The Forgotten Lessons of LBJ’s Domestic Legacy

From food stamps to Medicare, Johnson’s Great Society offers a model for how to create enduring federal initiatives by pulling together broad, diverse coalitions.

The first time I taught an undergrad American history survey course, I tried an experiment. Finding myself with extra room in the schedule, I slid a heading into the syllabus: “LBJ and the Great Society.” I opened the lesson as I would go on to open each class on LBJ’s bid to change America. “Who heard of the New Deal before this course?” I asked. Most students’ hands shot up. “What about the Great Society?” Only two hesitant hands. 

Then I asked, “Who can name a New Deal program that directly touches on your lives or those of your close family?” “Medicare?” one student ventured. “Nope,” I answered, to some surprise—that wasn’t part of the New Deal. Students started flipping back through their notes, ruling out New Deal programs like the National Recovery Administration, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps. Finally they got Social Security—but that was about it. And so it goes every time I teach the lesson.

“Anybody here ever watch Sesame Street?” I ask. “Mister Rogers? Anybody listen to NPR?” Hands go up. “Anybody know someone on Medicaid or Medicare?” More hands. “Anybody know someone who had a subsidized school lunch? How about a school library?” Most of the class is usually raising a hand at this point, but still, I ask the kicker: “Anybody here on work study? Does anybody have student loans?” Now all the hands are up. Here, I tend to pause for dramatic effect. “Folks, welcome to the Great Society.”

Today’s conventional wisdom about Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency tends to see a liberalism that largely failed due to domestic policy overreach and the administration’s disastrous handling of the Vietnam War, and that set in in motion two generations of reactionary politics. While this view unquestionably has truth to it, the collective liberal recoil from Johnsonian initiatives has obscured an important parallel legacy: even with its limitations, the Great Society—Johnson’s ambitious project, launched in 1964, to expand on his hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal—offers a text in how to create consequential, popular, and above all enduring federal initiatives. Beyond the Johnson of the Vietnam War, there was Johnson the visionary and master legislator—a leader who didn’t just play to his base, as politicians of both parties tend to do today, but who knew how to use his skills as backroom deal maker to build broad coalitions and get big legislation passed. 

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.

Johnson’s most enduring achievements—including Medicare, food stamps, and federal student loans—have survived a half century of Republican assaults because they were designed to give otherwise divided groups different reasons to fight for them.

This lesson is worth recovering in today’s political moment. First, Democrats need to figure out how to expand their base in order to both win and keep power and, more importantly, to pass major legislation that is adequate to the problems we face. Practically speaking, that means building coalitions of people drawn from, among other groups, rural, white Americans in order to regain control of the Senate. Second, any ambitious progressive policy is going to have to get buy-in from the various groups that make up the existing Democratic coalition: minorities, college-educated whites, wealthy suburban moderates, and so on. This goes beyond the eternal argument over idealism verses pragmatism. Realizing big, ambitious idealistic goals requires pragmatic collation building with various constituencies who each have different goals and interests. 

It is important to keep in mind that Johnson’s most lasting and influential programs involved trade-offs and imperfections. But as today’s would-be progressive reformers, looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, think about how to achieve ambitious policies that create new coalitions and survive conservative backlash, they would do well to ask themselves: What would LBJ do? 

Perhaps the purest display of Johnson’s coalitional approach was in his creation of two major federal nutrition programs aimed at helping the poor: food stamps and expanded federal school lunches. These programs were—and still are—built on a coalition of interests linking agricultural policy and food availability. Food stamps were initially challenging because they replaced a New Deal–era program, popular with farmers, in which the government bought agricultural surpluses to stabilize commodity prices and used those surpluses to feed hungry people. While this did wonders for agricultural pricing, it did less to provide the poor with reliable access to healthy food. Urban interests in the liberal coalition favored food stamps as an alternative, because instead of being dependent on whatever farmers happened to have left over, poor people would be better able to buy what they actually needed. 

