Robert Dallek has a piece in ‘The New York Times’, entitled "How Not to End Another Preisdent's War (LBJ Edition)". He’ talking about the “fears” that drove LBJ into Vietnam.
LBJ was afraid of looking ‘weak’. After all, the Democrats 15 years before had ‘lost’ China to Mao (did America ever ‘own’ China?); and LBJ didn’t want the Democrats to ‘lose’ again. Nor did he want to look weaker than the recently-assassinated JFK, especially with RFK (arguably the last competent Kennedy) waiting grumpily in the wings.
Nor did LBJ want the Commies to get the idea that if they ‘won’ in Vietnam they could presume to continue subverting other nations, especially those that had in the past 20 years been ‘liberated’ from their assorted European colonial governors; such a sustained and broad-front subversion would not only spell unending trouble for the United States, but would intensify the risk of nuclear war with the Soviets and the Chinese (who had just ‘gotten’ their own Bomb in 1964).
And lastly, Dallek notes, LBJ didn’t want his great domestic reform program to get sidetracked by all that foreign-affairs skullduggery. He wanted to be known as a great reforming President, “one who changed the domestic life of the nation”.
Dallek leaves that last point rather delicately hanging.
I’d add a bit to it.
LBJ did what neither JFK nor Ike had managed to do: in July of 1965 he institutionalized on a federal and national level the end of racial discrimination against American blacks, an objective that had not been fully grounded after the Civil War ended a century before.
But he was completely taken aback, and his effectiveness hugely undermined, by what happened immediately afterwards. The great, genuinely patriotic and spiritual program shaped by Martin Luther King, was undermined almost instantly, and LBJ with it, as the focus of ‘civil rights’ shifted to the urbanized Northeastern and Upper Midwestern cities (and the equally urbanized Southern California cities, especially Los Angeles). ‘Revolution’, black ‘separatism’, ‘rage’, and ‘victimization’ suddenly replaced the politically and morally unifying trajectory and content of the ‘first’ civil-rights movement; the second ‘phase’ was hell and gone from that.
Not only LBJ but the Democratic leadership were stunned. And terrified for their very existence as a politically viable Party.
And not only ‘blacks’ seemed to ‘turn against’ them. Northern industrial workers, frightened by the sudden eruption of ‘second-phase’ black agitation, but also starting to feel a little queasy about the economic security of their jobs (America was just starting to lose its unchallenged economic and industrial dominance that had been honed and perfected in World War 2).
The Democratic ‘solution’ was to find new voting-blocs.
I’ve mentioned all this before, but I’d like to just limn that ‘new voting-blocs’ a bit more.
The Party, still pretty much the only political Party in the country, still riding the huge crest of FDR’s New Deal, used its immense ‘soft’ power to raise-up and ‘support’ a large passel of such voting-blocs, which I will call Identities.
First, the American blacks*. Latching onto the intellectual argument that what had been achieved in the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts was only a ‘beginning’, the Party governmentalized ‘racial discrimination’. In essence, it rejected ‘fairness’ in any palpable sense in order to favor blacks in various ways, using the regulatory and legislative authority of the government, supported by the still-powerful media, and draping it all in the unquestionable moral stature and popularity of the New Deal.
The wisdom of involving the government in such a massive and ‘deep’ effort not only to change laws but to change ‘minds and hearts’ (as American forces were occasionally trying to do in the hamlets of South Vietnam) was not the most ominous problem, though huge and ominous a problem it was.
Even greater was the problem created when the clear preferences and plans of the nation’s largest and most powerful political Party were telegraphed to large numbers of more or less well-intentioned Americans of an activist bent (nothing wrong with that) who were still wondering how all the awesome political efficiency of the Maoist and Nazi era might be usefully deployed ‘over here’. After all, King’s great moral crusade, when looked at through a Marxist or Leninist or Maoist lens, could easily be seen, and – it was thought – more ‘relevantly’, as a great moral and political ‘emergency’ (the Dems wouldn’t argue with that last bit) for which the techniques of ‘revolution’ – suitably ‘baptized’ – would be a more efficient and effective response, producing a greater ‘good’ a hell of a lot faster than the clunky mechanisms of a Constitutional and democratic politics. And anyway , the bright young things of the late-Sixties figured, ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ had resulted by 1968 in a conformist, spiritless, and truly boring bunch of citizens, and adults … and there had to be a better way to go about being ‘America’ than that.
The institutionalization of government racial discrimination – albeit in what the times saw as a ‘good’ cause – came back before it ever really went away. Worse, the enculturation of it: any citizen even doubting the wisdom of this huge change (or non-change, if you want to look at it that way) was shouted down in the media and preemptively made to stifle himself (or herself), and to either ‘get it’ or shut up. ‘Go along to get along’ – that lethal infection of the Soviet citizenry – or frenzied, unthinking, and even violent support of the latest government initiative – that lethal infection of the Maoist citizenry – did not seep in; they were poured in.
