Ira Katznelson, "Was the Great Society a Lost Opportunity?"
From Fraser and Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (1989)
Some five weeks after the assassination of his predecessor, President Johnson received the report of the Task Force on Manpower Conservation. This committee of four included the secretary of labor, who chaired it, the secretary of health, education and welfare, the secretary of defense, and the head of the Selective Service.
The report focused on men rejected by the draft. It found "that one third of the nation's youth would, on examination, be found unqualified for military service," and, second, "that poverty was the principal reason these young men failed to meet those physical and mental standards." In receiving the report, President Johnson announced (three days before he did so more widely in his first State of the Union address), "I shall shortly present to Congress a program designed to attack the roots of poverty in our cities and rural areas.... This war on poverty ... will not be won overnight."'
The principal drafter of the document was an assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. At the end of the decade, when he was assistant to President Nixon for urban affairs, he wrote a stinging critique of the war he helped initiate. "The great failing of the Johnson Administration," he wrote, "was that an immense opportunity to institute more or less permanent social changes-a fixed full employment program, a measure of income maintenance-was lost while energies were expended in ways that very probably hastened the end of the brief period when such options were open, that is to say the three years from the assassination of Kennedy to the election of the Ninety-first Congress.112
Was the Great Society a lost opportunity? Moynihan's appraisal was that of a disaffected liberal Democrat. Here, I wish to broaden this question in order to evaluate the character and legacy of the Great Society from the vantagepoint of its implications for the reform impulse and coalition that originated in the New Deal. I argue that the "opportunity" to achieve the social democratic potential of the New Deal was compromised not in the 1960s but in the 1940s. By social democracy I mean the attempts by labor and socialist movements in Western capitalist democracies to work through their electoral and representational political systems to achieve two principal goals: first, to effect interventions in markets that in the short run mitigate unequal distributional patterns, in the medium run promote more basic public controls over markets, and in the long run bring about a shift in social organization from capitalism to socialism; and, second, to secure the solidarity of their working-class base while reaching out for the allies they need to achieve majorities in elections and legislatures. The New Deal presented the possibility that such a strategic orientation, at least insofar as it concerned governmental activity to organize markets and mitigate market outcomes, might be feasible even in the United States, which had lacked such efforts. It is my central contention that key features of partisan politics and policy-making in the 1940s, a decade of war and reconversion, shaped the character of the Great Society's determinate limits (as well as its impressive achievements) more decisively than short-term causes. In turn, the Great Society significantly diminished subsequent prospects for a social democratic trajectory in American politics. The domestic policy choices made by the Johnson administration within the framework of' the constraints inherited from the 1940s hastened major changes in the character of political debate, policy choice, and partisanship that haunt the Democratic party two decades later.
Underpinning my argument is a perspective on the dilemmas of social democracy drawn from the scholarship of Adam Przeworski and Gosta Esping-Andersen on the history and prospects of European social democracy. In schematic form, these authors propose that the relationship between social democratic parties, left-wing public policies, and working-class formation-that is, between politics and its social basis-as Esping-Andersen writes, "is historically indeterminate. This is so for the simple reason that none of the social forces that shape it is predetermined." Politics, policies, political change, and political support all go hand in hand. For their aims to be secured, social democratic parties must not only win elections and secure legislative successes to demonstrate they can make a difference. Even more, they need a program that effectively reinforces the commitment of supporters to social democratic policies and goals. This positively reinforcing spiral of reform and social transformation hinges in large measure on the character of the policies social democratic political parties succeed in passing and implementing, and/or the effects of these policies in organizing and reorganizing the social basis of politics; as Przeworski puts the point, "Not all reforms are conducive to new reforms.
