The Real Legacy in Jeopardy Under the New Congress? LBJ’s.
Nov 23, 2016
The GOP has plans to take apart many of Johnson’s Great Society reforms. Will Trump let them succeed?
By Josh Zeitz | November 23, 2016
Originally published in POLITICO Magazine
Since the Republican Party’s unexpected triumph November 9, pundits and columnists have debated nonstop the meaning of a Trump presidency for Barack Obama’s legacy.
Will Republicans scrap the Affordable Care Act? Will they roll back groundbreaking environmental protections? Will they reorient American foreign policy away from traditional allies? Will they pack the Supreme Court with ultra-conservative jurists?
To be sure, Obama’s legacy is very much on the line. Yet remarkably, so is that of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Johnson left office in 1969, the victim of self-inflicted political wounds over Vietnam. But in the half-century since his presidency, much of his Great Society remains intact. Health care for the elderly and poor. Categorical aid to primary and secondary education. Civil rights and voting rights. Nutritional assistance for hungry children. These programs not only survived successive Republican administrations. They thrived, and in some cases, grew under presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
With majorities in both houses, congressional Republicans under the leadership of House Speaker Paul Ryan have signaled their plans to disassemble not just the Affordable Care Act, but also Medicaid and Medicare; to steer federal education policy away from public schools and toward charters and vouchers; to roll back voting rights and civil rights enforcement; and to make steep cuts to nutritional programs. And, despite the fact that many of these changes could have negative consequences for Trump’s base, the president-elect hasn’t signaled any resistance.
But before the GOP sets about the work of dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, it’s helpful to look back 50 years and consider what America looked like before the Great Society. Spoiler alert: Much of it wasn’t great.
At a Senate hearing in 1959, a retired blue-collar worker from Tampa, Florida, told subcommittee members that he and his wife got by on just $1,500 a year. “Well, we are old people and we don’t require much,” he explained. “But I want to ask you … What do we do if we need medical care? … I will have to seek some charity institution and submit to the humiliation of what they call a necessity, and pronounce to the whole world that I am only a pauper, a beggar.”
A 75-year-old woman from Boston shocked the panel with her tale of waiting “in line like a lot of cattle” at a charitable clinic because she and her husband could not afford to spend $7 to visit a private physician. “We pay $1.75 or $2 for a ticket to get in,” she complained. “Then they write out a prescription … $11 prescription ... How in the world can I pay $11 for a prescription?”
Such was the state of affairs for many Americans at the dawn of the 1960s. For years, Democrats had tried with little success to pass comprehensive health care for older Americans. They faced stubborn resistance from the American Medication Association, and the Republican Party. The GOP platform in the 1950s decried “federal compulsory health insurance, with its crushing cost, wasteful inefficiency, bureaucratic dead weight, and debased standards of medical care.” As recently as 1962, the AMA had spent $50 million—and hired 70 publicists and 23 full-time lobbyists—to kill proposed Medicare legislation. Every member of the organization—which is to say, most doctors in America—received a propaganda poster, “Socialized Medicine and You,” intended for prominent display in their offices, as well as a supply of informational literature to place in the hands of patients.
In 1965, in the wake of Johnson’s landslide victory against Barry Goldwater, Democrats finally commanded sufficient super-majorities in the House and Senate and, at LBJ’s urging, passed the legislation. In its original incarnation, Medicare provided seniors with guaranteed hospital insurance, paid for by a hike in the Social Security withholding tax, and voluntary medical insurance for doctors’ visits.
Not only did the program provide a safety net for senior citizens, it also enabled the Johnson administration to compel all participating hospitals, nursing homes and doctors’ offices to desegregate their facilities. This was no small undertaking, and one that cannot be disaggregated from the program’s legacy.
It wasn’t just about hitting quotas. The Johnson administration required that all patients at any facility accepting Medicare funds be admitted without regard to color, race or national origin. Each facility’s “rooms, wards, floors, sections and buildings” were to be integrated; officials were not to ask patients whether they wished to share quarters with someone of a particular race. The guidelines required that hospital employees deploy “courtesy titles” like “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Mr.” without regard to race and that formerly segregated institutions conduct proactive outreach to nonwhite physicians, nurses and civil rights organizations—and take out advertisements in local media outlets—announcing that were were now integrated. Medicare didn’t just compel hospitals to treat black patients. It produced a mandatory shift in how medical professionals treated African-Americans as colleagues, patients and human beings.