The key was to bring in the reluctant farmers. To do so, Johnson paired food stamps with an agricultural subsidy bill. The message to farmers was clear: If you support nutrition reform, we will support you. The pairing worked; the Food Stamp Act of 1964 sailed through the Senate and squeaked by in the House, drawing support from Democrats representing urban, suburban, and rural areas. 

Who came up with this delicate balancing act? The sponsor of the House food stamp bill, Missouri Democrat Leonor Kretzer Sullivan, gave credit to Johnson. At the time, Congressional Quarterly described the bill’s success as “largely . . . the result of skillful legislative maneuvering in the House.” The program not only navigated the fraught ground between urban and rural interests, it also addressed concerns, including among conservative southern Democrats, over a ballooning federal government. While the federal government oversaw the program, certification of eligible families was designated to state and local governments; food stamp programs would only be established in communities at the request of the states. The trade-off is that this structure gives conservative-controlled states more freedom to restrict eligibility or make the benefits less generous.

Establishing an urban-agricultural coalition in support of federally funded school lunches, Johnson’s second major food policy achievement, was somewhat easier, because careful tooling of the nutritional requirements offered farmers an outlet for surplus crops and propped up the dairy industry through explicit provisions mandating milk. Again, this structure has shortcomings: its attention to farmers’ bottom line has yielded a national diet that privileges grains, starches, and cheap sugars, contributing to epidemic obesity and related health problems. But the coalition linking federal nutrition programs and America’s farmers has made the programs impossible for conservatives to eliminate. To this day, nutrition support is negotiated through the farm bill process, linking one of the most dependably conservative demographics with one of the most progressive. This past fall, a Republican effort to impose stricter work requirements on food stamps failed; Senate Democrats wouldn’t let what CNN referred to as “the massive, must-pass farm bill” through until Republicans agreed to nix that move. 

A tightly knit and largely impermeable coalition similarly helps explain the durability of Medicare, Johnson’s weightiest legislative achievement. The legislation, created via amendments in 1965 to the Social Security Act, struck what would become a grand bargain between proponents of nationalized health care—the Democrats’ long-standing white whale—and other interests, mostly notably conservatives who were ideologically opposed to “socialized medicine,” and the already powerful medical-industrial complex, which sought to protect the income of doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and medical device makers against government-imposed cost controls.

Johnson first enlisted predictable allies in his push. The major unions had already announced their support for health care for the elderly; Johnson turned next to the leadership of the civil rights movement. He did this in part by designing the law in a way that would explicitly promote racial equality: any hospital that received Medicare funds—and for poor, rural hospitals in the South, these funds were a potential lifesaver—could no longer practice segregation among staff or patients. Speaking in Chicago, Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American Medical Association’s reservations as preserving racial discrimination. King accused medical organizations of a “conspiracy of inaction,” complaining that “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” The NAACP and the black National Medical Association (the AMA was segregated) campaigned on behalf of the legislation.

The coalition linking federal nutrition programs and America’s farmers has made the programs impossible to eliminate. To this day, food stamps are part of the farm bill, linking one of the most conservative demographics with one of the most progressive

But Johnson knew that he had to bring less-likely constituencies into the tent as well. Wilbur J. Cohen, an administration official who as a young policy staffer during the New Deal had helped develop Social Security, came up with a plan that he thought could satisfy fiscal conservatives, free market enthusiasts, and liberals alike. He described it as a “three-layer cake”: The first layer was a mandatory social insurance program called Medicare Part A, which would provide hospital insurance to people sixty-five and older who paid into the system during their working years (with the first generation of beneficiaries getting a free ride). The second layer was a voluntary program, financed by individual premiums and general revenues, called Medicare Part B, which would cover the cost of physician services. And third was what would come to be called Medicaid: a means-tested program, financed by both state and federal general revenues, that the states could use to offer various levels of health care benefits to low-income individuals, mostly poor children and the elderly. 

