AuthorStoil, Rebecca Shimoni

The first time I taught an undergrad American history survey course, I tried an experiment. Finding myself with extra room in the schedule, I slid a heading into the syllabus: "LBJ and the Great Society." I opened the lesson as I would go on to open each class on LBJ's bid to change America. "Who heard of the New Deal before this course?" I asked. Most students' hands shot up. "What about the Great Society?" Only two hesitant hands.

Then I asked, "Who can name a New Deal program that directly touches on your lives or those of your close family?" "Medicare?" one student ventured. "Nope," I answered, to some surprise--that wasn't part of the New Deal. Students started flipping back through their notes, ruling out New Deal programs like the National Recovery Administration, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps. Finally they got Social Security--but that was about it. And so it goes every time I teach the lesson.

"Anybody here ever watch Sesame Street?" I ask. "Mister Rogers? Anybody listen to NPR?" Hands go up. "Anybody know someone on Medicaid or Medicare?" More hands. "Anybody know someone who had a subsidized school lunch? How about a school library?" Most of the class is usually raising a hand at this point, but still, I ask the kicker: "Anybody here on work study? Does anybody have student loans?" Now all the hands are up. Here, I tend to pause for dramatic effect. "Folks, welcome to the Great Society."

Today's conventional wisdom about Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency tends to see a liberalism that largely failed due to domestic policy overreach and the administration's disastrous handling of the Vietnam War, and that set in in motion two generations of reactionary politics. While this view unquestionably has truth to it, the collective liberal recoil from Johnsonian initiatives has obscured an important parallel legacy: even with its limitations, the Great Society--Johnson's ambitious project, launched in 1964, to expand on his hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal--offers a text in how to create consequential, popular, and above all enduring federal initiatives. Beyond the Johnson of the Vietnam War, there was Johnson the visionary and master legislator--a leader who didn't just play to his base, as politicians of both parties tend to do today, but who knew how to use his skills as backroom deal maker to build broad coalitions and get big legislation passed.

Johnson's broker-style liberalism had largely disappeared by the time today's rising generation of progressives came along. But for those who want to see big government do big things, whether about climate change or health care or inequality, Johnson's legacy offers important lessons. These are in many ways more relevant to today's circumstances than FDR's New Deal, which arose out of the historically unique conditions of the Great Depression. Johnson understood that in a culturally fractured and polarized America, lasting political achievements are built through coalitions in which diffuse groups have their own reasons for supporting some common outcome. Programs that benefit one group and rely on everyone else's continued altruism are easy to dismantle, and, indeed, some Great Society programs succumbed to that fate. But Johnson's most enduring achievements--including Medicare, food stamps, school lunches, and federal student loans--have survived a half century of Republican assaults precisely because they were designed to give groups otherwise divided by cultural and economic interests different reasons to fight for them.

This lesson is worth recovering in today's political moment. First, Democrats need to figure out how to expand their base in order to both win and keep power and, more importantly, to pass major legislation that is adequate to the problems we face. Practically speaking, that means building coalitions of people drawn from, among other groups, rural, white Americans in order to regain control of the Senate. Second, any ambitious progressive policy is going to have to get buy-in from the various groups that make up the existing Democratic coalition: minorities, college-educated whites, wealthy suburban moderates, and so on. This goes beyond the eternal argument over idealism verses pragmatism. Realizing big, ambitious idealistic goals requires pragmatic collation building with various constituencies who each have different goals and interests.

It is important to keep in mind that Johnson's most lasting and influential programs involved trade-offs and imperfections. But as...

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