The contraction of political space for the Left in American politics in the 1940s redefined the social forces undergirding social democratic possibilities in the Democratic party, and changed the locus of political debate from questions of social organization and class relations to issues of technical economics and interest group politics. These alterations to the political landscape defined the features the Democratic party took into the Eisenhower era; in so doing, they set the terms for the modest reform efforts of the Kennedy administration and the more assertive reformist attempt to utilize the state in the Johnson years. The Great Society, in turn, reinforced and exaggerated features of American politics that had only begun to appear in the 1940s: the reduction of labor to an interest group; the centrality of race; and an economist's definition of public policy and political choice. In this way, the Great Society's immense reform effort embodied Janus-like facings: it decisively broadened the social base of the Democratic party by incorporating blacks both within and outside of the South, yet it contracted the party's social base by contributing to the disaffections of an ever-narrowing labor movement; it substantially expanded the policy themes of American politics, but it did so in a way that simultaneously ruled out a politics of more vigorous intervention in the marketplace. The Great Society, in short, is best understood in terms of a larger dynamic of reform in the postwar era that undercut, more than it reinforced, the prospects for an American social democratic politics. The subsequent turn to the Right that culminated in the election of President Reagan on an explicit promarket, anti-state platform with significant working-class support thus was facilitated by the way the Great Society embedded the trajectory of the 1940s.
Most explanations of the meaning of the Great Society, and the War on Poverty that nestled within it, begin, appropriately enough, with an assessment of its considerable ambition-the extraordinary range of its reformist efforts in social insurance and medical care, and the War on poverty's unprecedented and rhetorically unconditional assault on poverty. Ironically, many accounts of the Great Society consider and choose between very short term and situational alternative explanations of the immediate causes of this program such as the electoral pressures of managing urban black and white ethnic political coalitions, the Kennedy administration's need to find an innovative domestic program, or the particular composition of Policy-planning committees within the administration, 4 1 have no quarrel with these themes: they are not so much wrong as insufficient.
When analyses of the Great Society transcend this narrow, timebound perspective, they most frequently tell the story of the Great Society in three quite distinctive narratives. The first is a teleological tale that locates the Kennedy-Johnson presidencies in an unfolding elaboration of the engagement of the Democratic party with social reform: from the New Deal, with its roots in progressivism and perhaps Jacksonianism, to the Fair Deal, and, after the interregnum of Eisenhower, to the New Frontier and Great Society. In this version, the panoply of legislative achievements in the middle 1960s demonstrated a deep affinity with earlier extensions of the role of government and signified the continuing political efficacy of the New Deal coalition. Transcending the boundaries of North and South, and of white ethnicity and race, the Great Society was rooted in the reformist stream of American political life. This is the version of events found in the speeches of Democratic party politicians, in the scholarly expositions of James Sundquist, and in the hagiographic treatment of the Kennedy administration by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'
The second version views the Great Society quite differently, as less the product of a revived political coalition than as the achievement of a new social group of policy intellectuals. The Great Society signified the coming of age of a new knowledge class, and its networks, institutions, and policy thinking. The larger questions of social organization and ideology had been resolved earlier. What now remained was a knowledge-based assault on persisting, yet manageable, problems of race and poverty. The Great Society thus represented social science and policy analysis ascendant.6
The third version perceives political and knowledge elites anticipating and responding to the tumult of the disorderly politics of the 1960s whose most destabilizing characteristic was the powerful and unpredictable insertion of race into the core of American political life. The massive migration of blacks from South to North during and after World War 11 radically altered the demography of politics and labor markets: and in the period following Brown v. Board of Education, blacks challenged the limits of political and social citizenship both in a civil rights movement dedicated to principles of nonviolence and in the bloody ghetto rebellions of the middle and late 1960s. The Great Society, in this narrative, was one of the markers of a profound racial revolution. 7
Instead of selecting between these three most common narratives, or some combination of them, I should like to alter the angle of vision of each by elongating the time horizons of our consideration. This shift of just a few degrees can bring the Great Society as object of analysis into better focus. If we insert the story of the 1940s into each of the three main narratives about the Great Society, they alter decisively.
"By the end of 1937," Richard Hofstadter has written, "it was clear that something had been added to the social base of reformism. The demands of a large and powerful labor movement, coupled with the interests of the unemployed, gave the later New Deal a social-democratic tinge that had never been present before in American reform movements."' To be sure, this proto-social democracy was a contested matter; just the same, it was part of the contest for the Democratic party. Even after a more conservative Congress was elected in 1938, the social democratic-labor wing of the party continued to define an important pole of political possibility.
