Lyndon Johnson

Why LBJ's Great Society Flopped—and What It Means for the 2020 Election

Amity Shlaes's new history of the late 1960s explains the failure of the last time the federal government tried to fix all that was wrong with America.


In a 1964 speech delivered at the University of Michigan, President Lyndon Johnson announced his plans for what he called "the Great Society," a sweeping set of programs that marked the most ambitious expansion of the federal government since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation's elderly and poor. When Republican Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson, a Democrat, as president after the 1968 election, he continued and even expanded many of the Great Society programs despite being from a different political party.

But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson's bold makeover of the government was a massive failure despite the good intentions of its architects and implementers.

Shlaes, who is the author of The Forgotten Man, a best-selling history of The Great Depression (read her interview with Reason), and the chair of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, says remembering the failure of the Great Society is especially relevant in an election year when presidential candidates are promising to spend huge amounts of money on all sorts of new government programs. "Once again, many Americans rate socialism as the generous philosophy," writes Shlaes. "But the results of our socialism were not generous. May this book serve as a cautionary tale of lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved. Nothing is new. It is just forgotten."

Nick Gillespie sat down to talk with her about the origins of the Great Society, its failure, and what it all means for 21st century America.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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32 responses to “Why LBJ's Great Society Flopped—and What It Means for the 2020 Election

  1. “Amity Shlaes’s new history of the late 1960s explains the failure of the last time the federal government tried to fix all that was wrong with America.”

    I feel like that wasn’t the last time…

  2. Well, you can say it failed if all you consider are the stated goals.

    However, if the actual goal was to bring the federal government to total supremacy over the states and the individual, it can be considered a massive win for the socialists.

    But it still does serve as a massive warning about the current crop of fascists running on the democrat ticket.

    1. It also destroyed millions of black families.

      1. . . .which was the basic goal.

        The black community was developing economic and political power, which would have created a second front against the “Progressive” campaign. By destroying the families, they were able to attenuate that power on the near term, destroy it in long term, and at the same time make the black community dependent on “Progressive” social spending and control programs.

        On the heels of that success, they then promoted “no-fault” divorce schemes — weakening the structure of the family nationwide — at-whim abortion, and disarming the citizenry.

  3. I tried reading The Forgotten Man but there’s just too much context. It’s like one of those long Slate or Atlantic articles, where even if it were completely factual and unbiased, it just has too much color and padding to wade through. Besides, it’s not like anyone who cares doesn’t already know how Hoover and FDR prolonged the Great Depression. Someone who doesn’t already know most of it might get something from the book.

    1. “, it’s not like anyone who cares doesn’t already know how Hoover and FDR prolonged the Great Depression.”

      Nice try. FDR prolonged it, not Hoover, you mendacious twat.

      1. The stock market crashed in Hoover’s first year in office. Unless you think it would have taken the market more than three years to recover, how can you argue that Hoover didn’t prolong the Great Depression?

  4. failure in the eyes of the stolen-from … the thieves up top do just fine

  5. O/T – I’d like to thank the state of Virginia for making New Jersey look just a little less bad.

    Northam declares state of emergency, Capitol weapon ban ahead of gun rights rally

    1. Neat shade of whiteface he chose for this announcement.

    2. I know! Unbelievable, right? When have we ever seen anything like this? Over 80 (of 95 counties) and dozens of municipalities have declared themselves second amendment sanctuary areas.

      And the Governor wants the authority to go door to door to confiscate guns? What?!

    3. Never vote Democrat.

    4. But in the bright side, you can now walk your dog on the capital grounds without worrying that a trigger-happy cop will shoot it. Right?

  6. is especially relevant in an election year when presidential candidates are promising to spend huge amounts of money on all sorts of new government programs. “Once again, many Americans rate socialism as the generous philosophy…
    It is almost as if there is no one to vote except for Democrats……

  7. Matt Fiveash on WFMU was just playing speeches by Martin L. King from the last year of his life: red as beets. Almost all about the communism, very little about civil liberties. If only he could’ve arranged to be assassinated a year earlier, then instead of embarrassing himself he might’ve left a good legacy. Now we’re all supposed to revere him, and it just feels awful.

