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Martin Luther King and LBJ had a complicated relationship. As the predominant civil rights leader of his era, King was instrumental in getting the president to overcome political concerns and get civil rights legislation passed ASAP. King was tired of being told to wait.
In August of 1963, Dr. King gave an iconic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, part of the March on Washington for civil rights and equal economic opportunity for Black Americans. It's Shmoop's hypothesis that Johnson crammed for his Michigan commencement address by listening to King's speech on YouTube.
If you listen to "I Have a Dream," you'll see why.
The themes are similar: a call for equality and justice that references America's historical moral values. Just like Johnson locates his Great Society in the bigger American story, King puts his demands for equality right in the middle of American history. "My dream," he says, is "deeply rooted in the American dream."
And while Johnson was no MLK-level orator, he uses a lot of the same rhetorical devices. Repetition: King begins eight sentences in his speech with "I have a dream"; Johnson begins four with "Will you join?" Alliteration: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," said King. King makes spiritual and moral arguments; he uses juxtaposition to talk about how the world is now vs. how it could be if we all just set our minds to doing the right thing.
The Great Society speech was broader in scope than King's speech, which focused on justice and equality for Black Americans. But they're cousins at heart. Johnson had a dream, too.
There are poor people in America, wrote Harrington, millions and millions of them. But most of us never see the "unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life" (source).
Harrington's 1962 book about poverty, The Other America, opened a lot eyes, including those of President John F. Kennedy. Shortly before his death, JFK talked with his advisers about "doing something" to alleviate poverty in the U.S., and LBJ scooped up that mantle when he took office.
Harrington, a sociologist and a card-carrying Socialist, pointed out that the post-World War II economic boom had been very good for America, but plenty of Americans missed out. They lived, Harrington said, in a culture of poverty. Unable to change the circumstances around them, the poor were stuck in an endless cycle of dead-end jobs, inadequate education, and general despair.
In the rest of the country, the growing consumer culture emphasized style over substance. Millions of Americans fled the cities for the new suburbs, leaving decaying wrecks behind. Technological developments drew starker lines between the haves and have-nots.
(All this is starting to sound sickeningly familiar, unfortunately. Plus ça change…)
"There is no realistic hope for the abolition of poverty in the United States until there is a vast social movement, a new period of political creativity," Harrington wrote. (Source)
Fortunately, raising a ruckus was right up LBJ's alley.
Pesticides kill bugs, but what else do they do? Rachel Carson explained the dire consequences of our reliance on chemicals in her 1962 book Silent Spring. Spring was silent because no birds sang. Their eggs were all damaged by DDT, a pesticide in wide use at the time. Carson's plea to treat the environment with care resonated with a lot of people, including JFK.
The Kennedy administration launched an investigation of chemical pesticides, and its report credited Carson with setting off the alarm bells. Silent Spring became an international bestseller, helping create a receptive atmosphere for Johnson's environmental proposals.
Carson didn't live to see the Great Society's anti-pollution and conservation efforts. She died of breast cancer a month before LBJ made his speech at the University of Michigan.
Their name says it all. This student-led organization of the New Left gained notoriety for some of its more radical beliefs. But its 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, touched on some of the same themes as the Great Society speech. Tom Hayden, who wrote the Port Huron Statement (contrary to claims by Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski), was a University of Michigan grad. In fact, the first national meeting of SDS was on the Michigan campus.
LBJ's speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, was inspired by the Port Huron Statement. He called it a blueprint for Great Society programs on civil rights, poverty, and community involvement in government planning.
SDS eventually became one of the most vocal opponents to LBJ's Vietnam War policy. And the war ended the nation's focus on the Great Society. But for a while in 1964, left-leaning students and a majority of middle-of-the-road Americans were all on the same page.
Like, far out, man.
Goldwater was LBJ's dream opponent in the 1964 election. An unapologetic ultra-conservative, Goldwater criticized the Great Society as a tyrannical intrusion of Big Brother into the lives of freedom-loving Americans.
Goldwater's 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative laid out his own hard-liner stance on, well, just about everything. Now the Arizona senator wanted to bring his fiscally conservative, small-government, anticommunist policies to the White House. Even fellow Republicans cringed at his extreme far-right philosophy.
In his now legendary acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Goldwater famously said that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." His acceptance speech advocated the polar opposite of LBJ's Great Society beliefs.
Goldwater laid the blame for all the problems LBJ enumerated right at the feet of big-government Democrats. Centralized government planning destroyed individual initiative and creativity rather than nurturing it. Pushing equality on everyone was a bad idea; it's nothing more than "regimented sameness." People have to be free to manage their own lives and make their own choices, not be slaves to some liberty-destroying central government. The only rights the government should be protecting are property rights.
The Goldwater campaign slogan "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" was countered by the Democrats: "In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts." (Source)
Johnson won the election by a landslide, earning the largest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate since records were first kept in 1820. But Goldwater ignited a conservative revolution that laid the groundwork for a Republican party that declared war on the Great Society.
One of the "winners" of the Goldwater debacle was Ronald Reagan. Reagan launched his own political career with an October 1964 speech supporting Goldwater for president.
Reagan directly attacked the Great Society for expanding government at the expense of individual liberty. It was an argument he would repeat for the next 20 years and one that he rode to the White House. In his first inaugural address in 1981, Reagan claimed, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" (source). Reagan famously and hilariously said at a press conference in 1986 that he'd always believed that "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
The Reagan Revolution brought a wave of neoconservatives to power, and they were committed to reversing the Great Society.
In the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed everything from government spending to increased social violence on the Great Society. (He wasn't crazy about federal funding for the arts or public broadcasting either, which put a bulls-eye on Big Bird.) More recently, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the Great Society's signature programs a failure (source).
Great Society grinches, in government and outside of it, have one very fundamental problem: Americans might want their government to spend less, but very few are willing to accept cuts to popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid—both legacies of LBJ's Great Society.
Which can lead to head-scratching situations like this.