"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Roosevelt and Johnson: Manifestations of American Liberalism and the Role of Government in the 20th Century

This was originally a paper I submitted for a college history class. I think it's quite good and well-researched. I hope you enjoy it!


The liberalism currently prevalent in the United States is not true liberalism, and even the liberalism of modern America is far different than traditional American liberalism of the early to mid-20th century. What is considered “conservative” today is really just classical liberalism, and what is “liberal” today only retains a portion of true liberal roots. The “social democrat” policies of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration during the great depression, highlighted by handouts and an ever encroaching government, were what defined American liberalism for about 30 years, through Lyndon Johnson’s administration and his Great Society programs. Franklin Roosevelt used the crisis of the Great Depression to push through social programs (i.e., social security), and later used the Second World War to expand the power of government. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson seized the opportunity presented by the civil rights debate, John F. Kennedy’s death, and rising American affluence and egalitarianism, to promote his idea of a Great Society. The Great Society, with initiatives in civil rights, education, and economics matters, broke slightly with traditional “social democrat” initiatives, favoring a more liberal agenda; not classical liberalism, but a type of fascist liberalism, where government was the helping hand for every one in every situation, essentially necessary to everyday life – Big Brother. Jonah Goldberg writes, “In short, the argument about the size of government is often a stand-in for deeper arguments about the role of government.” He goes on to say that “[F]or some liberals, the state is in fact a substitute for God and a form of political religion as imagined by Rousseau and Robespierre, the fathers of liberal fascism.”[1] I am by no means going to argue that Roosevelt and Johnson were in fact fascists; that would take too long and is not exactly correct. However, I will be arguing that the role and size of government markedly increased during their terms, and this was only part of the shift in liberal beliefs towards fascism, but does not necessarily qualify them as fascists; it is merely a fascist tendency.

And so, the liberalism of the Great Society not only continued the trend set by FDR, but was sharpened, heightened, and progressed under the guidance of Lyndon Johnson. Liberalism changed from a desire for unfettered personal liberty, to a desire for freedom from oppression by traditional, conservative institutions and beliefs. For Roosevelt and his pupil Johnson, the government was a means to providing that freedom.

What really occurred with these administrations was a sizable increase in government influence in the lives of the people, a result directly at odds with classical liberalism and far different than our founders intended. And this is where my argument lies: the policies of FDR and LBJ placed government into the living rooms of the formerly independent American family. This paper will focus mainly on social and economic aspects of the two administrations. For the purposes of this paper, “Social” will include things such as rights and benefits conferred by the government; “economic” will refer to, among other things, job creation, direct money handouts (i.e., welfare), and taxation. Thus, mainly through their social and economic initiatives, these two presidents changed what liberalism was and made government an ever-present, ever-growing institution in American life. Yet, the question remains: What exactly is liberalism? Now I will try to precisely define the nebulous ideology.

Liberalism: The Ideology
An ideology can be loosely defined as a shared system of thought about society’s social and political order that competes with other sets of belief regarding the world.[2] In the centuries since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution numerous different ideologies have gained prominence and large followings; the most important of them being conservatism, liberalism, communism, and socialism. Today though, these names are commonly associated with political parties. For example, in the United States conservatives usually identify with Republicans, and liberals identify with Democrats. In this case, the liberalism of the Democratic Party has come to mean something entirely different than its original, historical meaning. These ideologies rose as organized belief systems mainly during the age of Enlightenment and thereafter, but in the time since they have changed considerably, and in some cases drastically. It was during the twentieth century that liberalism took its modern form with programs of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Liberalism can claim to be perhaps the oldest ideology, at least according to some Catholic scholars. Satan can be considered the very first liberal, because of his revolt and desire for unfettered personal liberty.[3] From this single act of rebellion can be traced the entire liberal ideology. And here enlies the problem; the precise definition of liberalism is rather vague. In its most stripped down, abstract definition, liberalism seeks liberty as an end in itself, not a means to an end, because for the liberal, everything comes from an individual’s own unrestricted use of reason as the measure of everything. In effect the liberal sees man as self-sufficient and essentially good, with a free will subjected to nothing; he is always seeking progress in everything, equality for all, radical individualism, and the ability to do as one pleases.[4] In modern times, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the term “liberal” is used in the United States to describe a belief in government as an answer to societal ills and provide freedom of equality. This belief usually includes faith in government interference with the economy, health, and education, while still claiming to be concerned for individual freedom by promoting civil rights, personal freedoms for some (repression for others), and separation of Church and State among other things. Modern liberalism has drifted far from its original roots of personal freedom at any cost. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “liberal” referred to the idea of individualism, and thus capitalism, free trade, limited government, strict rule of law, and a secular but rational outlook on life.[5] If we look back even farther to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, liberalism was mainly focused on the field of economics and in this we see even a greater difference between then and now.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his Wealth of Nations offers one of the first and most well known works espousing liberal economic theory, or laissez-faire. Basically, Smith puts forth an idea of “natural liberty” and the notion that an “invisible hand” guides the economy. This invisible hand is simply individual consumers who, by following their own interests and desires, facilitate the betterment of the general welfare.[6] It was in the eighteenth century that liberalism became much more radical and effective as a means of social and political change.