It had many resources: the support of the president, at least in speech; the support of the labor movement and the rank and file (the labor vote for Roosevelt after 1936 was higher than corresponding electoral support in Europe for the social democrats): the votes of most farmers; concrete electoral cooperation between the labor movement and ethnic political machines; centers of bureaucratic strength within the state in such agencies as the National Resources Planning Board and the Department of Labor, committed to planning and vigorous interventions in the marketplace; and an intellectual climate in the knowledge community that considered a host of ideas drawn from the socialist movements, the planning profession, and the interventionist wing of Keynesian economics.
By the end of the 1940s, none of these features of a proto-social democracy held up.
In spite of the hopes, and fears, of such analysts as C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, and Charles Lindblom, labor lost its radical edge and movement characteristics to become a congeries of trade unions out for the best possible deal.9 The NRPB was dissolved. The Department of Labor lost its capacity to intervene in manpower policy. The emergence of race onto the political agenda, and the failure of the CIO to unionize successfully in the postwar South, deeply divided the Democratic party , inhibited its legislative room for maneuver, and began to challenge the capacities of the Northern urban machines to appeal simultaneously to their white ethnic and growing black constituencies. And, perhaps most important, the range of debate among the policy-interested intelligentsia both changed and narrowed to a combination of pluralist political theory and the neoclassic synthesis in economics. Together, these developments sharply contracted the range and prospects of the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
At the beginning of this decade, the key political divide appeared to be between business and labor. Business threatened the social and economic order because of its potential for disinvestment, and labor, because of its capacity to disrupt capitalism at the point of production. The tensions between business and labor were intensified by Uncertainties about whether prosperity and liberalism could go hand in hand in a democratic capitalist order. In this situation, labor as a political actor appeared to teeter between being an anticapitalist insurgent force and the most important presence in the left wing of the Democratic party in favor of significant planning and an intrusive version of Keynesianism.
That labor had the ability to lead a social democratic breakthrough in American politics that could build on the achievements of the New Deal and radicalize them was a commonplace of the early 1940s, one that appeared to be affirmed during World War 11 by such achievements as the organization by the CIO of Ford and Bethlehem steel, the growth in the size of organized labor, the incorporation within labor's embrace of the previously unorganized female and black members of the labor force, and an extraordinary wave of strikes in the aftermath of the war." Further, during the New Deal, the labor movement broke with its traditional abjuration of partisan politics and integrated itself into the Democratic party through the instrumentality of the Non-Partisan League in 1936 and the Political Action Committee of the CIO in 1944, which, at the time, was widely thought to ensure a leftward tilt within the party.
Writing in 1944 as a committed social democrat, Daniel Bell warned that indicators of labor strength had an illusory quality. "The war has given labor its great numerical strength," he argued, "yet sapped it of its real strength" because of the price it exacted by way of integration into the dominant institutions and assumptions of the society. The quasi-corporatism of the war was a conservative version of statism, he insisted; after the war, he predicted, the leadership of the labor movement would be compelled to discipline its work force and limit its political horizons. He proved right. Inflation, not massive unemployment, emerged as the central and much more manageable threat of the reconversion period. It was "managed" in part by privately negotiated and relatively lucrative union contracts in basic industry. Meanwhile, a Keynesian program of government spending helped ensure that the bottom did not fall out of the demand side of the economy. An assault on the prerogatives of labor during the massive strike wave that followed the war culminated in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which simultaneously produced a contraction of labor's ability to organize new workers and signified the acceptance by conservatives of the institution of collective bargaining within the limits of the act. Labor's inability to organize in the South, and the schisms between the non-Communist and Communist Left, further narrowed the scope of action of the labor movement." For these and other reasons, by the end of the 1940s labor's vision and potential contracted. This reorientation was remarkably successful; arguably, labor was the most potent of the host of interest groups active in American politics. At the same time, its most militant organizational tools had been lost to Taft-Hartley, and its position within the Democratic party was that of one of a number of important constituents. It seems telling that David Truman could write his magisterial text The Governmental Process at the end of the decade and subsume his treatment of labor within such chapters as those concerning the genesis of interest groups, interest groups and political parties, and the web of relationships in the administrative process.13
