Lyndon Johnson's Tea Party

A tip for grading Obama's first two years: The rebellion against the Great Society was a reaction to its success

Published July 28, 2010 8:05PM (EDT)

I've been reading "Nixonland," Rick Perlstein's illuminating history of how the U.S. fractured into red and blue. Here's an excerpt covering the midterm elections of 1966, just two years after Lyndon Johnson's enormous landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.

Tuesday came the deluge. "In the space of a single autumn day," announced Newsweek, "the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end." Twenty-seven of Johnson's forty-eight Democratic freshmen were swept out -- the class that had brought America the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, federal aid to education. The Republicans won their first gains in party identification in twenty years."

The backlash against the Great Society did not immediately threaten Democratic control of the House and Senate. The Republicans gained 47 seats in the House, and still were down by 60! In the Senate, the GOP only gained three seats, leaving Democrats with 63. But there's little doubt that the pendulum had started to swing. The Voting Rights Act and associated civil rights legislation ended Democratic dominance in the South, contributed to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968 and put into motion the forces that swept Ronald Reagan into power.

(As an aside, those of us who wring our hands at the harsh rhetoric of Tea Party activists would do well to go back and consider the tone of political debate during the peak intensity of the struggle to pass civil rights legislation. Perlstein makes an indisputable case that it was far, far uglier then than it is now.)

It is folly to compare the incredible achievements of the 89th Congress with the record of the past 18 months, but it is worth considering: In both cases the fierce counterreaction from the right does not necessarily represent a failure by the governing party, but its success. The passage of the Voting Rights Act and an awesome slate of progressive legislation turned white Southern Democrats into Republicans. The passage of healthcare reform -- the first major healthcare-related legislation since Medicare -- energized the Tea Party.

Democrats wish Obama had done more with his party's control of Congress while he had it. But given the GOP determination to filibuster at every possible juncture during the legislative process (a problem that Johnson did not face in the least between 1964 and 1966), it's amazing that anything at all got accomplished over the last two years. Those things that did get done -- the stimulus, healthcare reform, bank reform -- may not have gone far enough to satisfy progressives, but were still enough to spawn an intense backlash against a "socialist takeover."

Maybe we should be thankful that Republicans look poised for significant gains this November. If they weren't, it would probably be a sign that Democrats had achieved nothing at all that might upset the status quo.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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