For the better part of 20 years before LBJ’s presidency, liberal Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation providing federal aid to elementary and secondary schools. The need was real. In the 1950s states faced a shortage of over 300,000 classrooms in any given year. Many schools lacked gyms, lunchrooms or libraries. In Kentucky, more than half of all pupils attended overcrowded classes—many with over 60 children per room—and over 40 percent of facilities were in such dire condition that state officials deemed them worthy of demolition.
Conservatives loudly objected that federal aid equaled federal control. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford warned of “federalized schools, textbooks, and teachers, federalized libraries, laboratories, auditoriums and theaters.” Richard Nixon, a relative moderate, predicted in 1960 that when “the federal government gets the power to pay teachers, inevitably, in my opinion, it will acquire the power to set standards and to tell the teachers what to teach.”
By 1965, LBJ enjoyed sufficient majorities in Congress to overcome GOP opposition. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided compensatory education dollars to each state based on the number of children in households of low income.
Between 1958 and today, federal spending on primary and secondary education rose from 2 percent of total public school funding to approximately 13 percent. State and local governments are responsible for the rest. Because many local and state governments rely heavily on regressive property and sales taxes, in many cases this swing shifted some of the burden for funding schools from working and poor families to middle-class and wealthy taxpayers.
As with hospitals, LBJ’s White House strongly enforced Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which enabled the federal government to withhold education funds to segregated schools. Though Johnson told recalcitrant Southern congressmen that he abhorred “quotas,” in fact, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued guidelines that set fixed ratios and targets. Federal judges soon adopted the administration’s guidelines as governing principle and enforced them by court mandate.
Between 1965 and 1968 the number of black students in the South who attended majority-white schools rose from roughly 2 percent to almost 23 percent—it peaked at 43.5 percent in 1988. More arresting still, between 1968 and 1980 the portion of Southern black children attending deeply segregated schools—schools where they comprised over 90 percent of the student population—fell from 77.5 percent to 26.5 percent.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed Congress with a bipartisan coalition, mandated the integration of all places of public accommodation. From hotels, buses and rest stops, to golf courses, restaurants and swimming pools, Jim Crow was now a violation of federal law. The law ushered in a vast social revolution with wide-ranging implications. “Desegregation was absolutely incomprehensible to the average southerner,” said an attorney from Greensboro several years later, “absolutely unbelievable.”
Alongside the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reordered daily life in the 11 former states of the Confederacy, as well as border states like Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and Delaware. As late as 1965 only 6.7 percent of African-Americans in Mississippi and 19 percent in Alabama had navigated the complex maze of legal and extralegal measures in place to prevent them from exercising the franchise. By 1970, roughly two-thirds of African-Americans in these deep South states were registered to vote. White Southerners now had to grapple with the long-term prospect of black representation at all levels of government, and with the more immediate reality of sharing political power. A state legislator from Louisiana marveled that he had “never shook hands with a black person before I ran for office … the first time I shook hands it was a traumatic thing.”
The Great Society created a stronger safety net for America’s most vulnerable citizens, and for those who stumble upon a run of bad luck or circumstance. It dismantled legal segregation in the workplace, public accommodations and ballot box. Now, it is under threat.
Though during the campaign, Donald Trump pledged to protect Medicare, the latest iteration of Trump’s transition website suggests that the new administration is supportive of Paul Ryan’s plan to replace it with a program that throws seniors (who are actuarially high-risk by definition) into the private marketplace. The government would in theory provide credits that they could use to purchase coverage, though that appropriation would not grow automatically to meet growing costs. If Republicans succeed, the United States will become one of the only advanced nations in the world not to guarantee health care for its elderly—indeed, it will become the only advanced nation to take that right away.