This shift from labor as political opposition to labor as an interest group was paralleled by a remarkable transformation in the nature of public debate within what might be called, broadly, the policy community. At the beginning of the decade, these discussions were dominated by the discourse of political economy-the attempt "to understand economic events and arrangements in the framework of a comprehensive social theory, or at least as part of a social totality." Works as diverse as Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, and Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Se4dom, all of which were written and published in the first half of the decade, wrestled with the question of whether the tight ties between private property and market organization, on the one hand, and state ownership and bureaucratic management, on the other hand, were immutable; or, whether a "third way" could (or could not) be found to maximize the chances for prosperity and liberty in the postdepression, postwar world. At the end of the 1940s, by contrast, policy disputes were the province of economics, the attempt "to study the economic' in isolation from the 'social,' not by ignoring the latter but by taking it as a given." In political economy, however, the economy cannot be disentangled from society, history, and considerations of social organization and human nature. 14
Social organization and human nature were now to be taken for granted either as givens or as exogenous variables. Even the radical impulses of Keynes were domesticated in a new synthesis of neoclassic economics and Keynesianism. Keynes had viewed his General Theo7 of 1936 as representing a radical rupture with the then current economic theory, particularly in its treatment of the pricing of capital assets and capitalist financial institutions (in that these elements produce a theory of instability, whereas, by contrast, the neoclassic tradition emphasizes market stability and tendencies toward equilibrium). Yet shortly after its publication, mainstream economists truncated Keynes and assimilated it into pre-Keynesian equilibrium analysis. Within the neoclassic synthesis that developed the capitalist economy was viewed as timeless. The synthesis did not allow for internal mechanisms of destabilization. The result, Hyman Minsky writes, was "the reduction of the Keynesian Revolution to a banality.
The neoclassic synthesis that became dominant within American economics by the end of the Truman years ruled out precisely those questions which had been basic to the policy debates of the early 1940s, and to the possibilities of a class-based social democratic politics within the Democratic party. Indeed, the shift to a domesticated Keynesianism as the given of policy debates went hand in hand with a labor movement content with enlarging its share of national wealth incrementally in negotiations with employers limited to wages, fringe benefits, and working conditions-private accords buttressed by government policies aimed at maintaining a level of aggregate demand consistent with a high demand for labor. Taken together, the collapse of the labor movement as a potentially social democratic force and the evaporation of the theoretical and academic bases for left-wing policy-making within American politics, demoralized the American Left, and put it in a position where it lacked a "third way" between an assertive, internationalist, capitalism and the socialism of Soviet type societies. Given this set of actually existing alternatives, Democrats on the Left joined the tight confines of the liberalism of the cold war. "By 1950," Daniel Bell judged, "American socialism as a political and social fact was simply a matter for history alone"; 16 an American society based on class divisions had been supplanted by an interest group society of voluntary associations. In short, in the 1940s, economics replaced political economics, and pluralism supplanted the politics of class.
To these two basic changes in the political landscape must be added a third: the introduction of what proved to be the solvent of race into the Democratic party coalition. The New Deal, in spite of a small number of token gestures, had had little to offer blacks in particular, and as such left the segregationist social organization of the South unchallenged. Within the Congress, the president's programs in the first and second New Deal passed with the support of all regional wings of the party.
During the 1920s, the Democratic party had widened its regional base beyond the South, and was transformed from a primarily rural to an urban-based electoral organization. Faced with the calamity of the depression, the white South subsumed its distinctive regional interests and supported the New Deal. At its convention of 1936, the party revoked its rule that required the approval of two-thirds of the delegates to designate the presidential nominee. This provision had been instituted to protect regional interests. Now, party leaders argued, it was no longer needed because the Democrats had become a genuinely national party. 17 The tacit quid pro quo showed a high degree of tolerance for the racial civilization of the South by the party as a whole. This accommodation manifested itself in the absence of civil rights legislation, and the high degree of discretion left to the states in setting rules and benefit levels for most public assistance programs, including the Aid to Dependent Children provisions of the Social Security Act.
