The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s
By G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot
The Penguin Press, 422 pages, $27.95
These days “liberal” is a word rarely used as anything but a pejorative in American politics. In the 1960s, however, it was the dominant political philosophy in Washington. President Lyndon B. Johnson ran his election campaign in 1964 as a liberal against archconservative Senator Barry Goldwater and won in a landslide. There were overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a solid Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that viewed itself as a liberal, activist vanguard. Perhaps most important, the American public was urging government action in a wide variety of areas.
Given everything liberals had going for them, what went wrong? It’s a question that G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot do a fine job of answering in The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s.
America was a nation in transition during that decade. The growth of the suburbs at the expense of cities changed the face of politics as the country’s economy was shifting from manufacturing to service. At the same time, “Americans became more concerned with the quality of their lives, not just the quantity of their incomes. They wanted clean air … clean water … safer vehicles. Only government, they soon learned, could be counted on to meet these new needs,” the authors write.
The Kennedy and Johnson administrations were ready to help. John Kennedy set the agenda: He changed the outlook of the country from conservative to liberal. Johnson made sure the assassinated president’s vision was fulfilled. L.B.J.’s Great Society achievements included Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, voting rights, pollution control, higher-education funding and the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also got Congress to pass a huge tax cut. It was an impressive display of executive power. And the Warren Court was ready to back him up.
This was a time when government officials were associated with the best and the brightest. In fact, as Messrs. Mackenzie and Weisbrot note, “By the 1960s the federal bureaucracy had become a thriving center of knowledge and expertise.”
Liberals were on top—and yet it all collapsed so quickly. Indeed, we’re talking about the liberal hour—not era—though many of the programs still exist. Explaining the collapse is where the authors, who are both professors at Colby College, are at their best. The easy reason is the Vietnam War, but Messrs. Mackenzie and Weisbrot go much deeper, and their conclusions should be required reading for Democrats who are thinking of what they can achieve if they win the White House and large Congressional majorities this November.
The authors write that Johnson was devastated “when the intended beneficiaries of his policies seemed so ungrateful for his efforts. But he asked for it by promising more than he or any other government could deliver.” Unfortunately, the experts in government didn’t know as much as they thought they did about how to fix problems, according to the authors: “Liberalism had come to be associated in the public mind not with its intentions but with its excesses and shortfalls.”
The difficulty in solving problems led liberal support groups to fight with one another, especially after Johnson decided not to run for a second full term. Coupled with the protests against the war, the liberal bloc split apart among the candidates running to replace L.B.J. The struggle was highlighted for all to see at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, where police brawled with protesters outside the convention hall and delegates fought each other inside.
VICE PRESIDENT HUBERT H. Humphrey eventually won the nomination without competing in a single primary, much to the displeasure of supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy. The Democratic disintegration accelerated when Alabama Governor George C. Wallace split from the party, ran as an independent candidate for president and won five states and 46 electoral votes.
By 1972, liberals’ revulsion with the manner in which the party bosses picked Humphrey changed the way Democrats chose their presidential nominee. More emphasis was put on winning factional support from liberal special-interest groups without maintaining the organizational ability of the bosses to keep things in line. The liberal hour was over.
But it wasn’t just internal problems that ended the liberals’ reign. The authors correctly note that conservatives built on the foundation established by Goldwater and exploited the public’s increasing distrust of government. The Great Society became the basis for what Republicans began to label, with punishing effect, the Democrats’ culture of tax and spend. Liberals became politically radioactive.
In due course, the liberal hour was replaced by the Reagan generation, which only now seems to be splitting apart.
Robert Sommer is president of the Observer Media Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.