the Russian Revolution, ‘The real dialectic of revolution stands the parliamentary cliché on its head: The road leads not through majorities to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to majorities’” (p. 225).
Justice Antonin Scalia saw this clearly, dissenting from Obergefell, declaring it to be undemocratic. “‘A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers,’ Scalia wrote, ‘does not deserve to be called a democracy.’ He called the decision an upper-class ‘putsch,’ noting that every single member of the Supreme Court had gone to either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School, and concluded: ‘The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage. But of course the Justices in today’s majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not’” (p. 229). Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy had “explicitly repudiated certain conceptions of democracy that had until recently been sacrosanct. ‘It is of no moment whether advocates of same-sex marriage now enjoy or lack momentum in the democratic process,’ he wrote. Unless someone was expecting the Court to apologize for Brown v. Board of Education, this thwarting of majority rule in the name of civil rights was what the Supreme Court was for” (p. 229). Kennedy, of course, was enforcing the “second constitution”—the living constitution of Al Gore, not the original constitution of Antonin Scalia.
With amazing rapidity the practical ramifications of Obergefell became evident. Bakers were brought to trial for refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings. Transgender students insisted they should use restrooms of their choice or compete as athletes in accord with their self-definition. “A terrible irony of civil rights, obvious from the very outset but never, ever spoken of, was making itself manifest . . . . The civil rights approach to politics meant using lawsuits, shaming, and street power to overrule democratic politics. It encouraged—no, it required—groups of similarly situated people to organize against the wider society to defend their interests. Now it became clear that the members of any group that felt itself despised and degraded could defend its interests this way” (p. 232).