Since a basic element of liberalism is that government be based on consent of the governed and political right, the monarchies of the eighteenth century came under intense attack from freedom seeking philosophers, such as John Lock, Thomas Hobbs, even Rousseau and Voltaire. [7] The liberal philosophy produced during the enlightenment came to a head during the American and French Revolutions. Feelings of individualism were strong, and the people rose up against the established regimes in America and France with ruthless revolutions. Both revolutions had strong liberal voices behind their movements; Voltaire, Rousseau, and Robespierre in France, with Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, toned down versions of the French radicals, in America. These revolutions gained popularity in part because the economic activity was hampered by government intervention, which liberal laissez-faire doctrine stood against. Today, the modern Democratic Party in the United States garners the label of liberal, but as a party it holds none or few of these free-market values. Instead it prides itself on being “progressive.” In the 1920s and 1930s, under the presidencies of Wilson, Hoover, and Roosevelt, liberal ideology took a drastic turn towards socialism, becoming “welfare liberalism.”[8] In other words, liberals now believe in large government as positive influence on economic market activity, and other areas of individual life. The old-school liberalism of Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbs is drastically different from the modern liberalism of today.[9]

The Changing Role of Government: Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency of the United States in 1933, the height of the Great Depression. The national economic situation was bleak, to say the least. Upon being sworn-in, FDR embarked on an ambitious legislative policy. Bruce Shulman writes a brief section on Roosevelt and the New Deal in the book Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism:

When FDR laid out what he described as the four basic freedoms in 1941, he
included not only traditional liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of
religion, but also freedom from want and freedom from fear…freedoms that only an
energetic, vigilant big government could assure.[10]

Throughout the years, these policies have garnered the terms “socially democratic,” and “progressive.” Regarding the latter, Shulman says “…FDR’s New Deal far exceeded the achievements, even the imagination, of the Progressives. In fact, most Progressives…opposed the New Deal.” The goal of Roosevelt, with the nation being mired in one of the lowest points of the depression, was “bold, persistent experimentation.”[11] One of the first experimentations was passage of the Emergency Banking act of 1933, which included “a section giving the President blanket power over the operations of member banks of the federal reserve system during the emergency period.”[12] Another experiment took form of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. This act established the position of Nation Recovery Administrator to help regulate and control industries, and to establish price-control measures that would deter industries from price-cutting.[13]

As FDR’s second term began, and then upon the beginning of World War II, Roosevelt proposed a second “economic bill of rights” as well as a new level of economic prosperity. John W. Jeffries writes that Roosevelt “envisioned as well a postwar full-employment economy with a stunning sixty million jobs and the trappings of economic abundance.”[14] Shulman outlines FDR’s main goals for the New Deal.[15] First, he wanted to provide direct aid to the citizens of the United States in the form subsidies, tuition assistance, government-sponsored jobs, and even food. His second goal was social and economic empowerment of formerly overlooked and oppressed groups. “He opened the doors of government to ethnic Americans, offering new opportunities for the children of immigrant Catholics and Jews.” He also supported labor unions and African Americans. Thirdly, Roosevelt transformed the executive branch of government into the most powerful branch and the uncontested leader of the other two. He created numerous executive agencies which gave the executive branch and the president more responsibility and a greater role in the government.[16]

