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Why JFK’s Liberal Legacy Is Here To Stay

CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

On the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it is worth asking two questions: “Is the state of American liberalism as strong under President Obama as it was during Kennedy’s time?” and “How will it fare in the future?” There’s reason to be optimistic about the answers to both.

To put these queries in historical context, the early 1960’s after Kennedy’s election are generally considered to be “the liberal hour” in American politics. Political scientists G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot understand said hour as a period of rapid political and social advancement built upon strong trust in government and post-war prosperity. Civil rights laws, the war on poverty programs, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to public schools, and early environmental measures were all put in place within a short period of time. The economy chugged along at full employment, inequality and discrimination were reduced, and more and more Americans were able to participate and prosper in American society. The Kennedy-Johnson era eventually joined FDR’s New Deal and the early Progressive era in a trinity of liberal success stories that defined the 20th century movement as a time when America moved towards a more just, equal and prosperous society.

How has liberalism done since then? Quite well, all things considered. Despite persistent conservative efforts to defund and starve federal programs, the fundamental policies underpinning liberal governance have remained strong. In some cases, they’ve been expanded over time to meet the needs of a growing society, even during the Reagan and Bush eras. The outward confidence suffusing Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Johnson’s “Great Society” visions may have subsided over the years, but the liberal focus on aggressive federal action to achieve national goals and ensure greater equality and economic opportunity continues to drive national politics and policy in important ways.

Of course, as Mackenzie and Weisbrot highlight, the triumph of early sixties liberalism eventually gave way to rising social discord and economic problems in urban areas, left-wing disgust with establishment leaders, and reactionary politics on the right that undeniably limited the scope of future liberal governance starting in the late 1960s through the 1990s. “The reform pressures were so intense, the response so sweeping that fatigue and reaction were inevitable,” as they put it.

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Since the start of Obama’s presidency, conservatives have convinced themselves that this second part of the Kennedy-Johnson story — liberal overreach followed by reaction and growing conservatism — is being repeated today. In their mind, the explosion of federal spending, economic mismanagement, identity politics, and government dependency that purportedly defined the 1960s is even worse under Obama, the Affordable Care Act being the cornerstone example. Reading this history in a fairly distorted manner, and misreading the current conditions of American life and politics, the conservative movement has essentially staked its entire future on the inevitable collapse of Obama-era liberalism.

That’s a highly dubious proposition.

To begin with, the context for liberal governance today under President Obama is much different than in Kennedy’s days. Although America remains an extremely wealthy and powerful nation, the aggregate stresses of rising inequality, slow job and wage growth, and high costs for necessities like health care, education, and housing are severely hurting American families. Meanwhile, the federal government’s capacity to deal with these problems is hamstrung by declining revenues and decades of attacks on federal taxes and spending by politicians across the spectrum.

President Obama’s 2008 victory created wild expectations for a new Great Liberal Era aimed at solving these problems, but Obama was stuck with an economy in total collapse and an opposition party willing to obstruct virtually anything he proposed to fix it. By contrast to the prosperity that ran through Kennedy’s “liberal hour,” today’s economy is anemic at best.

But despite these massive structural challenges, which should turn the public sour on government, Americans have not given up on their support for robust government intervention in the marketplace — partly because Obama-era liberalism has been so modest. The reality of liberalism today is that it is much harder to build and sustain legislative support for a far-reaching agenda during a prolonged period of economic stagnation and distrust of government. This may change as the country’s underlying demographics continue to shift, but for now there isn’t likely to be a massive post Great Society-style backlash to Obama over and above what we’ve already seen. Credit that to (or blame) the President’s hyper-pragmatic, limited policy aims. Outside of his health care plan and the recovery package, Obama’s liberal vision has been nowhere near as expansive as the Kennedy-Johnson era’s, reflecting the difficult economic times and partisan reality of contemporary government.

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The second major difference between the Kennedy and Obama eras is that the American public is well aware of and accustomed to conservative backlash politics. And the reaction to reaction has not been positive. A rising majority of Americans oppose Tea Party politics and fail to see any viable governing alternative in a conservative vision oriented around high-end tax cuts, reductions in spending on programs benefitting low and moderate income Americans, and exclusionary social policy. Conservatives have made their case clearly over the Obama years, yet more and more Americans continue to turn away.

Liberalism is not on the verge of dying anymore than conservatism is on the verge of dying. Both sides have made successful appeals to the American people, and both have won support at different levels of state and national government. But looking at the country as a whole, more people in recent presidential elections have chosen Obama’s pragmatic liberalism over the more strident conservatism of the Tea Party and GOP leaders. The botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act will not change this. Eventually, as with just about every other major liberal program, the benefits of the ACA will start to take hold over the next few years and after a period of time fewer and fewer people will likely question the idea that the federal government should play a strong role in guaranteeing that all people have access to affordable health care. Conservative hysteria about the program will then appear overblown and dishonest, just as their apocalyptic predictions about Social Security, Medicare and other national policies failed to materialize in the past.  Since its inception, liberalism has been a patient project, taking strong and sometimes radical leaps forward when the times called for it and stepping back and making adjustments necessary to ensure its long-term viability during less hospitable times. Kennedy and Johnson governed under unique historical conditions that converged to produce their so-called “the liberal hour.” President Obama is governing in a sharply different context. That’s shaped his liberalism in a way that often frustrates, but remains consistent with somewhat longer view of how change unfolds. Obama has internalized President Kennedy’s words from his inaugural address, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”