With the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s “Great Society” speech fast approaching, we are seeing a flood of historical remembrance and analysis, and there will be more in the weeks and months ahead. The television historians and talking heads will be swooning over how much was accomplished by an 89th Congress that was, in the words of journalist Karen Tumulty, “the most productive in American history,” an assessment widely shared by historians. But more careful analysts will be asking whether the policy initiatives that we group under the “Great Society” rubric actually succeeded or failed, whether their influence was transformative of American politics and society, and, if so, whether the transformation was mainly for good or for ill.
The evaluations will likely be mixed. Most commentators will freely acknowledge that the Johnson administration deserves credit for ameliorating the unjust treatment of black Americans, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some will also credit it with reducing the most serious forms of poverty in American life, and, through Medicare and Medicaid, having eased the toll of poverty and old age on the health of much of the nation. Many, though, will argue that such programs have wasted vast sums of money, undermined longstanding patterns of local and personal self-governance, and damaged the fabric of our society by fostering a culture of dependency on government, and disincentives to productive and responsible behavior. One would hope that all such claims will be contested and assessed in the light of honest empirical inquiry.
What I propose to do here is, however, something a little different. I begin with the speech itself, delivered at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, almost exactly six months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, six months into Johnson’s presidency, in the midst of Johnson’s campaign to be elected President in his own right.
Clearly this speech, although an ordinary commencement address, offered an opportunity for Johnson to transcend his crass, horse-trading, wheeler-dealer reputation, and begin to present a more statesmanlike image of himself that could rival or even surpass the mythic transports of the Kennedy presidency. And he took the opportunity. He had already successfully test-driven the term “Great Society” a few weeks before in a speech at Ohio University, and at Ann Arbor, he went full throttle with it, making it the centerpiece of an oration whose rhetoric, high as it flew, barely touched upon the ambitious political program it introduced. At a time of unequaled prosperity, an American Icarus was on the rise, and the sun itself seemed ripe for his colonization.
To get a sense of just how audaciously Texas-sized Johnson’s vision was, and the extent to which it offered itself as a conscious departure from the relatively timid immediate past, consider how it contrasts with these remarkably un-soaring words of President John F. Kennedy, just two years before, in his 1962 Yale commencement speech:
What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is [sic] not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.
Kennedy had offered not Icarian uplift but sober advice: The graduates should take their part “in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgment.”
Kennedy’s faith in elite technical expertise is by no means missing from Johnson’s speech, but in the latter context it finds itself in the company of some strikingly populist and communitarian imagery, along with touches of bombast and sheer therapeutic psychobabble. Johnson was not merely concerned with the size of the Gross National Product, but with the quality of aspirations and longings in the hearts of the nation’s citizens. He wanted to inspire the American people with an animating, soul-renewing sense of national purpose, and call them to the pursuit of the higher things in life. But, contrary to much of what you will read about the Ann Arbor speech, it is surprisingly guarded, to the point of coyness, about how much of this cultural renewal would be the work of a vastly expanded federal apparatus. That part of it would not become evident until after the election.
Bill Voegeli’s Liberty Forum essay captures some of the remarkable scope of Johnson’s speech, and there is no need to repeat or multiply examples of its range. But it’s important to ask: How adequate was the speech in putting forward a coherent vision of the actual reforms that would be advanced in a duly elected Johnson administration? If we want to understand what “the Great Society” really was, is the Ann Arbor speech the right place to begin? Or should we begin somewhere else? What would an administration that concerned itself with “the desire for beauty,” or “the hunger for community,” or the “honoring of creation,” or the “quality of our goals” or the “meaning of our lives”—what would such an administration actually do to advance these causes? What could it do?
