• U.S.

A Pretty Good Society

14 minute read
Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Is The W.E.B. Du Bois Professor Of The Humanities At Harvard University.

When President Lyndon Johnson described his vision of the Great Society in 1964, he spoke of a civilization where “the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. . . Where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the nation.” With these lofty words, he launched the most ambitious agenda of social and economic reform since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The New Deal, which bequeathed to us what we know as modern liberalism, was patched together in a time of economic crisis, impelled by desperation. By contrast, Johnson’s vision was buoyed by a time of prosperity, fueled by a national mood of expansiveness. If America’s capacity for self-improvement was not inexhaustible, our faith in that capacity surely was. That November, Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by what was then the largest popular majority in U.S. history.

Bill Clinton becomes President without the warrant of a depression that emboldened F.D.R. or the lift of economic expansion that energized L.B.J. Times are hard; they are not desperate. But it is the long shadow and the troubled legacy of the Great Society — not its policy failures so much as its political failure — that Clinton must overcome. While he assumes the presidency with a detailed plan for domestic change, his vision will have to be implemented on the cheap: not a Great Society but, if his luck holds, a Pretty Good Society.

The early days of the Great Society witnessed a host of legislative initiatives. There was Medicare for the elderly; Medicaid for the indigent; Head Start for preschoolers. There was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Job Corps. The Model Cities program. Of greater political significance were the promulgation and enforcement of sweeping civil rights measures, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Through five heady years, the Great Society seemed to embody the full and resplendent maturity of liberalism, fending off the forces of reaction and ushering in a bright new day. In the ensuing decades, it came to look a lot more like liberalism’s super-nova: a final, white-hot burst before its dark collapse.

As with the New Deal, some of the programs were poorly conceived and ineffectual. Others are now taken for granted as a part of the political biosphere, programs whose worth neither party would dare contest. But it was the overarching scheme, and dream, that fell into disfavor. Reform was no longer experienced as something performed for the people but as something performed on the people. In an age of belated racial redress, white America — the rank and file, the lower-middle class — felt itself under siege. With jolting suddenness, the old alliance fell apart. Liberalism was coded as the elevation of black grievances over white ones, the welfare of layabouts over that of workers.

The irony was that liberalism, which sought to heal the injuries of class, should itself fall victim to class warfare — to the resentment of the blue- collar and lower-middle classes against those they saw as the professional- class purveyors of paternalism. White Southerners and Northern ethnics, once Democratic stalwarts, increasingly felt like outsiders at the gate. A Great Society? Not if you’d been left off the invitation list.

It’s no accident that two recent books that chart this historical process of alienation — Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Chain Reaction by Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall — served virtually as a blueprint for the successful Clinton-Gore campaign. Yet for Bill Clinton, there is nothing theoretical about this disaffection: the fateful fissure runs down his soul.

The President-elect comes from just the region and class that felt most betrayed by the ’60s agenda of social reform. And yet what he has made of himself — a professional educated at elite institutions — is the demographic type most supportive of that agenda. His so-called centrism is not the centrism of caution: it reflects, rather, a heartfelt negotiation between creeds that are bitterly in conflict but do not have to be so. Clinton’s personal devils are our national devils.

Make no mistake: his remains the old reformist faith. But he knows, as his illustrious forebears forgot, that reform must leave no one out. Government by – the enlightened for the disadvantaged? No: by the people, for the people.

To test this thesis, ask a simple question: Whom did Bill Clinton run against? Well, the current officeholders and their policies, of course. But besides that? Curiously enough, no clear enemies emerge. This was a campaign surprisingly light on red meat. The Clinton-Gore team wasn’t really targeting the business class (contrast its mild strictures with the anti-fat-cat vitriol of an earlier era). Nor was it targeting (as Reagan did so effectively) the “undeserving poor.” It wasn’t even stigmatizing conservatives as such.

