The Great Society at 50: The triumph and the tragedy

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

Article Highlights

  • 50 years later, how has the Great Society fared?

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  • Was the Great Society a triumph or a tragedy?

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  • The Great Society unleashed a "tangle of pathologies."

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May 22, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society” address, delivered at the spring commencement for the University of Michigan. That speech is a milestone in American history.

It remains the most ambitious call to date by any American president (our current commander in chief included) to use the awesome powers of the American state to affect a far-reaching transformation for the society that state was established to serve. It also stands as the high-water mark for Washington’s confidence in the broad meliorative properties of government social policy, scientifically applied.

No less important, the Great Society pledge, and the fruit this would ultimately bear, profoundly recast the common understanding of the ends of governance in our country. The address heralded fundamental changes—some then already underway, others then still only being envisioned—that would decisively expand the scale and scope of government in American life and greatly alter the relationship between that same government and the governed under our constitution.

Indeed, it is not too much to suggest that most, if not all, Americans today are, in a meaningful sense, the children of the Great Society: Republicans and Democrats alike, self-styled conservatives as well as soi-disant progressives. So deeply impressed is the Great Society into our consciousness that, as a practical matter, it is scarcely possible for most citizens now alive even to imagine the American way of life in the days before our huge, activist, modern welfare state came into existence.

 

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Nicholas
Eberstadt

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