It is no secret that most of President Roosevelt’s policies were focused mainly on economic matters. As the depression raged around the country, banks failed, unemployment skyrocketed, and many Americans were forced to struggle for a basic existence. Roosevelt’s policies were an attempt to pull the country out of the crisis by using (and partly creating) the only institution large enough to do so – the government. Yet, it has become widely accepted that World War II actually pulled the nation through the depression, although even during the war it was the government that nationalized industries and increased its power. “There was no difficulty in justifying huge expenditures on armaments during these war years,” write Marvin E. Gettleman and David Mermelstein, “and since then military items have been almost sacred items in the budget. All this suggests the acceptance in America of a greatly expanded role for government.” Gettleman and Mermelstein make a note about FDR’s New Deal by saying, “The real achievement of FDR’s New Deal should not be slighted…The New Dealers gave the impression that at last a humane and flexible government was going to restore prosperity.”[17]

The argument could be made that while the New Deal focused on economics because of the time period in which it took place, it was also a means of social transformation. Social security is one example of an economic policy that is also something of a social policy because it guarantees payments to retirees, something which was formerly not available. However, as briefly discussed above, social security is only one of many ways that the government expanded under Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal. Although many of his policies, laws, agencies, and programs are no longer relevant and/or no longer exist, his administration and later the Great Society of Johnson’s administration were two main reasons for the growth in government influence that can still be felt to this day. Jonah Goldberg says:
As economic policy, the new deal was a failure…And yet we are constantly told
that the New Deal remains the greatest domestic accomplishment of the twentieth
century and a model liberals constantly wish to emulate, preserve, and
restore…Why such devotion? The answer most often offered is that the New
Deal gave Americans “hope” and “faith” in a “cause larger than
themselves.” Hope for what? Faith in what? ...The answer: the
liberal God-state or, if you prefer, the Great Society…[18]
Of course, most of FDR’s actions can be justified, and to this day government expansion is understandably (often times begrudgingly) accepted as inevitable. It was partly because of this growth in government that a young congressional aide named Lyndon Baines Johnson got his start in politics and later built upon his predecessor’s legacy.

The Changing Role of Government: Johnson
The connection between Roosevelt and Johnson is more than just a matter of policy. Johnson was an aide to Texas congressman Richard Kleberg when Roosevelt assumed the presidency, and was thus part of the inner workings of the expanding government. In 1937, Johnson was himself elected to congress. Roosevelt came to Texas shortly thereafter to meet the new congressman, pleased that he had another supporter of his New Deal.[19] However, after FDR and as the Cold War progressed, American politics in general moved to the right. Johnson was no exception. When elected to congress he separated himself from organized labor and strongly supported the oil and gas industry in Texas.[20] Bruce Shulman lists three ways liberalism in general turned away from old, New Deal liberalism, to a new kind of liberalism: economically, politically, and internationally.[21]

On economic matters, liberals shifted away from attempts to restrict big business and the “well-off.” After WWII, Americans at all levels of society earned higher levels of income and gained upward economic mobility. Therefore, liberals focused on increasing the size of the pie with Keynesian economic policies, thereby making everyone better off. Whereas, socially democratic policies simply redistribute income, liberal policies are less direct. They provide opportunities for people to earn money, they don't merely hand them cash.

In the political terms, the rise in affluence post-WWII was part of the reason for a rapidly changing electorate. Liberals changed their perception of the political process after World War II. “Public policy had become so complicated and distant that individuals had little knowledge of and less input into the nation’s most important decisions.”[22] The idea of pluralism came into play during this time in the development of liberalism. Interest groups grew in popularity and power as political parties declined in influence. In many cases, the new interest groups of some under-privileged, under-appreciated minority pushed for special attention for their cause within the Democratic Party or in government. This is also part of the rise in what some have called “rights consciousness.” Obviously, the civil rights movement gets much attention when discussing rights and equality, but it is not alone. There were also movements advocating for women’s rights, worker’s rights, rights for religious groups, and others. It is interesting to note, especially when considering the patterns within government today both at the state and national level, how the present level of government size and influence came to be, and what caused it. Interest groups are undoubtedly a significant reason for the increase, and while the large numbers of interests groups can be attributed to many different factors, the jump in rights consciousness during the 1960s and 70s is probably the most noteworthy reason.