By contrast, the Bush-Quayle campaign, from the ill-starred G.O.P. Convention onward, regularly anathematized a host of Others: the nefarious “cultural elite”; the make-work lawyers in their tasseled loafers; the outlaw poor, who rioted in L.A.; the “nuclear-freeze crowd”; tree-hugging environmentalists; homosexuals and those perpetuating “alternative life- styles” as morally equivalent; the godless who, Bush reminded us, forget to put the three letters G-O-D in their party platform. Most of all, it went after liberals, especially those who pretended to be something else. The Republican campaign had spawned more demons than you could shake a crucifix at.

As the fall campaign showed, it was easier to say what Bush was against than what he was for; it was easier to say what Clinton was for than what he was against. But Clinton ultimately owed his victory not to the relative economic advantages of neo-liberal remedies over supply-side nostrums but to his vision of this nation as a community, his unflagging search for common ground. “This is America. There is no ‘them,’ ” Clinton likes to say. “There’s only us.” Which means that this year’s election was, among other things, a referendum on inclusion.

Sounds like so much election-year ozone? Take a closer look.

As an early member of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton has spent the past several years trying to mend the divisions that surfaced in the ’60s. Inheriting a society profoundly riven by color and class, he knows that liberalism lost its political capital when it became perceived as something that taxed the majority to advance “special” — which is to say, “minority” — interests. Through an excess of gallantry and zeal, liberalism itself created the alienated “them” that deeded the Republicans the White House.

Clinton’s approach has been to advance programs that unite black and white < in common purpose. That means he has consistently steered away from race- specific, even need-specific, remedies, preferring universal social policies instead. Job training. Universal health-care coverage. Access to college loans. Apprenticeships for those who aren’t college bound. These are proposals whose potential beneficiaries, and therefore supporters, aren’t restricted to the poor. Not incidentally, however, they are of particular value to the poor. None of these things looks like a “poverty program.” All would combat poverty.

Or take his well-publicized emphasis on pro-work welfare reform. A covert way of pandering to white rancor? Funny, nobody thought so when Jesse Jackson was calling for such measures in 1988. Contrary to popular belief, welfare payments — including Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps — make up only a tiny fraction of the federal budget, around 3%. Reform designed to promote work, not dependence — combining earned-income tax credit and measures to promote, or at least not penalize, savings — would cost more, no question. Yet there is good reason to think that Americans, who are skeptical of handouts, will shell out more if it will be spent in ways they approve of. As sociologist Christopher Jencks writes, “Americans love to help people who are trying to help themselves.” Is this liberal? Conservative? Both?

Or consider Clinton’s emphasis on education. It was conservative Chicago School economists like this year’s Nobel laureate, Gary Becker, who first hit upon the notion of “human capital,” the notion that education is an investment, like any other capital investment, only more profitable. A recent survey by two Princeton economists found that every additional year of education at any stage increased income an average 16%. If so, expanding the availability of education — as through the proposed National Service Trust Fund — is just a smart investment, while the Reagan-era cutbacks may have been penny-wise and dollar-dumb. Liberal? Conservative? Does it matter?

In emphasizing race-neutral, universal policies, has Clinton turned his back on black America? He’s been accused of it. Some black spokesmen have even chided him for delivering the same speech to black audiences that he gives to white audiences. Maybe they’re missing the point. It means he’s giving the same talk to white audiences that he gives to black ones. No coded messages. No tailored racial appeals, and no playing off of interests.

As it turns out, on the issues where, rightly or wrongly, he departs from many black advocacy groups — issues such as capital punishment and welfare reform — he’s actually closer to black public opinion than they are. “Blacks can’t forget that like it or not, they are part of this country too,” observes Derrick Bell, the black activist and legal scholar. “At some point, we have to hope for the best with regard to racial issues but recognize that we sink or swim with this society.”

Some are worried that Clinton has distanced himself from the traditional black leadership. They see that he has been less than intimate with the grand, grizzled heads of the civil rights Establishment. In fact, his closest ties are with a younger, and no less impassioned, generation of black leaders, such as California Congresswoman Maxine Waters; Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Emanuel Cleaver; Chicago alderman Bobby Rush; and New York City Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch Jr. It seems to have dawned on Clinton, as it has dawned on few white politicians, that 30 million African Americans do not speak with a single voice. Now all this makes an older generation of civil rights leaders uncomfortable. It’s not their way of doing things. But it just might be a way of getting things done.