Writing in 1949, V. 0. Key observed that "whatever phase of the Southern political process one seeks to understand," including the politics of cotton, free trade, agrarian poverty and social relations, "sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro." By that date, the partisan consistency support for the Democrats in the eleven former states of the Confederacy that had protected the system of white supremacy from national interference no longer could do so. With the voting realignments of the Roosevelt years, the South became only one element, and a minority one at that, in the coalitional structure of the Democratic party. With the massive migration of blacks to the North during World War 11, their insertion into the urban-based politics of the North, and their integration into the mass production industries and the labor movement, questions of civil rights could no longer be contained as a regional matter. The character of the racial civilization of the South was placed on the national political agenda. With this, the solidarity of the Democratic party as an electoral vehicle and as a national force promoting the assertive use of the federal government to organize and reshape the market economy was compromised. The Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 was only the most visible indicator of this change that had been manifest on a daily basis in the emergence of a blocking coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats in the Congress. In Particular, any proposal that extended the planning capacity of the central state was seen, not without reason, as a direct challenge to the white supremacist arrangements of the South. For Republicans, an antistatist position on such debates in the reconversion period as whether to decentralize or nationalize the Federal Employment Service or pass a Full Employment Act was primarily a stance against government intervention in the marketplace: for southerners, these votes were a hedge against the prospect of basic social reform.19
The shifts from the politics of class to the politics of' pluralism, from political economy to economics, and from the omission to the inclusion of race on the national political agenda proved mutually reinforcing. Taken together, these developments starkly reduced the prospects of strong social democratic-type intervention in the marketplace. Instead, they promoted a less intrusive set of public policies: less of a state capacity to directly plan and organize markets, and more of a state capacity to shape markets by fiscal policies focusing on spending levels and the promotion of adequate aggregate demand. This "fiscalization" of public policy went hand in hand with the strengthening of the Bureau of the Budget (and an enhanced role for economists within it), the creation of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the enhancement of what Peri Arnold calls the managerial presidency. By contrast, more assertive bureaucratic agencies such as the National Resources Planning Board and the Department of Labor either were eliminated entirely or were stripped of key interventionist functions.20 In turn, this new policy terrain reinforced the ascendancy of economics within the policy community, made it possible for the Democratic party to postpone the day of reckoning on civil rights, and confirmed the labor movement's truncated goals by facilitating the successful pursuit of Keynesian policies designed to underpin high wage settlements in the mass production industries.
With this interactive set of political, social-knowledge, and policy elements, what remained of the social democratic option for the Democratic party closed off. The Democratic party that remained competitive on the national scene during and immediately after the Eisenhower years conceded this in its discourse and practices. In the interregnum between the administrations of Truman and Kennedy the party's political formula did not alter, but it did undergo a developmental process. Each of the three main features of this formula that came to be defined in the late 1940s proved to have a powerful directionality. In the 1950s, labor narrowed its focus even more, race moved to the center of political life, and the hegemony of the neoclassic synthesis appeared complete.
This inheritance circumscribed and informed the character of the Great Society; in turn, the Johnson program reinforced, even exaggerated each of its elements. The labor movement's confining self definition was evinced by its concern only for the Great Society's extension of social insurance; by contrast, labor was almost totally disinterested in the War on Poverty. In spite of its early, and accurate, rhetoric to the effect that most poor people were white, these antipoverty efforts reinforced the emergence of race as a centerpiece of national politics just at the moment when class-based issues seemed settled .21 With regard to social knowledge, it was mainly economists working within the limits of their profession's consensus, rather than other kinds of policy professionals or more heterodox practitioners, who defined the contours and content of President Johnson's domestic initiatives .
