Socialism and the Twisted Legacy of Slavery: A Cautionary Tale from the “Great Society”

Socialism and the Twisted Legacy of Slavery: A Cautionary Tale from the “Great Society”

Humans have limits, and the Great Society did not acknowledge those limits. It did not look evil. But in fact, arrogance that denies limits is deeply evil.

Like you, I’m busy. I’m a pastor with a sermon to write and a flock to tend. Why did I read a 400-page book about the history of 1960s America? Shouldn’t I read, instead, about our own turbulent times?

My answer to that question might not lead you to read Amity Shlaes’s Great Society: A New History.[1] However, I hope it will inspire you to become more familiar with the vision of some of our fellow Americans during this period, a vision that they dubbed “The Great Society”—a program, like so many other grand schemes, that failed to live up to its name. Some truly great legislation came from this era, but enmeshed within them came much damaging legislation as well.[2] As Shlaes reminds us, “Nothing is new, just forgotten.”[3] Or as Solomon put it, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).

So, what was The Great Society? Why did it fail? And what must we learn from it? That is the question that this review essay attempts to answer as it follows and interacts with the story Shlaes tells of this epoch. It is a tornado siren for our own day. Those who care deeply about justice in our day will care deeply about the weather conditions that caused so much systemic wreckage for the precious people with whom justice is concerned.

Truly, Shlaes offers a cautionary tale for our compassionate nation.

This essay is a Christian exercise in stewarding history’s lessons in love for neighbor. This is a pastoral exercise in guarding the church from faulty visions of both humanity and heaven. It’s long, but only because this is a long-neglected subject. We have heard much over the last decade—from politicians and pastors alike—about the legacy of slavery in the form of a straight line from American’s founding to Jim Crow to the present as an explanation for real problems in America. Americans at our best are concerned to get our history right for the sake of doing right by our neighbors today. But what about that period we call “The Sixties” that was filled with programs and projects designed to eradicate poverty and racism? And why do we hear so little about these dramatic political efforts and their outcomes? Why is this so, especially given that their aims are the aims of modern justice movers and shakers today?

If you care about justice, about the poor, and about the lingering effects of slavery, then come with me on this journey into our country’s more recent history.

The Legacy of Slavery or the Legacy of Liberalism?

An exchange between columnists back in 2014 piqued my interest in this period. Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times piece titled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” writes the following: “The presumption on the part of so many well-meaning white Americans [is] that racism is a historical artifact. They don’t appreciate the overwhelming evidence that centuries of racial subjugation still shape inequity in the 21st century.”[4] Racists have existed and do exist. No problem with this claim. But Kristof says more: that present inequities are shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, by past and enduring racism, both personal and systemic.

Thomas Sowell sees the same situation differently: “If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state.”[5] The title of his piece was his thesis, “A Legacy of Liberalism.” According to Sowell, “Despite the grand myth that black economic progress began or accelerated with the passage of the civil rights laws and ‘war on poverty’ programs of the 1960s, the cold fact is that the poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960. This was before any of those programs began . . . from the laws and policies of the 1960s, nothing comparable happened economically. And there were serious retrogressions socially.”[6]

This resonated with me.

Cabrini-Green Homes, the public housing project just outside my window in downtown Chicago when I was a college student in the late nineties, was by then notorious for crime and violence. “The Projects”—Whose idea was that? And what precisely did they expect to achieve by building these inner city monoliths?

My father, then a district manager for a retail chain in St. Louis, was awakened many nights by the police due to break-ins at his stores in East St. Louis. What was the backstory for that “bad part of town”? Later, when I sold cell phones to fund my years as a seminary student, I encountered different cultures in different stores, each with their own admirable qualities and predictable sins. Upper-middle-class folks worked hard but frequently asked to split their accounts following a divorce. Rural folks frequently needed new phones for a child returning from Afghanistan or else for a man in the home who lost his phone in another drunken fishing incident. Then there were the black urban poor, many lovely individuals and loving mothers. In this community, however, few were married, “baby daddies” were a daily thing, and there was a refrain in the context of selling: “I’m waiting on my check,” that is, a government check. This was a cultural norm. More than the rest, this part of town felt stuck, trapped, downtrodden.

