Coalition Politics: Trading Perfection For Permanence

In the current issue of the Washington MonthlyRebecca Shimoni Stoil has written about “The Forgotten Lessons of LBJ’s Domestic Legacy.” She rightly points out that progressives today could learn something about how the 36th president developed coalitions to pass much of his Great Society agenda.

Johnson’s broker-style liberalism had largely disappeared by the time today’s rising generation of progressives came along. But for those who want to see big government do big things, whether about climate change or health care or inequality, Johnson’s legacy offers important lessons. These are in many ways more relevant to today’s circumstances than FDR’s New Deal, which arose out of the historically unique conditions of the Great Depression. Johnson understood that in a culturally fractured and polarized America, lasting political achievements are built through coalitions in which diffuse groups have their own reasons for supporting some common outcome. Programs that benefit one group and rely on everyone else’s continued altruism are easy to dismantle, and, indeed, some Great Society programs succumbed to that fate. But Johnson’s most enduring achievements—including Medicare, food stamps, school lunches, and federal student loans—have survived a half century of Republican assaults precisely because they were designed to give groups otherwise divided by cultural and economic interests different reasons to fight for them.

It is important to keep in mind one fundamental truth about coalition politics: it always involves trading perfection for permanence.

To be clear, none of Johnson’s coalition-based initiatives can be said to be perfect public policy. All involved trade-offs and limitations. What they illustrate, however, is permanence. Republicans beginning with Nixon have tried to chip away at Johnson’s domestic legacy, an effort that became a full-scale frontal assault under Ronald Reagan, who wrote in his diary on January 28, 1982, that he was “trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ ” Despite these and more recent attempts, however, Johnson’s coalitions have proven difficult to destroy, gaining resilience from the wide geographic, cultural, and economic distribution of their appeals.

I hope you’ll take a look at Stoil’s piece and consider what coalition politics would mean for some of the significant issues we face today.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.