For sure, the coalition that Clinton scraped together may prove an unstable one. One vote does not seal a partnership. But as veteran Clintonologists have suggested, the real Clinton campaign hasn’t ended; it’s just begun. For in a key respect, the conservatives are right. There are profound differences of values among the American people, differences that can never quite be reconciled. The donnybrook over the NEA-funded Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition was an immense distraction from the affairs of state, but it put plenty of money into Senator Jesse Helms’ campaign coffers. Subjects on which many Americans have mixed feelings — including issues of sexual and reproductive morality — can easily be inflamed by politicians intent on polarizing the polity. Divide the country, former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan counseled his boss in 1969, and we’ll take the larger half. The “Kulturkampf,” he resciently observed, would be the conservatives’ best friend.

One of the most heartening signs of a larger-scale shift in the social and political climate is the surprising failure of the “values” campaign engineered by ideologues like Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff William Kristol. It wasn’t family values as such that made people uncomfortable; it was the politization of family values, their enlistment in a rhetoric of intolerance, from which we recoiled. Maybe that “kinder, gentler” ethic that Bush named in 1988 was bigger than he or his speechwriters ever realized.

“There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America,” Buchanan ringingly proclaimed in August. “It is a cultural war . . . for the soul of America.” If the new society Clinton envisions is to emerge, the new President must help broker the truce that most Americans seem to long for. There is no instruction manual for this, but his instincts seem sound. Declaring that the government “ought to give people a good lettin’ alone on things that are truly private,” Clinton seeks to defuse the issues that Republicans have sought to manipulate for political advantage, and he does so by tapping into the traditional conservative distrust of government intrusion.

Many on the right have nurtured a vision of America as a country riven by warring creeds, as a Manichaean battleground where the forces of good are arrayed in ceaseless struggle against indulgence, decadence and anarchy. They complain about the fragmentation of the American polity but fail to recognize their own catalytic role. In fact, the trend they have backed is to “ethnicize” ideology, to treat political labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” as social identities, analogous to such social designations as black, Chicano, gay. In their scheme of things, these labels aren’t just rough guides to political inclination but, in some deeper sense, to who you really are. If this is a powerful and insidious tendency, it is also one that Clinton’s very ideological ambiguity has effectively undermined. What he has disavowed is not liberalism so much as the omnipotence of the label.

A new “vital center” will not emerge overnight. There are thickets to clear. The culture wars have presented us with a surfeit of either-ors. Traditional mores vs. urban decadence. Communitarianism vs. individualism. Rights vs. responsibilities. John Boy Walton vs. Bart Simpson. My values vs. yours. Yet as a society, we’ve become demoralized by the mindless side taking.

“On the one hand, on the other hand — you can’t govern that way,” an exasperated George Bush complained of his Democratic rival. But isn’t such a balancing of interests precisely what effective governance consists of? What President-elect Clinton may understand is that to overcome a legacy of division, we must move into an era of two hands. Down with either-or. Up with both-and.

Both rights and responsibilities, both tradition and modernity. Both your values and mine. And they will conflict, these things we cherish: they will jostle and collide against one another, and these clashes will determine and define who we are. As the great political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, “The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable — that is a truism — but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together.”

For there is a cultural war going on and, indeed, there always has been. But the conservative architects of division may have misunderstood its fundamental nature. What if this war is not for the soul of America? What if this war is the soul of America?

We are poised, uncertainly, before a new era, one in which the common realm and the public square — long shadowed by suspicion — must regain prestige. And one in which the often overlooked social legacy of the New Deal must come back into focus. Here, Robert Reich, one of Clinton’s closest policy advisers, points us in the right direction when he maintains that “Roosevelt’s boldest innovation had been designating the nation as a community.” In a day of multiculturalism, a day of rapidly changing demographics, the challenge of rebuilding the architecture of community looms larger than ever before. If Clinton can cement the coalition his campaign scraped together — bringing disparate interests and values into some sort of equilibrium, however uneasy — he may do more than secure his political fortunes. He just may help lay the foundations of a truly New Society.

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