Listen to Lyndon Johnson. In the midst of the presidential campaign of 1964, Johnson spoke to a business audience in Hartford, Connecticut. His theme was the current "period of prosperity that has never been equaled before in the annals of history of this country," and the challenge of communism to this achievement. "I am proud to say to you that we are standing up, we are resisting, and we are trying to halt the envelopment of freedom anywhere in the world." He quickly moved on to a characterization of the basis of this resistance: democratic government built on the base of "the free enterprise system." This successful economic order is one of a partnership between "capitalists," "managers," "workers," and "government." It is the partnership of these four elements, he held, that provides the basis for a democratic system of government capable of resisting the spread of communism. The speech concluded with a discussion, and a defense, of' his budget policies and macroeconomic management."
The president's rhetoric is revealing of the self-satisfied context that informed the Great Society as a moment of political and social reform and of the Democratic party patrimony the Johnson administration brought to its domestic policies. Assertive yet reserved, reformist yet conservative, the Johnson program was the direct descendant of the substantive formula of the late Fair Deal that Joined together the fiscal direction of markets by a neoclassic Keynesian economic synthesis and a robust interest group politics at home to anti-Communist containment abroad. In the 1960s, the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam were twin aspects of public policy rooted in precisely this coherent world vieW.24
Within the constraints first established in the 1940s, the Johnson administration produced a broad and assertive domestic program in and thereby helped reduce discrimination and increase the accessibility of jobs to minorities. Third, the OEO'S emphasis on community action nourished and intensified the growing citizen's movement, or grass-roots revolution, that already has reshaped urban politics and launched a new generation of leaders into government and social service. Fourth, it altered the relations between citizens and the state by making the federal government the most important source of income for a large fraction of the population.... Fifth, all of the above point unequivocally in at least one direction: the federal government has the resources and the administrative capacity with which to stimulate and sustain progressive social change.
My own formulation is both similar and different-similar because I too think the Great Society represented a vigorous and creative use of the state to affect distributional patterns of class and race, but different, too, because this intervention was undertaken within already established narrow limits, and it thus had the paradoxical effect of weakening, more than it strengthened, the prospects for further reform.
Katz, like most sympathetic commentators who look back at least half wistfully at the Johnson domestic program in the age of Reagan, stresses the Great Society's willingness to utilize the state in unprecedented ways for social ends, but he downplays its other side: a nonideological (self-consciously technical, trans-ideological) orientation to reform grounded in a very high degree of self-satisfaction with the country's economy and society. The Great Society was not an organic part of a larger vision or politics of the Left. It certainly lacked any of the anticapitalist or even critical content of its European social democratic counterparts. With the exception of Medicare, its politics did not promise any significant changes in the life conditions of the majority of Americans, or even the majority of supporters of the Democratic party. Substantively, it stopped well short of attempts to reorganize and modify the marketplace. It entirely left alone the organization of work, the patterns of investment, and the role of the business class. It did not call into question either the larger contours and rationality of the American political economy or the tools, a version of Keynesianism, that had been elaborated over the course of a quarter-century to manage the macroeconomic issues of growth, employment, and inflation. If at the heart of the Great Society was a war on poverty, this was a quite timid call to arms, with the enemy identified circumspectly.
The most compelling characteristic of the Great Society was that it was a program of mainstream economists and technicians who conceded from the start the framework of ideas and practices of the larger political economy. It sought to correct inequities and problems on the margin of a thriving system of production and consumption. If, for working people, as Arthur Stinchcombe observes, "Social Democracy is almost always compromise of basic principles for concrete advantages, while capitalist compromise is almost always an expedient to save the basic features of the system by bargaining away some concrete advantages"116 the Great Society entailed a constricted version of this trade-off'.
Writing in an attempt to put "the Great Society in perspective," Brookings Institution scholar Henry Aaron observed that "none of the ideas embodied in the Great Society or the War on Poverty was really new. All had been foreshadowed in the New Deal or Fair Deal.'127 This is partially, but not precisely, my point. For the ideas available in the period of the New Deal and Fair Deal were very capacious. They included national and regional economic planning and a highly interventionist Keynesianism as well as the public policies actually adopted or the policy discourse that came to prevail by the late 1940s. It is incontestable that the Great Society had ties of continuity with earlier periods of Democratic party reform: the key issue is how earlier outcomes of the contest within the Democratic party of competing reformist possibilities tacitly impressed assumptions and limits on the Johnson initiatives.