Returning to Shulman’s three ways that liberalism changed in the mid-twentieth century, the third “and most important” manner in which it changed was internationally. The spread of communism prompted Harry Truman to begin the struggle against it. “In fact, the struggle against communism underlay all of these changes in liberal outlook,” says Shulman.[23] By promoting constant economic growth and encouraging pluralism, the Democratic Party “allowed Americans to contrast American democracy with Soviet dictatorship.”[24]

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy became President of the United States, he had a domestic policy in mind which might be thought of as a pre-cursor to the Great Society. However, it was Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who fully implemented the social programs that were officially labeled The Great Society. According to Johnson, to build this Great Society, the first step was total eradication poverty. In his first address to Congress on January 8, 1964, Johnson officially declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in order to achieve his aims. He further says “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support.”[25] In 1966, the Johnson Administration released a statement outlining its overall goals, some of which included attainment of full employment, opening of “doors of opportunity,” and “to help solve social and economic problems that neither private action nor state and local governments can solve alone…” The administration claimed that “The new tasks involve new and growing problems of an increasingly complex and interdependent economy and society. Only the federal government can assume these tasks.”[26] Interestingly enough, one of the main ways in which Johnson sought to achieve the Great Society was through the Kennedy tax cut; a tactic completely opposite of previous liberal agendas. But Johnson was always considered an enigma.

Was Johnson intentionally positioning power and influence in the central government to carry out some hidden totalitarian agenda? I think not. Nevertheless, the tendencies are there. Johnson was a rather secretive president, as David M. Berrett points out, “The interactions between President Lyndon Johnson and the people who assisted and advised him on policy making were characterized by an unusual, uneasy, and ultimately misleading combination of openness...and secrecy.”[27] It should come as no surprise, considering the previous mention of pluralism, that “Johnson’s views on the role of the presidency in the American political system were similar to those of pluralist theorists of the post-World War II ear…”[28] Barrett goes on to write,

An inescapable conclusion to be drawn from reading a few memoirs and many
histories of the Johnson years is that, from November 1963 to January 1969 the
White House resembled nothing so much as a tyrannical monarch’s court.[29]
Other writers notice this tendency too.

Sometimes this sequence of democracy and welfare is projected into the
future…the gradual accumulation of welfare measure after welfare measure, reform
after reform, will add up to something that can be called “socialism.” Not
only friends but opponents of socialism have argued that such reform programs as
the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society lead in this leftward
direction…Nineteenth-century Germany, and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, show
that welfare measures are compatible with a highly authoritarian political

Johnson’s totalitarian, big government tendencies probably arise out of his concern for the poor, oppressed, and overlooked. Johnson grew up poor in the tiny, abject, and ironically named Johnson City, Texas. This background probably led to his personal concern for civil rights. Not only did he obtain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but many other groups gained inclusion and many other rights were opened to the people. Johnson’s civil rights initiatives were supposed to culminate in the 1966 White House Conference on Civil Rights. “The conference’s purpose was to implement the findings of the [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan report [regarding differences between blacks and whites] and to ‘set an agenda on civil rights’.”[31] Yet, as Kevin L. Yuill writes, Johnson did not mention the conference in his autobiography and “Historians have also ignored the event…Most tend to view the conference as an anti-climax after the passage of the 1964 and 1965 acts…”[32]

A socially and economically intervening government during the 1960s can be traced back to a rise in “right consciousness.” Stemming from egalitarianism, which is the belief that people are inherently equal and should have equal political and social opportunities, and coupled with a rising “moral passion” among Americans, the Great Society was not only a government ideal, but was an ideal shared in some sense by much of the population. The governmental and societal changes, which were notable during the 1960s, had their beginnings with the liberal-progressive eras of FDR in the mid 1930s and during WWII. The changes which took place during these two periods led up to the 1960s and fueled the dramatic increase in rights consciousness as people became aware that the government was increasingly responsive to their needs. Perhaps, one reason for the increase in rights consciousness was the rapid rise in American affluence.

In an ever increasing role, the government was expected to provide a secure future for the people. Johnson and his Great Society ideal came about at the perfect time. Johnson's policies were not fully in-line with the traditional Democratic Party policy. Instead, his social program was a liberal policy, spawned from FDR, and heightened under his leadership. It was interest groups especially who benefited from this liberal policy because they could pressure the government to cater directly to their needs. Michael Ignatieff wrote an article in the New York Times where he argues that the liberal ascendancy in American life was really very short lived, “from Roosevelt’s second inaugural in 1937 through to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as American Liberalism’s last hurrah.”[33]