    1. His I Have a Dream speech is still great.

      1. It is. But doesn’t stand as an excuse for his plagiarism, adultery, wife beating and being a communist tool.

  8. LBJ’s tenure as president was the start of America’s great dive into poverty, homelessness and even crime. It was the start of entitlements or welfare without work on the scale that we have now. It was a time when a war and welfare were conducted at the same time with ever increasing national debt.
    Instead of making the economy one so more workers would be needed it made people dependent on the government for their income without work. Generally each election since then these problems snowballed. Yet the liberal dominated states increased state and local taxes and restricted housing so that few housing unites were available to the lower economic level of society. In fact even many of the middle income people found that they were priced out of housing making the homeless situation worse. There was lots of money spent on the poor but no time were there an effort made that would help businesses to grow thus need more workers. Also during this time taxes on businesses grew, more regulations were added making if more profitable for the company to move over seas. That is until Trump was elected. Maybe if he is reelected maybe by then others will see how it is done and continue what Trump has started.

    1. If you’re right, Trump’s eight years (assuming he gets another four) will lay the tracks – or at least set the country back on the proper track already built. But it’s absolutely essential another eight years after him follow the path in order for it to become true change.

      After all, he had to spend four to eight years just undoing what Obama did. But then comes the work of changing the mindset set by FDR and LBJ.

  9. I’m starting to doubt the ‘good intentions’ part of the equation.

    If they had/have good intentions, then they’d accept the results and look for a better way. But they don’t do that.

    They double down.

    And they double down because entrenched interests and reputations are involved. But above all, they grew addicted to power and control.

    In their plight to solve complex societal issues they became the victim to the intoxication of controlling lives.

    I could be wrong.

    1. “But above all, they grew addicted to power and control.”

      Using, ever more transparently, guilt and grievance to achieve these goals. “Everything is so terrible and unfair!”

      Yeah, they suck.

    2. Their problem is that they possess greater righteousness of good intentions than they possess actual good intentions.

      Else, as you note, they would have change course long ago.

  10. It accomplished the larger goal and that was to cement the vote of the poor and minorities to democrats.

    1. You would think that having LBJ saying as much would be enough.

      But I just checked snopes. Yeah, they are calling that “unproven”. You see, there was only one contemporaneous eyewitness who reported it. So, you know.. clearly it didn’t happen.

      Facts must be checked, after all.

      1. The over-praised Snopes. They who fact check….humorous satire sites.

  11. And it flopped just as came of age in the late 70s. 14% inflation, anemic economic growth, and 7% unemployment. This is not a period of American history any sane individual would wish to relive.

  12. Why LBJ’s Great Society Flopped

    Because it wasn’t “true” communism, right, Comrade Nick?

  13. …despite the good intentions of its architects and implementers.

    He can’t be serious?

  14. I’m here because I’m madly in love with Amity Schlaes. Isn’t she dreamy?

  15. I must say I am a little disappointed to hear Amity Shlaes refer to SS and Medicare as entitlements. I contributed to these programs for most of the 50 years I spent working. I liked that she referred to the years that businesses relied on the DOD for funding and would like to point out that a lot of businesses still depend on DOD money. There are also a lot of communities that would not exist except for the military bases next to them. I would certainly say that a lot of DOD money is for entitlements.

  16. We’ve heard that Patrick Moynihan (back when some Dems were real Americans) did a study and warned his friend LBJ than the WOP would likely ruin minority families. (More welfare if you weren’t married, for example.) But LBJ was too focused on public support for the Vietnam War. African American families’ gradual movement toward economic equality was moving along better and faster on THEIR OWN efforts before the WOP. Maybe pro-family regulations and freedom to choose decent schools would help reduce the bad effects of WOP.