Fifty years ago Thursday, Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan and first uttered the words “great society.” Before you click away, this is not one of those columns soberly assessing his vision’s accomplishments and failures. Rather, I ask a different question: What if there had been no civil-rights revolution, and we’d taken conservatives’ advice?
This question struck me as I was reading through a Great Society-at-50 assessment by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Being an AEI scholar, Eberstadt is, as you’d imagine, quite critical of a lot of Great Society anti-poverty and other “transfer” programs. But he ungrudgingly acknowledges one point: With respect to the civil rights revolution, which obviously was a key part of the Great Society, ending legal segregation really did take a massive effort, one that could only have been led by the federal government.
The country was largely united behind this effort by 1964. But not conservatives. Of course, most of those conservatives were Southern Democrats. Not all of them, though. 1964 was the year of Barry Goldwater, when the nascent conservative movement that had started in the 1950s took control—for the time being—of the GOP. Today, Goldwater is a hero of the conservative movement. Here is how he thought segregation could be ended in the United States, in a quote from his famous 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative: “I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective. But let us, in doing so, respect the orderly processes of the law. Any other course enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom.”
Incredible. “The people directly concerned.” That was the whole problem—they were handling it, in their inimitable way. Those sheriff’s deputies turning dogs and fire hoses on children—why, they weren’t being racist at all. They were dethroning tyranny.
Goldwater had a long history of racist positions, going back to his opposition to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. The American people largely thought him a crazy man in 1964, and of course he lost to Johnson by titanic proportions. But let’s just say he’d won. What might have happened, had we followed his suggested path? How much longer would legal segregation have remained in place in the South? How much innocent blood would have been emptied onto Southern streets? We’d have had a race war on our hands that would have made Watts look like an episode of The Flip Wilson Show.
How long would Southern states have remained segregated? When would those states have integrated of their own volition, because it was the right thing to do? Hard to say. Probably once the citizens of Alabama came face to face with the reality that they couldn’t win a national championship with an all-white team. But that would have been, with a federal government sitting on the sidelines, something like 1974. In the meantime, we might well have had a second civil war.
But we didn’t, and we didn’t for one reason: government. The federal government stepped in and made integration happen. Only the federal government could have done it. The end of legal segregation remains America’s greatest triumph. And it didn’t take a village. It took a government.
I like the way today’s conservatives rush to point out, as they will in this comment thread, that most of the opposition to the civil rights bill was Democratic, as I noted above. There’s no denying that. But the more relevant point for today is this: Over the next few years, those people left the Democratic Party. They knew there was no place for them there.
In today’s GOP, however, the successors to the Richard Russells and Harry Byrds have been welcomed with open arms. And Barry Goldwater is not merely one guy among many guys they kind of like from the past. He is conservatism’s great hero! And 1964 is thought of as a shining moment in their movement’s history! And here we are, 50 years later, with the Republican Party looking as if it just might nominate for president a guy (Rand Paul) who once admitted that he’d have opposed the Civil Rights Act and basically was still against it (and Paul is one of the better Republicans on race!). Half a century, and society has changed for the better in amazing ways. But one of our two parties is still dedicated to fighting it.