Second, the Party (and willy-nilly, the government) turned its generous light on feminism.** The demographic the Party was going for was ‘women’ (and in 1972 McGovern even burbled that the Party was now “the Party of women”) but when push came to shove that meant the feminists – and particularly, their ideological ‘base’, the radical (and far too often anti-male) feminists that I’ll call Ideological Feminists (or IFs).
Many of the early feminists were the late-Sixties radical SDS members who were repelled by the chauvinism of the mostly male-dominated ‘movements’ of the era, and went off to form new groups and to do it around a new cause, feminism. They were shrewd enough to take – whther they knew it or not – a page from Hitler, and realized that the way to succeed in their ‘revolution’ was not to have a ‘revolution’ at all, in the sense of guns and bombs and riots in the streets. Rather, they – like him – would ‘grab power legally’; in this they also took a page – probably intentionally – from Mao and his “Little Red Book”: they would start a ‘Long March through the institutions’, as Mao advised.
But where Mao faced a hostile and entrenched government authority, the feminists and the IFs faced a Democratic Party desperately eager to please (including a Teddy Kennedy rather desperately in need of re-establishing his political viability after his stunning and repugnant problems stemming from Chappaquiddick). Imagine Mao facing a Chiang Kai-Shek (sorry, I haven’t mastered the memos on the new forms of writing Chinese proper nouns and names) who invited him to the capital and eagerly placed the government at his disposal.
The media were happy to help; Democrats and ‘good’ causes were a lot more fun than simply ‘reporting’ those stupid old facts; once again, Citizens were not required and the media started to lose interest in providing the public service of factual reporting to them.
(Of course, History being hugely complex and dynamic, the Republicans were actively watching all this, looking for an opening; the unease, even wider than the purposeful objections, catalyzed in much of the citizenry by all this created the initial ‘opening’ which throughout the 1970s the Republicans were to build upon, until Atwater brought Reagan and … you may know the rest.)
By 1972, the philosopher John Rawls had used his Harvard perch to provide a suitably ‘baptized’ version of the revolutionary concept that in a ‘good’ cause, no existing ‘government’ or Constitution must be allowed to stand in the way. He also improved upon the Hitler-Mao game-plan by specifically urging that those who ‘believed’ should seek to effect change through the courts and the law rather than through legislation. By the Clinton era, two decades later, the legislatures had proven themselves sufficiently corrupted so as to be as reliable as, or even more reliable than, the courts.
The price paid was huge and not completely obvious. Most notoriously, the ‘abortion’ issue – jump-started by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, became not a marvelous shock-and-awe, lightning-quick decisive strategic victory but rather the catalyst of a decades-long, bitter, divisive public argument that has lasted to this day, despite the massed authority of the Branches and the ‘elites’ and much of the media to suppress and otherwise ‘make go away’ the deep public unease that it has caused. For the purposes of this Post, let it simply be noted as a striking irony that the same sort of thing happened in the invasion of Iraq 30 years later. For those who ‘hope’ that Our misadventures in the Middle East and Southwest Asia will be over any time soon, let it be noted that in four years Roe will be forty years old.
More deeply and even more lethally, law was now construed as ‘fungible’, such that no long-standing hallmark elements of Western law and justice were to be allowed to stand in the way of ‘addressing’ needs and bringing ‘closure’. But of course, even Western Civilization was considered an enemy of the revolution and, as Jesse Jackson sagely opined, “Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go” – which it indeed may.
Most lethally, the Democrats, and by the mid-1980s the Republicans as well, had gotten used to the fact that the government in all its Branches had allowed itself to be co-opted into a ‘war’ of one gender against another, effectively taking sides in a vision that cast half the population as a ‘class’ enemy of the revolution. I am not here saying that all ‘feminism’ is anti-male, but that the Ideological Feminism which does indeed hold that position was the ‘wing’ or ‘base’ of feminist thinking and doing that most clearly effected the initial breakthroughs into government policy and behavior. It is hardly improbable that had not the economy so brutally and egregiously failed in the Fall of 2008, then the profoundly disturbing McCain-Palin ticket would have been elected, so deep and pervasive is the powerful subterranean public displeasure and unease with the consequences of the ‘revolution’. Our politics, even more than Our law, is now profoundly deranged. In addition to the economy, by what cannot be a coincidence.
Thirdly, the opening to the Israeli government, originally embraced by LBJ both for foreign policy (a bulwark in the Middle East against the Soviets) and desperate domestic political (the need for voting-blocs among American Jewish voters) reasons. Not only does this country now find itself voluntarily welded to a government whose very existence from the beginning was a guarantee of incredibly sustained political and military strife. But as well, this country finds itself infected by the very worst elements of the Israeli mindset and heartset that ‘justifies’ its behavior: we are the ‘victims’ and thus cannot be aggressors; we cannot be ‘wrong’ because our cause is so ‘good’; those who doubt that must be our ‘enemies’; and as to any who oppose us in our efforts to get what we feel we need then (in T. H. White’s marvelous phrasing) ‘they’ are attacking us by defending themselves. It cannot be a coincidence that much the same line of ‘justification’ was used by the Bushist Imperium in spinning its own invasion into the Middle East.