I don’t know if Franklin Roosevelt’s push for increased government action was a result of some deeply held desire for totalitarianism, nor can I say that Lyndon Johnson in fact believed that an all-powerful, dictatorial government was the ultimate answer to societal ills. Similarly, it is impossible to say that Roosevelt and Johnson were actually authoritarian dictators. But, as stated before, they had some of the tendencies of authoritarian, totalitarian, fascist dictatorships. Not that providing civil rights is totalitarian, but making the government the guarantor of those rights is tending towards authoritarianism, because it makes gives the government more responsibility, and a government with more responsibility is in no way shrinking. However, it may be impossible to return to limited government as most conservatives advocate. Our modern world is full of complexities and nuances that many liberals argue requires the government to grow in size. “A government structure premised on a separation of power is not well-suited to coordinated governmental action in the many spheres of the social and economic life that characterized the modern American administrative state.”[34] I don’t think the government has much of a place at all in economic or social life. It should provide a basic framework for society and stay in the background. But I am a conservative. Roosevelt and Johnson were progressive liberals. They saw a need for government in society. Have their efforts made the United States better off? Probably in some ways. The Civil Rights Act was one of the most important and humane laws passed in United States history. Other elements of increased government action may have helped the nation as well. But, it can be argued that big government is also a hindrance to our society, and it may have harmed the country far more than it helped it. Regardless of which viewpoint one chooses, the only way we can proceed in either direction is with “bold, persistent experimentation.”

[1] Goldberg, Jonah, Liberal Fascism, (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 201
[2] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 562
[3] Rev. Fr. A. Roussel, Liberalism & Catholicism, (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1998), p. 11
[4] Ibid., p. 46
[5] Murphy, Dwight D., Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 97
[6] Cecil, Andrew R., Moral Values in Liberalism and Conservatism, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), p. 31
[7] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 563
[8]Murphy, Dwight D., Modern Social and Political Philosophies: Burkean Conservatism and Classical Liberalism, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 97
[9] Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History and Culture, Vol. II, Brief Ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), p 564
[10] Shulman, Bruce J., Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, (New York: Bedford Books, 1995), p. 12

[11] Ibid., p. 13
[12] Preston, Howard H., “The Banking Act of 1933,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 23, No. 4, (1933): 585-607, JSTOR, 5 May 2009 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/1807513>, p. 586
[13] Barber, William J., “FDR’s Big Government Legacy,” Regional Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, (1997): 18, Academic Search Premier, EBSCO. 5 May 2009
[14] Jeffries, John W., “The ‘New’ New Deal: FDR and American Liberalism, 1937-1945,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 3, (1990), JSTOR, 3 May 2009
[15] Shulman, Bruce J., Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, (New York: Bedford Books, 1995), p. 13
[16] Ibid., p. 13-14
[17] Gettleman, Marvin E., and David Mermelstein, The Great Society Reader, (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 45
[18] Goldberg, Jonah, Liberal Fascism, (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 222
[19] Shulman, Bruce J., Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, (New York: Bedford Books, 1995), p. 18
[20] Ibid., p. 36
[21] Ibid., p. 36-38
[22] Ibid., p. 37
[23] Ibid., p 38
[24] Ibid.
[25] Eidenmuller, Michael E. Lyndon Baines Johnson - 1964 State of the Union Address, (American Rhetoric, 2009),
6 May 2009,
[26] Gettleman, Marvin E., and David Mermelstein, “The Principles of Economic Policy,” The Great Society Reader (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 54-55
[27] Barrett, David M., “Secrecy and Openness in Lyndon Johnson’s White House: Political Style, Pluralism, and the Presidency,” The Review of Politics, Vol., 54, No. 1, (1992): 72-111, JSTOR, 23 Apr. 2009 http://www.jstor.org/‌stable/‌1407928, p. 72
[28] Ibid., p. 74
[29] Ibid., p. 75
[30] [30] Gettleman, Marvin E., and David Mermelstein, The Great Society Reader (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 454-455
[31] Yuill, Kevin L., “The 1966 White House Conference on Civil Rights,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1998): 259-282, JSTOR, 23 Apr. 2009, http://www.jstor.org/‌stable/‌2640152 p. 263
[32] Ibid., p. 260
[33] Ignatieff, Michael, “Return of the L-Word?”, New York Times, (8 November 1998), Section 4, Page 15, Academic Search Premier, EBSCO, 23 April 2009,
[34] Kravchuk, Robert S., “Liberalism and the American Administrative State,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 52, No. 4, (1992): 374-379, JSTOR, 7 May 2009, http://www.jstor.org/‌stable/‌3110397, p. 375.

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