Voegeli hits the nail on the head, then, when he calls these objectives little more than “gauzy aspirations” whose vagueness made it difficult “to say what [the Great Society] was about or be sure what it was not about.” This remains enduringly true. We should be wary of those who would ask us either to affirm or reject the Great Society in toto, as if it were a coherent thing. But the same can be said of the New Deal. This absence of clarity was not incidental to what Johnson was doing. It perfectly reflected, and continues to reflect, liberalism’s tendency to confuse the political and the spiritual realms, and to invoke the latter in ways that merely serve to anoint the former, and wrap it up in mystifying robes. When Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., began talking about things like “qualitative liberalism” and “spiritual unemployment” in 1956, nearly a decade before Johnson’s speech, he was vividly illustrating that tendency. But he was only following in the footsteps of William James, whose search for “the moral equivalent of war” as an energizing source of national solidarity was the inspiration for the War on Poverty, and the innumerable other such domestic “wars” that have come since. Bold as Johnson’s speech was, the rhetorical ground for it had been well-prepared.
The text was said to be primarily the work of Richard Goodwin, an old Kennedy speechwriter and Democratic operative who specialized in blowsy rhetorical excess and muddy inspirational thinking, and had great influence in formulating some of the administration’s signature rallying cries—not only the Great Society, but also the War on Poverty, and the Alliance for Progress. To get a vivid sense of Goodwin’s mind, one can hardly do better than to consult James Q. Wilson’s review of his 1974 book The American Condition. Writes Wilson:
The argument of the book is not easily restated because . . . there is not in a strict sense an argument being made at all: words are not defined, evidence is not adduced, logical connections are not established, contrary cases are not explained. . . . The major themes seem to be these: Americans have suffered a great but unnoticed diminution of freedom because they have lost the capacity to fulfill their humanity to the “outer limits fixed by the material conditions and capacity of the time.” The gap between our true human fulfillment and our present condition is a measure of our oppression. . . .
Sounds very much like the Great Society address, doesn’t it? And Wilson’s review concludes with this mordant observation:
Its tone suggests that it was written at two o’clock in the morning when the darkest hours of the night produce the deepest intellectual reveries but not the clearest insight; when phrases, snatches of ideas, and hastily-scribbled quotations take on an enlarged meaning as they are pondered through a false sense of heightened awareness and a sweet existential anguish. Many of us have written down our ideas during these hours but we usually throw them away the next day when they are seen to be as vaporous as the night airs that produced them. Richard Goodwin kept his, and published them.
In other words, Goodwin’s book, and his speechwriting, were exercises in intellectual mood music. There was a lot of slinging around of abstractions like community and alienation and individualism and “shared values” and fulfillment and oppression. But there was no coherent structure of analysis, no set of concrete goals, no reasonable framework of policy objectives that could be seen to flow from the speech. Nor was there any sense of the conflict between expertise and democracy, between bureaucracy and creativity, between a vast expansion of federal power and what Johnson called “creative federalism.”
Though we think of it as ground-breaking, the speech at Ann Arbor was, in more than one sense, generic. It conformed to the typical commencement address, with its atmospherics of vague uplift and ever-unfolding purpose. It quoted Aristotle, to the effect that men live in cities because they wish to pursue “the good life,” but it offered no insight into the nature of that “good life,” or the nature of the human person meant to live it. Then, too, the speech made perfect sense as a campaign address, delivered by a titanically ambitious, but also deeply insecure, candidate eager to prove his reformist bona fides and leave his martyred predecessor in the dust. What it did not even remotely resemble was a policy road map. It lacked even a clue as to what specific policies could be drawn from it. The disconnect should be familiar, since we have just lived through a repetition of it, with an Obama administration that promised us the moon and instead has given us a stagnant economy and an ever-expanding IRS.
As to its rallying cry—there, too, there were antecedents. Goodwin was drawing from earlier figures on the political and intellectual Left, though he wisely chose not to allude to them. The term “Great Society” appeared importantly in the turn-of-the-century writings of Graham Wallas, the British Fabian, who shared with the younger Walter Lippmann a belief that modern life had demolished older forms of human association, leaving society incapable of self-governance, and therefore in need of a “propaganda-managed democracy” to keep alive the tenuous myth of representative democratic governance. Such well-meant redirection of citizens’ interests and energies, which now goes by the grandmotherly euphemism of “nudging,” is always a part of the liberal agenda: a government for the people, but not necessarily of or by them, a government that knows better than we do about the deepest desires of our hearts, and knows better how we might fulfill those desires.