When it comes to education, Republicans ran this year on a platform of school choice and “portability” of education funds that would make it easier for dollars to flow out of school districts and into private hands. Such measures might disproportionately hurt poor communities, including many in Midwestern industrial states that strongly supported Donald Trump. Notwithstanding perfectly legitimate debates about education reform, school choice and federal standards, today’s states and local governments are ill-equipped to accommodate a claw-back of federal school dollars or a redirection of these funds to private schools.
And then there’s civil rights. As inviolate as these rights seem on the face of things, they are now under sharp attack, in no small part because the Roberts Court dismantled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear changes to their voting protocols with the Department of Justice. Newly unleashed from oversight, Republicans throughout the country have instituted voter ID laws that, in practice, function as poll taxes—requiring people of low income to travel long distances and pay for identification cards. States like North Carolina have eliminated early voting with surgical precision in primarily black counties and precincts. Combined, Arizona, Texas and North Carolina eliminated 886 polling places this year, primarily in minority neighborhoods. Many states also curbed early voting. The end result? Massive lines in minority neighborhoods, lower turnout. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, voter suppression likely swung a critical number of electors to Trump. There is no reason to anticipate an end to this trend.
In states like Virginia and Florida, the criminal justice system—which incarcerates African Americans in great disproportion—remain permanently disenfranchised.
Trump’s appointments don’t bode well for LBJ’s voting rights legacy either. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom Trump nominated to serve as attorney general, has called the VRA “a piece of intrusive legislation” and claimed that “if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.” It bears remembering that when Sessions served as U.S. attorney in the 1980s, he prosecuted several African-Americans for voter fraud—including one of the men who led Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession. The activists were acquitted, and the Senate later denied Sessions confirmation to a judgeship for, among other things, allegedly referring to a black lawyer as “boy” and quipping that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK” until he learned “that they smoked marijuana.” If confirmed, he will oversee the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
It’s not just Medicare, schools and civil rights that are on the chopping block.
The Great Society took a small pilot initiative from the Kennedy administration and turned it into the “food stamp” program (later redubbed SNAP). That program helps 43 million Americans—13 percent of the population—who live in a state of food insecurity. Earlier this year, Republicans proposed steep cuts and limits to the program, which they believe fosters welfare dependency (despite studies that show SNAP actually promotes work).
It’s also Medicaid, a component of the Medicare Act by which the federal government partners with states to provide health coverage to poor Americans. Today, 73 million Americans rely on Medicaid. Earlier this year, the Republican Congress proposed steep cuts and caps that set funding at levels that would have been inadequate to sustain the program even before the ACA expanded eligibility. What’s more, Medicaid expansion was at the heart of the ACA. Its repeal will leave millions of Americans without coverage.
And then there’s also free and reduced-price school meals for poor children, a legacy of the Truman years, which was strengthened and extended in 1966 when LBJ signed the Child Nutrition Act. This law, which helps children who come to school desperately hungry, turned 50 years old this year. In regular times, Americans of both parties would come together to celebrate its sesquicentennial. Republicans in the House have proposed deep cuts and caps.
It many ways, under the new Congress, it is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy—not Obama’s—that stands most in jeopardy of being unraveled.
At the heart of LBJ’s belief system was the conviction that government should unlock potential for individuals while recognizing that individuals also have certain core obligations to each other. This seems to be the antithesis of the world view promoted by Paul Ryan, a self-professed Ayn Rand enthusiast. In Ryan’s world (and Rand’s), individuals must be free and unfettered, with minimal compulsion or commitment to each other. (Of course, Ryan is an imperfect poster child for his own ideological revolution. After his father died at a young age, the future speaker got by on Supplementary Social Security. He went to a public university, subsidized by other people’s taxes, and for most of his adult life has collected a government paycheck. When he leaves Congress, he will collect a defined benefits pension, subsidized by other people.)
Donald Trump is another matter. It seems counterintuitive at first blush to imagine that he will dismantle programs that materially benefit his core constituency. But Trump has consistently proven ideologically flexible, disinterested in policy details, and willing to break promises and commitments. He may yet prove to be Paul Ryan’s perfect partner.
Fifty years after the Great Society’s triumph, its future now looks more uncertain than ever.