As statistics will show, not all blacks are stuck. Not hardly. The community I encountered does not characterize the whole of blacks in America, an important clarification. Today 82% of black Americans are above the poverty line despite only 30% being married.[7] 94% of black married couples are above the poverty line.[8] That we hear so much about black poverty is owing more to political rhetoric that exploits poor urban blacks, painting this subculture as the state of blacks as a whole. The dynamics I explore in this essay apply equally to whites and blacks, a point Shlaes makes.[9] The difference is that one group’s poor are exploited for political and social gain and the other are not.

For that downtrodden part of town in my sales experience, it did seem that something structural was going on—something systemic that shaped cultures and the precious individuals embedded within them. But I did not resonate with Kristof’s take in the New York Times.

What were these “war on poverty” programs Sowell wrote of, and how were they related to the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960s? What were these “serious retrogressions,” and what might they have to do with “the liberal welfare state,” as Sowell claims? Sowell’s own body of work has been helpful on these questions, especially in the realm of researched statistics.[10]

But what is the story behind these stats, these policies? Who were the personalities involved in them? Why did the American public embrace them? What might all of this have to do with the “legacy of slavery” and the various disparities we see today?

Shlaes’s book Great Society tells that story.

This is the story not of cruel people, but in Shlaes’s words, “lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved.”[11]

At the start of the 1960s the country was affluent. That’s the first word that describes America at the start of the decade. The post-war American industries stood head and shoulders above those of other countries. The sharpest contrast was in the automotive industry. That a small Japanese company like Toyota could ever be competitive in the US was not on even the shrewdest industry leader’s mind. The American middle class thrived, work was in demand, and jobs paid well. If you weren’t skilled, a company would train you and then employ you. Young people growing up at this time had a different perspective than their parents who grew up during the Great Depression. Poverty was the exception rather than the rule. Add to this America’s recent industrial and managerial achievements in the Second World War and you have a generation marked by a second word: confidence. This was an optimistic generation. America could do anything and in particular, the United States government could do anything. Trust in government was high and so were hopes in the possibilities of government. We hear it in Kennedy’s words at Rice University on the Nation’s space effort in 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”[12] This affluence and confidence made for a generation intrigued with socialism. Sound familiar?

The New Deal era programs of the 1930s failed to address the economic depression, leading to a truly Great Depression.[13] The Second World War pulled the country out of its economic plight. But those failures had faded just enough for a renewed optimism in big-government solutions.

The 60s were also dominated by ambition, a third word for the era that stirred popular intrigue with socialism to political action. This was a moral ambition, ambition for a cause, ambition with “a fierce urgency of now.”[14] The Great Depression era had its great crisis to overcome, and the World War II generation accomplished a truly great feat overseas. What great achievement might this generation undertake? If that wasn’t on the mind of average Americans, it was certainly on the mind of their political leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson answered that question with what he called “The Great Society.”

What Was the Great Society?

We can answer that question from six angles: legal, historical, religious, political, sociological, and economic. This is not the outline for Shlaes’s book, which works across the sixties chronologically. Her story dramatizes the events of this period and humanizes its many characters. I commend it to you. This here is my attempt to synthesize what I learned from her narrative account.

1. Legally, the Great Society was Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping domestic legislative agenda to eliminate poverty and racial disparities.

Yes, that’s exactly what it was. This was in an era before the loss of trust in the government that makes that kind of legislative ambition sound hollow. In fact, it was in part the great failure of these promises that explains our present cynicism. But make no mistake: this is what they set out to do by legislation.

This package of legislative initiatives created new federal programs and whole agencies to help Americans in nearly every area of life: education, housing, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, and transportation, including bussing for school integration.

In her narrative history, Shlaes spends most of her volume tracing the personalities around the President during this time—aids, fed chairmen, famed economists, and union bosses. The mingling of genuine altruistic motives and blinding political ambition—often in the same characters—is a study of human nature and the nature of government. Among this cast of characters, President Johnson, as one of his aids put it, “made laws the way other men eat chocolate chip cookies.”[15] That was his expertise from the Senate. That’s what he became famous for in the White House. The sheer amount of legislation passed during this period was unparalleled.

2. Historically, the Great Society was an ambitious moniker reflecting that period’s mindset: confidence in what government could do and should do.

“Let’s not alleviate poverty; let’s cure it,”[16] President Johnson stridently and repeatedly insisted. He meant it. America after the Second World War was confident in its federal government. So too were government officials. Lyndon Johnson wanted to expand government in a way that eclipsed Roosevelt’s transformative presidency, but Johnson did not have Roosevelt’s crises: economic depression and war. Johnson, rather, had affluence. Things were not just going well for Americans, but exceptionally well. Johnson’s challenge, then, was to generate a sense of urgency for America to see it go well for everyone—literally.[17] His legacy as president—and the legacy of those whose careers were bound to his presidency—depended on such grand plans.

