Part of this essay is taken from Brion McClanahan’s 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016).
The 1964 election between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson was a watershed election. Goldwater “flipped” the South and by the early 1970s, the South was voting solidly Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. These weren’t the same Republicans, however, as conservative Southerners begrudgingly gave up allegiance to the Democrat Party for a candidate they believed better reflected their political worldview.
Johnson was a Southerner, but his advocacy of “guns and butter” and a more expansive general government clashed with conservatives who bristled after nearly three decades of uncontrolled federal power grabs at the expense of the States. Part of Johnson’s platform became known as the “Great Society,” a labyrinth of unconstitutional federal legislation designed to implement Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights.” Roosevelt insisted that Americans deserved housing, a job, medical care, food, clothing, and education, all on the back of the American taxpayer. This list of free goodies became the genesis for the progressive talking points of the modern era. Johnson listened hard and followed Roosevelt’s lead.
Johnson cut his teeth as a member of Congress during Roosevelt’s unprecedented three plus terms in office. He supported Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal” and believed that the general government could and should “end poverty.” No obstacle—including that pesky Constitution—was too great to overcome. Like its predecessor the New Deal, the Great Society doubled down on unconstitutional legislation and created the modern welfare state as we know it. Johnson used John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Goldwater’s apparently itchy nuclear trigger finger to divert attention away from his real dream of expanding federal power beyond what Roosevelt ever hoped to accomplish.
Johnson legislated from the Oval Office like a member of the British Parliament. He bullied even seasoned congressmen into submission and from 1965-1969 muscled through several blatantly unconstitutional bills. By the time Johnson left office, the federal budget had more than doubled and because of that, within four years the United States had to be removed from any type of precious metals standard. If nothing else, the Great Society made the greenback, at one time called as good as gold, as good as paper. The inflationary crisis of the 1970s owed its origins in Johnson’s Great Society.
The most sweeping changes to the American economy as a result of Johnson’s presidency were effected by the Social Security Act of 1965. Nineteen-sixty-five was the year the American public was introduced to Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare was sold as an extension of the Social Security program established during the New Deal. The bill piggybacked on an already unconstitutional Social Security system and provided government health insurance through a payroll tax system. All Americans would be financing the few who collected Medicare. Like Social Security, Medicare is a Ponzi scheme doomed to fail. There is absolutely no authority for such a system in the Constitution, and by signing the bill Johnson abrogated his oath to defend our government’s founding document.
Like Social Security, Medicare was defended under the Taxing and Spending and General Welfare Clause. If the general government could levy taxes to provide old-age insurance, certainly it could levy more taxes to provide old-age medical insurance. Opponents pointed out that both taxes bastardized the meaning of the clauses and unconstitutionally expanded federal power. The Supreme Court disagreed—narrowly. It had upheld Social Security by slim majorities in the 1930s. Justice Benjamin Cardozo, a Herbert Hoover appointee and ardent advocate of a “living Constitution,” suggested that if the Court interpreted the Constitution the way it was understood in the 1780s, the United States would be stuck in the 1780s. Surely America had progressed. Besides, Alexander Hamilton’s Constitution of loosely implied powers had defeated James Madison’s Constitution of expressly delegated powers. The war needed not be fought again. This position, of course, was in sharp contrast to the position the proponents of the Constitution took when the Constitution was being debated in state ratifying conventions. If they had argued for Hamilton’s loosely implied powers or Cardozo’s living Constitution, the document would never have been ratified in the first place.
Medicaid, the other insurance program created by the Social Security Act of 1965, exacerbated the problem. Medicaid was designed to provide health insurance for the poorest Americans regardless of age. The main beneficiaries were children and mothers without coverage. The federal government split the costs with the states but required each state to provide some type of Medicaid program. States would become addicted to the cash and unable to keep their budgets in balance without federal dollars. The federal government was now requiring states to do its bidding—the inverse of how things were in the Constitution as ratified and interpreted for much of American history. The Tenth Amendment had slipped into oblivion.
The sad truth is that had Lyndon Johnson not been interested in legislating from the executive branch and had faithfully defended his oath to uphold the Constitution by vetoing unconstitutional legislation, the American public would not be standing closer to the edge of a fiscal cliff by the day.