It is useful to contrast the New Deal and the Great Society. The New Deal was concerned, in the short and medium term, to restore the economy to a path of positive performance, and, in the medium and long term, to create a system of social insurance that would secure individuals against the vicissitudes of the labor market, and, in so doing, cushion the markets against themselves. At a time of great class-based turmoil, the New Deal, more than any previous American reform program, understood poverty as anchored in class relations as it aimed to put the working class back to work. And yet, its antipoverty measures were conceived as emergency efforts to deal with the temporary crisis of capitalism: they did not attempt a basic redistribution of wealth and income between the classes. Moreover, Roosevelt's program had nothing distinctive to offer to blacks except insofar as the New Deal promised renewed economic growth and prosperity for all.
The Great Society, by contrast, presumed such prosperity and a formula to secure it. Postwar economic development and growth in the United States, as elsewhere in the West in the 1960s, was robust and unprecedented. Economists grew confident they had reduced the business cycle to manageable proportions and to the dimensions of a technical problem. Broadly, supply and demand seemed to be in a high-employment equilibrium, and the societal relations of class appeared to be based more on harmony than on conflict.18 In this context, poverty was conceived of by the Great Society not as a matter of class relations even in the limited terms of the New Deal, but principally as a matter of race. The twin paths of civil rights legislation on public accommodations and voting rights and the War on Poverty were explicitly linked by President Johnson in his commencement address at Howard University in June 1965. There, he spoke of the special "burden that a dark skin can add to the search for a productive place in Society," of the fact that "unemployment strikes most swiftly and broadly at the Negro," of the need for a multicentered solution that goes beyond antidiscrimination legislation to questions of jobs, income, and housing."'
Features of the Great Society could trace a direct lineage back to the New Deal; part of the Johnson program extended the social insurance provisions of the Social Security Act, especially as they concerned medical care for the elderly. But unlike the New Deal, the Great Society moved beyond the economy in general to the specificities of antipoverty policies, beyond social insurance to a host of noninsurance programs directed at the poor, and beyond class orientations to poverty to a confrontation with the intertwined questions of race and inequality.
In a penetrating essay that takes up the origins of the Great Society, Hugh Heclo notes the absence of an antipoverty legacy of the New Deal, as well as the lack of a popular ground swell in favor of such initiatives. Where, then, did the Great Society root itself? Following John Kingdon's work on agendas, Heclo argues that there was a fortuitous, and felicitous, conjuncture of three elements: the emergence of poverty, often connected to race relations, as a "problem" in the media and in public consciousness; the need of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to find subjects for innovation; and, perhaps most important, the availability of a stream of policy proposals with a distinctive, and politically palatable, perspective on poverty by different kinds of policy experts."'
This policy perspective that constituted the kit bag of ideas available to the Democratic presidents of the 1960s was principally that of economists who were concerned with human capital and incentives to opportunity, and of sociologists and social work professionals who had developed theories of blocked opportunity. Joined together, this package of orientations to policy had a coherent analysis and prescriptive perspective: its central intent was the integration of the poor into the growth economy and the social insurance state from which they had been excluded both for reasons of economic structure and individual behavior. Since the revitalization of the economy alone could not perform this feat of integration, the intervention of the state was required to incorporate all Americans into market mechanisms and into the public programs of collective insurance that went hand in hand with these labor markets.
Broadly speaking, this intervention took two new forms. The first (in what might be dubbed the Great Society of the economists) attempted to eliminate unemployment that was understood to be structural. From the start, economists had a high involvement in the formulation and implementation of the War on Poverty, and from the outset they impressed upon the programs a distinctive logic and theory of poverty, and thus of the kinds of interventions that were called for. "The strategy adopted," Robert Haveman has observed in his study of the relationship of the Great Society and the social sciences," was premised on the view that the problem was ultimately one of low labor market productivity. The poor were viewed as being in that state because they did not work enough, or because they did not work hard enough, or because their meager skills and qualifications were insufficient to raise them out of poverty even if they did work hard. This condition was in turn attributed to several factors-the lagging state of the economy, the characteristics of the poor, and discrimination against them by those who controlled access to jobs or goods and services.
