The 1960s, Liberalism, Conservatism, and President Obama

The virtues and vices of 1960s liberalism are on striking display in Bancroft-Prize winning historian James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. And as Patterson deftly shows, the extremes were fused into the presidential administration as well as personal character of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” declared LBJ in lighting the National Christmas Tree on December 18, 1964. “Today -- as never before -- man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.”

During his first year in office after John Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, LBJ pushed through the historic Civil Rights Act. In the November 1964 election, he swept the country except for five traumatized Deep South states and opponent Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. In 1965, with newly strengthened Democratic majorities, Congress enacted a raft of legislation to fulfill LBJ’s Great Society vision -- including Medicare, Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Voting Rights Act.

In late July 1965, five days after Congress guaranteed African Americans the right to vote throughout the South, massive riots broke out in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. In 1966 Republicans gained back enough ground in Congress to revive the power of the conservative coalition with Southern Democrats. And Ronald Reagan won the governorship in the liberal bastion of California. Two years later Richard Nixon popped out of the dustbin of history to grab back the presidency for the Republicans.

Patterson appropriates his Eve of Destruction title from Barry McGuire’s 1965 pop protest song. McGuire’s predictions of social catastrophe shocked the bourgeois airwaves. But Patterson resists the notion that the 1960s were the worst of times. He sees LBJ’s Great Society as ushering in constructive domestic changes whose full promise was curtailed when failure in Vietnam led to a loss of faith in government.

Today’s conservatives argue that the country was already rebelling against Great Society liberalism before Vietnam split apart the Democratic coalition. But the argument about whether the Great Society itself or the Vietnam War was to blame misses the larger point. The central flaw in JFK-LBJ foreign policy was also at the heart of LBJ’s Great Society. That common flaw was the lack of a limiting principle.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” proclaimed JFK at his first inaugural. On Vietnam, LBJ searched in vain for a way to limit this universalistic commitment. On domestic policy, LBJ did not care much about finding one.

It was traditionally thought that liberalism could only go so far in helping the poor and downtrodden without morphing into socialism. Yet in 1965, as James Reston of the New York Times wrote, LBJ was "riding on the greatest economic boom in peacetime history." LBJ thought that capitalism would generously fund rather than limit his Great Society vision.

And as Patterson also points out, LBJ was not the only liberal mesmerized by the strength and abundance of the American economy. He identifies a February 1965 Time editorial essay entitled "Boom Without Bust" as epitomizing this optimism. The Time essay celebrated the supposed fact that “[e]conomic policy has begun to liberate itself from the preoccupations of an earlier day and from the bitterness of class or partisan division that becloud rational discussion and hamper national action."

Patterson does not give much space to 1960s conservatism. But the conservative antithesis to the limitless liberalism of the 1960s suffered from the opposite problem: it had no change principle. Launching his influential National Review magazine in 1955, William F. Buckley was adamant about his guiding philosophical attitude. The conservative mission, according to Buckley, was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it.”

The National Review’s agenda of complaint focused on communism, secularism, Keynesian economics, and Ike’s failure to mount an all-out attack against FDR’s welfare state. The race issue in the South did not rank among its top priorities.  More

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Pope "Mac" McCorkle is associate professor of the practice of public policy and director of graduate studies, master of public policy program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. This commentary was originally published at the History News Network.