Johnson’s speech does not nudge. But what especially marks it at the remove of half a century is the extent to which we can now see it as a prime example of the politics of vision, or the politics of meaning—perhaps the first such example from the mouth of a sitting American President. In that sense, the speech seems strikingly, and depressingly, contemporary. Politics, in this view, is not merely the question of how resources are best allocated and a general peace is kept. It is not even a question of what Michael Oakeshott would call a telocratic order, a society disciplined to the pursuit of particular ends or goals or purposes. It is about something even bigger. In its fullest sense, politics is about self-fulfillment, about helping men and women to rise above a stunted world of moral self-indulgence, degraded work, and despoiled landscapes to find richer and deeper meaning in their lives. Politics is a thing of the spirit. The Great Society speech offers us what might be called a pneumacratic view of politics. That this windy politics was being served up by a ruthless man of legendary personal ambition, a man who would have made Frank Underwood of House of Cards look like an effete wallflower by comparison, is perhaps not the least of its ironies.
We all know how the 1964 election came out, with Johnson receiving over 61 percent of the popular vote, and producing Democratic super-majorities in both houses of Congress, ensuring that he would have a free hand in passing virtually any legislation he pleased. Accordingly, he laid out a staggering agenda in his first post-electoral State of the Union message on January 8, 1965, again invoking the shimmering goals of the Great Society, and the Congress proceeded to pass nearly all of it: Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and a slew of urban, environmental, housing, transportation, arts, cultural, and anti-poverty programs, all in pursuit of “the Great Society,” understood as “a summit where freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit.”
Yet who would argue that those acts have produced spiritual growth, or clarity about the “meaning of our lives,” along the lines envisioned 50 years ago at Ann Arbor? They certainly produced exponential growth in large administrative bureaucracies, generally housed in buildings of epic ugliness, such as the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. They produced vast federal expenditures on primary and secondary education that have not made much more than a dent in the problems Johnson identified, and may have made things far worse. Their permanent effects upon the problems of poverty were negligible at best. And the spiritualism behind them came on the cheap, for, as Voegeli observes, this was a liberalism of economically flush times, one that took prosperity for granted, even to the point of disdaining it as a lesser god, and crediting it only to the extent that it provided a basis for fulfilling “the needs of the spirit.” This liberalism assumed that a government that has presided successfully over a great growth of national wealth is a government that can do anything else that it sets its mind to.
When government takes on more than its appointed tasks, though, it risks failing not only in its new ventures, but in its basic ones. That’s a point Voegeli made particularly well. Just as the endless proliferation of laws is actually a sign of an increasingly lawless society, so the proliferation of legislation and administrative bureaucracy eventually becomes a sign of government’s waning legitimacy and its waning power to effect good. Hence, the 1970s became a demoralized decade in which the conviction took hold that government was incapable of accomplishing anything useful; hence we are already facing, in the wake of the Obama administration’s many failures, a similar diminution in the citizenry’s confidence in government’s basic competency. What Ronald Reagan did in patiently defeating inflation, and restoring by deeds the very faith in government that the party of government itself had shattered, will have to be done again, against even more entrenched foes and forces.
The legislative history made during these brief but “productive” paroxysms of liberal legislative activity, such as 1933-37, 1965-67, and 2009-10, can be hard to change. We will never be rid of Social Security, no matter how flawed it may be, unless and until it collapses with catastrophic effects that no one wants. We will never be rid of Medicare, no matter how onerous and poorly designed, unless something similar happens. The Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, these were initiatives that could come and go. But liberal “experiments” are nearly always grand impositions on the future, designed to be too big and too entrenched to be allowed to fail. The only experimental element in the process is seeing whether or not we can survive and thrive in spite of them.
At the 1936 Democratic convention, toward the end of an eloquent and memorable speech, Franklin Roosevelt declared: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” A mysterious cycle is, by definition, an unpredictable one. But it seems likely that the next such rendezvous will have something to do with the destiny prepared for us by several generations of mounting and unsustainable growth in public spending and commitments—the legacy of postwar generations to whom much was given, and from whom not very much was demanded. Arriving at that destined place will put our spiritual life to the test far more than did the romantic entreaties of Johnson’s great commencement speech.