Finally, Johnson had to get the medical-industrial complex to go along as well. He did this primarily by promising that the government wouldn’t tell health care providers how to practice medicine or how much they could charge. Medicare would pay doctors their “usual and customary” charges for any procedure, no questions asked, while reimbursing hospitals for their self-described “reasonable” costs. To sweeten the pie further, Medicare would largely assume the cost of financing residency programs and other forms of graduate medical education, thereby giving teaching hospitals and medical schools a lucrative subsidy. Finally, Medicare would be expressly forbidden from negotiating lower prices from drug companies. The legislation passed its final House vote by an overwhelming margin of 313 to 115.

These provisions led to an explosion in health care costs, so much so that many policy wonks, as well as ordinary Americans, concluded in subsequent years that expanding Medicare to the population under sixty-five would be prohibitively expensive. But at the same time, the large subsidies brought the medical-industrial complex into a coalition with seniors that made cutting Medicare politically impossible. Medicare remains one of the most popular federal programs; public support for it routinely tops 70 percent in opinion polling, indicating that support is not only wide but also bipartisan. And while it’s impossible to know whether the bargain cost the nation a shot at a true single-payer system, the fact of Medicare’s popularity and durability is now being used as Exhibit A in the renewed push for universal health care. 

Johnson’s reforms to higher education, which may have had an even greater impact on American life than Medicare, were likewise structured around coalitional interests. The Higher Education Act of 1965 dramatically changed and expanded federal involvement in post-secondary education, particularly through the federal student loan program. Under this program, the federal government promised private banks that it would insure 100 percent of any losses on student loans the banks might make. This instantly turned banks into allies of the program instead of enemies and unleashed a torrent of bank lending to students. Institutions of higher learning also became instant allies, since the student loan program allowed them to attract more students and charge higher tuition. Eventually, of course, student loan debt spiraled into a major problem, while the availability of unlimited federal money is partly responsible for the skyrocketing sticker price of a college degree. The Obama administration would eventually largely replace federal loan guarantees to private banks with a system of direct lending. But, despite engineering flaws, Johnson’s coalition building established a precedence for federal involvement in financing higher education that has lasted to this day. 

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.

Or consider legislation to fund public broadcasting, which Johnson saw as a vehicle to bring early childhood education and high culture to American hinterlands. He brought in a broad coalition of interests including the Audubon Society, supporters of the arts, early education advocates, anti-commercial interests, representatives of areas with limited broadcasting markets—mostly rural, sparsely populated communities—and public radio advocates, who were added so late in the process that the words “and radio” were famously added with Scotch tape alongside “television” in the text of the bill. Once again, urban-rural alliances that knit together different demographics were paired with other cross-cutting interests. Rather than presenting the program as a federal, centralizing authority, much of the support went to intensely local pursuits, supporting regional television and radio initiatives that might not have reached a broad enough base to succeed on the open market. Johnson’s bill won extensive Republican support in the House and Senate and was approved by overwhelming majorities in both chambers. Although Republican administrations starting with Richard Nixon’s would actively seek to reduce federal involvement in nonprofit broadcasting, they have mostly been unsuccessful. 

Contrast these programs with ill-fated, more narrowly targeted initiatives. The great expansion of welfare spending that came as part of Johnson’s “War on Poverty” would wind up being rolled back under the Clinton administration. Other initiatives, like Legal Services, barely made it through the Reagan years, while the Community Action Program and others remain chronically underfunded due to lack of coalitional support. The Model Cities Program was created to solve the problems of urban America but failed to enlist other stakeholders; it was shut down in 1974. 

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. 

The Johnson administration’s most enduring domestic programs offer a window of possibility into what progressive policymaking could look like, even with a Democratic Party divided between centrists and progressives, whites and people of color, red-staters and blue-staters, and urban and rural folk. The key is to think beyond the idea of “finding common ground” and look for areas in which divergent interests draw different benefits from a given initiative. Modern policies borrowing from Johnson’s playbook could create sustainable urban-rural alliances—something desperately needed to push back against the staggering contemporary levels of geographic polarization.

