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Senior Correspondent

Want to Turn Back the Great Society?

Want to Turn Back the Great Society?


Many of us on the progressive end of politics long for the days when Republicans could be counted on to exercise their concern about the real problems that afflict middle-class and poorer Americans. While the congressional debates were heated, the rival parties were often able to agree on ways to address the nation’s critical issues.

But that variety of Republican mentality has largely evaporated, having been replaced by a strident uncompromising tea party-oriented right wing. This new breed of conservatives claim that they intend to reverse the advances wrought by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Let’s have a look at just what the Great Society produced, and speculate as to what parts of it this restructuring of the American agenda even the current-day conservatives would happily dispatch. The following is only a small sampling of the thousands of bills passed in the “war on poverty."

The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 coupled with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws led to the dismantling of Jim Crow, segregation and overt racial bigotry. There were costs. The former racist solid Democratic South quickly became the solid Republican South. While the right wing of the GOP may not want to repeal those laws, one sees a continual effort to mitigate the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act by systematically limiting access to the polls. For reasons which are not clear, the Supreme Court has also managed to truncate the effectiveness of this legislation. Cuddling up to the worst forms of racial bigotry is now quietly done. Nevertheless, very few Americans would really like to return to the pre-Great Society era of Jim Crow and segregation.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and The Higher Education Act of 1965. America’s school children became a national priority, and equal educational opportunity a possibility. Universities were federally supported and low-interest loans for students became a reality. Millions of American young people have benefited by the adoption of these laws.

The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Americans welcomed a renewal of appreciation for artistic progress and serious scholarship.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. While conservatives are fond of criticizing Big Bird and much of what goes on in public radio and television, and continue to suggest cuts in funding, these cultural assets have become increasingly important in millions of American homes.

The Clean Air Act of 1963. Everybody who breathes continues to benefit. 

The Head Start Program of 1965. Uncounted millions of America’s little children have been given the chance to make it because of this amazing legislation.

Medicare and Medicaid of 1965. Does anybody really believe that these advances, which offer decent health care to tens of millions of us, should be scrapped? Almost every politician somewhere in their political agendas include the shiboleth, ”Don’t touch Medicare!”

While the work of the Great Society continues to evoke thunderous criticism among members of the right wing, the chances of any part of this dynamic program being repealed are just about zero.

Lyndon Johnson might have done much more had it not been for his involvement in the Vietnam War that we could not and did not win, and which we should have never have gotten into. After over 40,000 American deaths Johnson finally realized that he could not run again for the Presidency while the specter of Vietnam hung over the political landscape like a death shroud. A similar pall blankets the nation today. Whatever progress we may hope for will not be found until we put far behind us our tragic adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and rediscover a political agenda concerned with the needs of America’s people. Without that, anything approaching the promise of the Great Society will be beyond our grasp.

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