Besides medical care, Johnson also believed that every American had a right to a good education. Almost immediately after taking office Johnson insisted that Congress tackle the education issue. But education had long been the exclusive realm of the state governments. This was (and is) the constitutionally correct position.
But World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement changed the way many Americans thought about education. It was believed that winning an international struggle against communism required a “national” effort, and defeating communism at home could only be done by eliminating poverty and discrimination—because poor and disfranchised people make good pinkos. There was a lot of truth in this, but the methods used were unconstitutional. The Great Society usurped authority from state and local governments and destroyed federalism, the heart of the American political system. Practically, the Johnson agenda also led to exponentially increasing education costs for students and parents.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) radically changed the role of the federal government. ESEA increased state education budgets and eventually allowed the federal government to mandate specific outcomes for student success. If states and localities wanted the money, not only did school districts have to meet income guidelines—that is, have a high rate of poverty—but also students had to perform well; thus they were subjected to federal standards in all aspects of academic and social life. Students had truly become lab rats in government-funded laboratories. Johnson’s push for a federal role in education did not begin that way, but once the federal government was so heavily involved in local schools, the writing was on the wall. His proper role as president would have been to veto such a blatantly unconstitutional bill. But Johnson was too ideologically driven to do so.
The role the Great Society played in federal environmental regulation is often overlooked.. By the late 1960s, “environmentalism” had transitioned into a cult-like religion for the worshipers of “Mother Earth.” Johnson and his ambitious Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had much to do with this development.
Udall was appointed secretary of the interior by John F. Kennedy in 1961. He had been an active proponent of “conservation” and now began pushing for more aggressive federal involvement in the environment. Johnson kept Udall in his cabinet and adopted his heavy handed approach to government regulation. Virtually every current environmental regulation in the United States can be traced to Udall and Johnson. Between 1963 and 1965 Udall helped draft and Johnson signed eight comprehensive pieces of federal environmental legislation. Each created mountains of federal regulations targeted at curtailing pollution and protecting wildlife and natural resources. All of this environmental legislation was and is unconstitutional, at least according to the Constitution as ratified. Neither the Congress nor the president is authorized by the Constitution to regulate either emissions or the requirements for opening a business. The states could, but Congress was purposely left powerless on these issues. Clean air and water are certainly laudable goals, but federal authority over these issues would require a constitutional amendment. This constitutional end-around was not unusual for progressives. They had been doing it since the first Roosevelt administration. By the Great Society and the 1960s, however, they were no longer even trying to cloak their moves in constitutional language. The federal government simply acted because it could, and Johnson, drunk with his own power and the realization that he finally achieved his dream of being president, encouraged such bad behavior.
To ensure that the American people supported the Great Society, Johnson and other progressives in the Congress knew that they had to win the propaganda and cultural war in America. If the public could be persuaded that Johnson’s unconstitutional agenda was beneficial (and legal), his stamp on public policy would become permanent. As a result, Johnson signed three pieces of legislation in 1964 and 1967 that changed media and art in America. The goal—apparently—was to immerse the American people in progressive ideology one child and student at a time.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Public Broadcasting Corporation all came into existence as part of the Great Society. Sold as public-private partnerships that relied on private support for their continued existence, these three bastions of liberal ideology allowed the federal government to have a direct role in the type of art, literature, and television Americans consume. Programs like Sesame Street have a clearly leftist agenda, while the NEA has continually used taxpayer dollars to sponsor artwork that many Americans deem objectionable. It has even requested artwork that favors one candidate or political party over another.
Johnson had the wind at his back and an agreeable Congress, and he sailed bill after bill through Congress without much opposition. And all these Great Society Programs, from Medicaid and Medicare to National Public Radio, have—to borrow the words of a more recent presidential candidate—fundamentally transformed America. Modern America is the Great Society. That is no badge of honor, particularly in regard to the Constitution.
If only Barry Goldwater would have won….
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of South Carolina. He has authored, co-authored, or edited six books, including The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution(Regnery History, 2012) and 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016) You can find him at www.brionmcclanahan.com or at Tom Woods’s Liberty Classroom, www.libertyclassroom.com