One example explored elsewhere in this issue is the alignment of interests between food growers and food consumers created by the predatory role of monopolistic agribusinesses in both driving down farm prices and driving up grocery store prices. Similarly, mergers and the spread of corporate medicine equally threaten struggling rural communities and impoverished inner-city neighborhoods that are trying to keep their local hospitals from closing. 

Or consider the coalitions potentially created by an old-school infrastructure project: expanded mid-range rail passenger service. Properly done, it not only provides high-end business travelers with a way to get between major metropolises—such as Boston to New York or New York to Washington, D.C.—but it can also provide vital connectivity to the midsize cities and small towns in between, like New London, Connecticut, or Wilmington, Delaware, that would otherwise become increasingly isolated. There’s a reason why Republicans have never been able to kill Amtrak, particularly its Northeast Corridor service. A Johnson-style approach to infrastructure would begin by trying to design projects that would rope together as many disparate stakeholders as possible. 

Addressing climate change—one of the paramount policy challenges of our time—could also be framed around coalitional interests. Urban sophisticates may have their own reasons for favoring green energy, but for farmers, installing things like wind turbines or solar panels can dramatically increase land values, bringing a much-needed source of revenue into struggling parts of the country. 

Modern policies borrowing from Johnson’s playbook could create sustainable urban-rural alliances—something desperately needed to push back against the staggering contemporary levels of geographic polarization.

Or take internet access, a major issue for rural voters. A 2016 study found that some 39 percent of rural Americans (compared to 5 percent of urban Americans) had no access to an internet service that allows users to telecommute, take online college courses, or watch streaming content. The people who most need the capacity to telecommute to distant employers or take remote classes are, perversely, the least likely to have the online infrastructure to do so. While hardly the panacea for the troubles facing rural America that D.C. technocrats sometimes make it out to be, fixing this disparity would be an obvious part of any broader rural economic agenda. The problem is that the installation and maintenance of broadband in remote areas is not a cost-effective prospect for private industry. 

But think about who else could benefit. Companies that provide internet-based services—especially streaming media powerhouses like Netflix and Amazon—have an interest in increasing their potential client base. Employers and educators, concentrated in metropolitan areas, would be able to access a new pool of available employees, and a federal broadband program could also address the residual 5 percent of disproportionately poor urban residents who still have no high-speed internet. 

Not coincidentally, this has echoes of the rural electrification initiatives of the original New Deal, envisioned by Johnson’s idol, FDR. While rural electric cooperatives weren’t initially cost-effective for private industry, federal support provided employment, infrastructure, and expanding opportunities for their members and customers. (Applying an LBJ-style approach to rural broadband would be poetic: the Texan president’s first political experience came during the New Deal, as the twentysomething political novice worked to bring electricity to rural Johnson City, Texas.) 

As has been remarked upon time and time again since the 2016 presidential election, this is a moment for proponents of ambitious progressive policy to use or squander. Workers’ rights, universal health care, mental health and substance abuse initiatives, and job availability all are areas in which the Democratic Party has a chance to pick up supporters who are searching for federal solutions to grassroots problems. For all its limitations, Johnson’s Great Society proves that federal policy can provide these solutions at the grassroots level in a way that can’t be easily dismantled by future reactionary governments. 

Days after one of my Great Society lectures, a student came to my office hours. “You know, I never knew anything about the Great Society,” she said. “I went to Head Start, and I thought it was just something that happened in my community. I didn’t know it had this whole history behind it.” Imperfect as the Great Society—like Johnson himself—was, my student was a testament to its lasting accomplishments and the resilience of its programs. The Great Society at its savviest built unanticipated coalitions, created local buy-in to national programs, and provided lasting opportunities three generations forward. In both their promise and their potential pitfalls, the examples of the Great Society provide a powerful playbook for a new generation of social reformers.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is a political historian at Loyola University of Maryland. She came to academia following a career in journalism and has recently published in FiveThirtyEight and the Times of Israel.