The remedies of the economists could not be changes in programs of' income transfers since the productivity characteristics of the poor would be left untouched. Thus, there was a need for policies targeted at the poor to improve their skills and behavioral traits, and thus their capacity to compete. These various programs, from the job Corps to manpower training, would have to meet the rigorous tests of cost-benefit analysis. Thus, from the outset, the Office of Economic Opportunity convened an enormous amount of poverty research, and its economics-oriented staff was one of the first in Washington to adopt in the domestic arena the cost-effectiveness measures that Secretary of Defense McNamara had brought with him from Ford.
The second form of intervention (what might be called the Great Society of the social policy experts), sought to change the institutionalized linkages between the poor and the state. It did so because it saw institutional barriers to the participation of poor people in the mainstream institutions of the economy and the polity, and because it believed that community activity of a grass-roots kind could effect politicians; its lack of challenge to prevailing patterns of authority, production, distribution, labor relations, or programs of social insurance; the relative inattention of the labor movement; and the partial overlap with issues of civil rights and race relations-were shaped decisively in the Democratic party, in the knowledge community, and in the labor movement of the 1940s. By the end of that decade, a host of decisions and developments had removed a wide range of interventionist, social democratic possibilities from the political agenda, possibilities that had remained live prospects within the range of ordinary politics at the end of the second New Deal. It was this reduction of political space, this closure of the agenda, and the deepening of distinctive patterns of politics and policy, that most shaped the character of the Great Society-what it was, and what it was not.
The reinforcement of the limited role of the labor movement, the identification of the party with blacks, rather than with cross-race, class-based policies, and the enhancement of the complacent orientation of the party's Keynesian economists who viewed the problems of employment, inflation, growth, and financial stability as merely technical rather than structural, left the Democrats very vulnerable to assaults from the Right in the 1970s. In the North, the party became dependent on a narrowly defined labor movement vulnerable to domestic disinvestment and stagflation, as well as on urban political organizations, the residues of the once robust political machines that had incorporated white ethnics into Democratic party politics and that had been bypassed by the War on Poverty's Community Action programs as mechanisms of mobilizing racial minorities in cities that were increasingly black and brown. The white South defected. Overall, the Democratic party electorate in presidential elections became more poor and less white. Locked into the limited analyses of neoclassic Keynesianism, the Democrats were unable to deal convincingly with the emergent economic instabilities, low growth, and inflation of the Ford and Carter years. Moreover, in the absence of either an engaged working-class social base in support of social democratic programs or realistic prospects for social democratic policies, the party embraced interest group pluralism as the only coherent strategy available. As a result, it found itself vulnerable to charges that it was nothing more than a holding company for special interests.40
Thus, a central effect of the Great Society was its reinforcement of the tendencies of the 1940s, and with it, at the very moment of the most vigorous domestic reforms since the first term of Franklin Roosevelt, the exhaustion of the social democratic promise of the New Deal and the reinforcement of the centrifugal forces within the Democratic party.
Each of the standard scholarly narratives about the Great Society stands up well: there were continuities with earlier Democratic party reform efforts, and both race relations and the knowledge community provided key elements that shaped Johnson's program. It has been the burden of this essay to show that these narratives stand up best, however, when they are intertwined, and when their time horizons are elongated. When this is done it becomes clear that the "lost opportunity," lamented by Moynihan, for a more assertive social democratic program no longer existed in the early 1960s, as it had only two decades earlier. And yet, the Great Society did not lack for significance. It reminds us, as Katz asserts, that even within the limitations of American politics the current failures of the federal government are more matters of will than the absence of a potential institutional capacity. "In this recognition, there is at least some small cheer for dark days .114 1 At the same time, if the aspiration to renew the reform impulse is to have practical meaning, we must also come to understand how it was the Great Society reinforced just those aspects of the trajectory of the late 1940s which continue to present obstacles to the achievement of an American version of social democracy.