In The Liberal Hour G. Calvin Mackenzie, Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, and Robert Weisbrot, Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History, have combined their skills to provide an intelligent and lucid history of liberal politics in the 1960s and an incisive exploration of the governmental mechanisms in Washington, D.C., that allowed (after wrenching internal adjustments) and, indeed, guided extraordinary social and economic changes.
Their argument is ingenious.
The 1960s was a time of extraordinary prosperity (family incomes had doubled since the end of the Second World War) and mobility (families were moving up socially and out from the central cities into the suburbs).
The good times were accompanied by problems that had not yet been resolved: prosperity had not yet reached everyone, racial and gender discrimination remained pervasive, the schools bulged with the boomers, and the environment was being despoiled. The politics of the 1960s, in part led by a liberal-labor coalition and in part by the civil rights activists, had as its theme individual self-realization and freedom.
Yet the cultural changes of the 1960s, the authors argue, were not the main story of the decade. Instead, it was the professionalization of reform in the nation’s capital, led by social scientists, activist lawyers, career officials, and the journalists and other opinion leaders who mobilized public opinion and, more importantly, elected politicians to solve national problems.
For the first time in our nation’s history (with the possible exception of Hamilton’s economic program), government action was due primarily to felt needs of those within the national government rather than because of entrenched interest groups, state and local party leaders, or grassroots movements.
Changes in Congress (revamping the Rules Committee) provided an opportunity to move forward with a liberal agenda. A brief change in party dynamics, with the defeat of Goldwater and the election of more Democrats to Congress, gave President Johnson the opportunity to complete the Kennedy agenda and pass his own. Changes in the judiciary (new appointments to the Supreme Court) led to judicial activism as well as to reapportionment of state legislatures and Congress that would erode the power of conservative rural districts.
But it was a liberal “hour,” the authors argue, because of the cognitive limits of Washington-based expertise. Whether it was the war on poverty or the war in Vietnam, the “best and brightest” overreached, and their good intentions were not always matched by good results. Eventually the money ran out as the war drained the coffers, and Great Society programs were in for retrenchment. Similarly the war drained Johnson of political capital, and Nixon was narrowly elected with an agenda quite different from that of the liberals.
Much of this story has been told elsewhere in bits and pieces, but Weisbrot and Mackenzie have put it all together in a masterful synthesis so we see how each social and economic change results in new demands, how those demands stimulate both outside protest movements and insider politics, and how the insiders are able to respond with institutional changes and substantive policy. Especially useful are thumbnail sketches of many of the unsung policy entrepreneurs in the cabinet and the middle levels of the administration, such as Wilbur Cohen and Robert Lampman. Nothing actually happens without dedicated men and women who combine a passion for justice and fairness with the expertise about governance necessary to move the nation.