Did LBJ Have It Easy?

We've learned a lot about policy since the Civil Rights Act, but lack a consensus on government's role.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, third from right, speaks to President Lyndon B. Johnson during the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.

Since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, we've learned a lot about what sort of policies work.

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Yesterday, President Barack Obama went to Austin, Texas, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s signing of the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the course of his remarks, Obama naturally compared Johnson’s presidency with his own, and LBJ’s times with ours.

As Paul Waldman put it, in an interesting turn of phrase, Obama “noted, without saying it in so many words, that the struggles of Johnson’s presidency benefited from a kind of policy clarity that he does not enjoy.” Waldman didn’t mean that Obama and his administration are who or what lack “policy clarity” (although some would certainly argue that), but rather that it is our times that lack policy clarity. Waldman’s asserted that the evils were clear-cut in 1964 – legal discrimination in voting, housing, and the like – and so were the answers. “But today problems like discrimination and persistent poverty are in many ways harder to confront because the logical next step to address them is often less clear,” he said

Is that really true? Were the “easy” problems and clear evils resolved 50 years ago? Are we now children of lesser policy problems, struggling to address issues whose solutions are less clear? I would argue that the reverse is true.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

It was not at all clear 50 years ago that you could sweep away centuries of legal apartheid simply by repealing it or that, in the face of what was openly called “massive resistance,” you could even achieve simple repeal. Thanks to a confluence of events – Johnson’s consummate political skill, the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater and resulting Democratic landslide in 1964, the adroit civil rights leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, ultimately, the awakening of America’s moral conscience – legal action was achieved, though not without great sacrifice and at great cost.

Fifty years later, Americans are justly proud of how far our country has come, and Obama himself is merely the most visible symbol of that progress. But we also know that the country’s long legacy of discrimination lingers in health disparities, life expectancy, school funding, educational attainment and poverty rates, among other things, that differ markedly by race.

The country faced other challenges then – how to stop the advance of a totalitarian ideology championed by an aggressive imperial rival, the proper role of the U.S. abroad, the threat of nuclear weapons, providing health care to the elderly and the poor through Medicare and Medicaid, the correct balance between civil liberties and national security – the answers to which hardly proved clear-cut or definitive: We’re still searching for most of them today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

So, if it wasn’t all so simple then, what about now? Are problems like discrimination and persistent poverty harder to confront today? Is the logical next step to address them less clear? In many ways, the answer is no.

Plenty of problems still resist resolution, and likely always will, because they hinge on ideological judgments. But in countless other areas, we have 50 years more experience, and often scientific study, to enlighten us. We in fact know a lot more about how to reduce, if not eliminate, those persistent problems like discrimination and poverty. The Voting Rights Act worked to increase minority representation in government and access to the ballot box, at least, until the Supreme Court gutted it last year. A story today cites research showing declining racial segregation in America’s cities.

Perhaps the poor we shall have with us always, and many chortled earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s launch of the "War on Poverty" that poverty obviously won. Even here, however, we have far more “policy clarity” in terms of knowing what “works” and what doesn’t. We know that mildly redistributive policies decrease economic disparity and that decreased disparity increases long-term growth. We have a pretty good idea what works in reducing crime, improving health care and, to lesser extents, boosting education and lifting individuals out of poverty. We may not have found the “cure” for poverty, any more than we’ve found the cure for cancer. But we have in both areas discovered specific “treatments” that work for specific individuals in specific situations. We may not have fine-tuned all the answers, but the degree of “policy clarity” we have today compared to 50 years ago is quite remarkable.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

What we had 50 years ago, and lack today, is policy clarity of a different sort. What we have made up in descriptive clarity we have lost in prescriptive clarity: We largely know how public policy could make a difference. We lack consensus on whether we want it to do so. It’s not that we don’t know what certain government actions can produce; it’s that some of us don’t want government to do it at all, others want government to do more and many, perhaps most, of us just don’t know. At the height of LBJ’s power and influence, there was a clear consensus – although much less of an understanding of what policies actually might work. As Nicholas Lemann described 25 years ago in a classic article, the state of the art, so to speak, in designing programs to fight poverty was about as crude as our knowledge then of how to fight cancer, far lagging the enthusiasm for doing so. This gap between belief and knowledge helped fuel a political backlash whose effects we still feel today. Ironically, we now know much better how to do the things LBJ set out to do. We just lack a consensus on doing so.

That’s not because the American people aren’t capable of finding such a consensus. Rather, it’s in large part because we lack leaders who can encapsulate the case for what we know about what works into as compelling a case for what government should (and shouldn’t) be in the 21st Century as LBJ’s declaration before Congress 50 years ago that, “We shall overcome.”