The Israeli adoption of Goebbelsian propaganda techniques, especially in conjunction with the ideological Feminist adoption of the same sinister play-book, has vitally deranged Our public discourse and even Our consciousness.
Fourthly, the desperate Democrats raised up ‘Youth’ as a new demographic. Anybody who watched TV during the later 1950s and the 1960s could sense how a skewing toward ‘youth’ was deranging a serious, adult-centered American attitude, dragging the national mind and heart down into the molten and un-solid rhythms and content of those parts of the human brain that, in youth, dominate in a brain whose most advanced and human elements – the prefrontal lobes and cortices – are not yet fully formed.
If anything, the voting age – especially in national elections – should have been raised to 25. Instead, national political discourse was set on the course already taken by TV, and in 1972 the voting age was lowered to 18. You couldn’t be trusted with alcohol, but you could be trusted with the power to help determine who would be elected to Executive and Legislative Branches of a hugely complex nation bethump’t by grave and vast challenges, foreign and domestic.
But precisely those undeveloped brain-parts that render ‘youth’ simultaneously so emotional and so impatient and so unable to conduct sustained critical reflection were actually – as Hitler had seen – hugely useful to a government that no longer sought for its Citizens to understand, but rather needed merely a reliably pliant herd that would settle into its own distractions unless needed to stampede in the service of this or that ‘good’ thing.
I'd add a fifth as well: immigration on a massive scale. This would serve two darker purposes not usually discussed. From the Left, the massive influx would help 'water down' the 'white, male, industrial' culture of the country, in the service of a multicultural and deconstructive 'change'. From the Right, the massive influx of workers willing to work for lower wages and grateful for the chance would undermine the American unions; it's almost like 'outsourcing' without the 'out'.
Draped in the legitimate American openness to immigration, this massive influx would actually hugely expand the demand for jobs (on top of the theoretical 'doubling' of the worker-pool created by the feminist agenda) precisely at a time when the economy was shedding the jobs that were available to begin with. An adult flipping burgers or gardening is not going to be making the money that a unionized industrial worker would make, of course; the solution to that was to wildly expand credit so that even those adults stuck flipping burgers could buy lots of stuff and 'feel' good about it all - which was a non-solution that the short-sighted Beltway biggies figured was good enough for government work.
But We see now what happens when government plans like a teenager, simply kicking the can down the road for a later day and living 'for the moment' - there hasn't been a lot of adult supervision, or much of the mature and serious discharge of their sworn duty to deliberate in the common interest, from the Branches in quite some time.
The economy now has to provide a decent living for over 300 million people, when it has less decent jobs than it did when there were 175 million people. Do the math.
Nor will the reigning Rawlsian approach work for much longer: if there isn't much money to 'redistribute' (for purposes of his idea of 'justice' or for any other reason) then We will face a situation where a whole lot of folks are going to be without the means of support.*** And that is going to make them verrrrry unhappy.
So the ‘bases’ developed, several of them. And in consequence not only a centrist politics, but even an adult and truly ‘human’ politics, grounded in truly ‘mature’ adults – adults, that is, effectively committed both to an awareness of their limitations and to their potentials and to their responsibilities – became ‘quaint’. Like a huge armored vehicle with an impaired driver, the nation began lurching down History’s highway, careening from side to side and smashing over anything not nimble enough to escape its awful trajectory. This ain’t pretty. And it will not end well.
Given the monstrousness of the economic catastrophe, it could be said that all of this is, even if relevant, a bit abstract. But I say that the economic catastrophe is directly a result of the failure of Our politics and Our failures as a Citizenry, as a collective of Citizens empowered in ways ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ by the Constitution to ground this government.
*As always, when I refer to any matters referring to any Identity, I am not looking to turn back the clock nor am I 'against' the improved life of any members of the citizenry. In all of this I'm simply trying to point out the consequences - unrecognized or ignored, somewhat unintended - of policy developments that have had and continue to have a very serious affectr on Our life, polity, and common weal. We will have to recognize those consequences and then consider whether something must - or can - be done to counter the negative effects.
**When I say ‘feminism’ I am not speaking of all females, or all ‘women’, or all conceptual and political efforts to improve the life of women within American life and society. I am specifically referring to ‘ideological feminism’, a loose but broad synergy of dogmatic assertions about women (and about the evil of ‘men’ and ‘males’), deeply shaped by the revolutionary and propaganda praxis of Soviet and Maoist examples and also by the adoption of Goebbelsian propaganda techniques, all of which was marshaled to do an end-run around an inefficient democratic politics in the heady emergency of imposing the ‘good’ result of whatever it was that ideological feminism determined was ‘good for’ and ‘owed to’ the ‘women’ it claimed to represent.
***If the world's nations decide, as they are contemplating even now, to abandon the US dollar as the world's 'reserve currency', then We are going to be in profound financial trouble almost overnight. We can never pay off the amount of debt the country and government now owes. We could inflate the dollar - print money - but then no other nation is going to trust Us enough to buy Our Treasury bonds. We could default on the debts, but that would reduce Us to a third-world economy in a heartbeat.