We cocky Jacobin secular liberals are used to Damon Linker’s moderately culturally conservative concern trolling by now. I must say, however, that this is a twist I didn’t expect:
The competition for worst president since the early 1930s is pretty fierce. But for my money, Lyndon B. Johnson comes in first, winning the contest of awfulness over George W. Bush by a hair.
Wow. Obviously, Vietnam is a major black mark, but even if foreign policy was the sole criterion for evaluating presidents it’s hard to see how this could make Johnson worse than Bush, given that Iraq was just as much a fiasco but wasn’t already underway when Bush took office. But what about Johnson’s immense achievements in domestic policy? Let’s leave aside the question of what legislation Bush signed that can compare to the two most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation ever passed by the United States Congress — although we really shouldn’t! — and focus solely on the Great Society’s poverty programs. First of all, LBJ allegedly misused the BULLY PULPIT:
The same dynamic prevailed in Johnson’s case for the creation of a “Great Society,” made in a speech delivered in Michigan on May 22, 1964. Living on the far side of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical attacks on big government, Bill Clinton’s pragmatic triangulation, and Barack Obama’s decision to reform health care using a proposal first floated by a right-wing think tank,
Apropos of nothing in particular the “ACA was a Republican plan” lie! (Remember this when the list of LBJ’s domestic achievements leaves out Medicaid altogether.) To be clear, I don’t think this was at all intentional, but if someone was writing a post specifically to bait me I’m not sure they could have done better. Suggest that Richard Russell should have run for president in 1964 giving voters a superior alternative, maybe. Anyway, back to the argument:
Johnson’s bizarrely inflated rhetoric cannot help but sound like the transcript from an alien political world.
I find the rhetoric admirable myself, but I’m the first to say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Why should economic progressives not see Great Society legislation as a substantial achievement? Here is the evidence in its entirety:
When it comes to the social welfare programs that Johnson signed into law in order to prosecute the war on poverty and realize the Great Society, they were a decidedly mixed bag. Some, like Medicare, have proven popular and enduring. Others, like the anti-poverty programs wrapped up with the Office of Economic Opportunity, were far less effective, and ended up being dismantled during the conservative resurgence they helped to inspire.
So, the evidence that the Great Society’s antipoverty programs didn’t work is that…conservatives (including the presidents Linker prefers to LBJ) wanted to dismantle them? What seems much more relevant is that the legislation LBJ signed substantially reduced poverty, progress that was stalled or reversed by the policies favored by the presidents Linker prefers to LBJ. Also note our old friend the countermobilization myth in its purest form: if liberals win major policy victories this might produce conservative opposition, so…liberals should preemptively avoid winning?
In his recent paean to Christopher Lasch’s (quite terrible) final book, Linker resists calling the combination of cultural conservatism (“[b]ut for the working class, life in post-sexual-revolution America can be far bleaker”) and skepticism towards economic reform reflected in his belief that LBJ is the worst president of the last 70 years he seems to favor “conservatism” because it’s not identical to contemporary Republican laissez-faire. Well, the label is unimportant, and Linker can choose how he wishes to describe himself. But whatever you want to call his political vision, I think I speak for most progressives when I say that it’s normatively unattractive as well as empirically deficient in many respects.