A “good society” would not do. He rejected that suggestion.[18] He insisted, rather, on a “Great Society,” and this became his rallying cry. America had already organized itself to finish a war overseas. Winning the war on poverty, it was said, would be a “mopping up action.”[19] This war, like any war, would be a job for the federal government. They were not sloganeering. They really were that optimistic in the power and precision of government planning.

3. Religiously, the Great Society was the expression of the nation’s collective human and religious—even Christian-informed—impulse to do something good for those who are hurting.

This legislative vision did not emerge in a vacuum. Johnson’s vision was a continuation of what President Kennedy pursued before him, in part, and what President Nixon continued after him. In his own time, it was marketable as the political expression of the human desire to help those in need, a good desire shaped by America’s Christian roots.

It was President Kennedy who by executive order established the Peace Corps, headed by Yale-grad and decorated officer Sargent Shriver. Shriver became President Johnson’s poverty czar, the principal architect of his “War on Poverty,” and head of the Office for Economic Opportunity. Along with many Americans, Shriver believed that what the church already did for the poor, the federal government could and should do through its programs.[20] To a national conscience informed by its Christian heritage, this just seemed right.

4. Politically, the Great Society was a political project with all the incentives and complexities intrinsic to politics.

Political motivations and incentives abounded. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision was curious on the heels of Kennedy’s death. Lyndon Johnson to that point was known for his opposition to civil rights legislation.[21] Johnson wanted to exceed the accomplishments of his predecessor, President Kennedy. This was something of a political imperative given that the House and the Senate went to Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination. He must do more. But he also wanted to best his intellectual and political father, President Roosevelt, and his New Deal. What Roosevelt did in creating infrastructure jobs to supposedly energize the economy, Johnson intended to do with the influx of cash to impoverished communities. Johnson expected these communities to begin to work, to contribute, and to join the rest of their American peers in their share of affluence. Without the crisis of a depression, Johnson leveraged the crisis of Kennedy’s death to move on this apparent political opportunity.[22] He forwarded this vision on a wave of empathy and optimism. As they said, Roosevelt had his “New Deal,” and Johnson had his “Fast Deal.” But had it, he did.[23]

A lawmaker by trade, Johnson was more attentive to legislative inputs and intentions than he was to results. Laws—and the promises they held out—were the goal. The more the better. Not so much the outcomes. As the war in Vietnam became complicated and politically costly, neither Johnson nor his successor, Richard Nixon, could afford politically to go back on these promises. The Great Society had to move forward no matter the results. The priority of winning elections consumed and compromised even the most principled economists and advisors at the time to such an embarrassing extent that many later acknowledged their complicity.[24]

5. Sociologically, the Great Society institutionalized America’s commitment to a desegregated society.

The Great Society was an expansive vision that merged ambitions and political visions beyond an interest in helping the poor. In one of his famous speeches, Johnson, who was fashioned as the “Great Emancipator” of the twentieth century, said, “We’ve got to find a way to let Negroes get what most white folks already have.” He continued, “Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains and put him at the starting line of a race and say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.’” What the nation needed was, “equality as a fact and equality as a result.”[25]

Thomas Sowell, a young economist at the time, disagreed: “To expect civil rights to solve our economic and social problems was barking up the wrong tree.”[26] Blacks, for all the gains they had remarkably made, were nevertheless underdeveloped and, for that reason, genuinely and understandably discouraged.[27] Much to the embarrassment of whites and blacks, reading scores were significantly lower among blacks. From Sowell’s perspective, the black community should have turned away from counting on political leaders to change their circumstances and toward an investment in “our own self-development as a people.”[28] As Sowell has demonstrated in his own research, this is how any formerly-oppressed group rises out of the developmental consequences of their oppression.

In this attempt to compensate the black community, Johnson went further than the vision to which Martin Luther King Jr. rallied a generation in his early speeches. He went further than the call for equal treatment before the law, further than seeing that the children of the civil rights era were treated “according to the content of their character.”[29] Instead, Johnson wanted a policy of redistribution to make up for what was lost in the black community’s development under oppressive laws. Not only was school segregation outlawed—a good thing—but mandated school integration required that students be bussed from one part of town to another, a bad decision, as we’ll see.

Read More

Scroll to top