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Julian E. Zelizer

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In recent decades, as Democrats and Republicans have grown more and more polarized ideologically, and gridlock has becoming increasingly standard in Congress, there has been a noticeable pining for the good old days when bipartisanship was common, and strongmen like Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the White House, ready to twist a few arms or trade a little pork when narrow interests threatened the general welfare. Liberals have perhaps been most vulnerable to this myth of late, with journalists repeatedly calling on Obama to bust through the unprecedented obstruction of the last few years by channeling the spirit of LBJ, who delivered more progressive legislation than anyone, save FDR.

But as the eminent political historian Julian E. Zelizer writes in his new book The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press, 2015), this view of the past falls short on a number of counts. When LBJ first took over, he faced the same "do-nothing" Congress that had imprisoned domestic reform under JFK, Eisenhower, Truman, and the late New Deal, too. The South, an increasingly small part of the national population (counting the millions who could not vote), nonetheless dominated the old committee system, thanks to mass incumbency in the one-party region, America's uncommon deference to seniority in the legislature and its local delegation of voter law. Leaguing frequently with the GOP's right wing, Southern chairmen prevented a host of reforms from escaping the drafting stage and reaching a floor vote, even where legislation had popular support. A golden age of bipartisanship. Johnson understood, where many have forgotten, that it was these giants of Congress, not the White House, which held all the power. And these legislators boasted as much, often protected by districts with vanishingly small electorates.

What opened the floodgates to the Great Society was not LBJ, "master of the Senate," famed author of "The Treatment," but the liberal supermajority of the "Fabulous eighty-ninth" Congress. When these votes disappeared in the midterm, a standard historical pattern, reform came to a screeching halt. (One reason Johnson urged House terms–the shortest in the democratic world–be extended to four years.) Liberals had major advantages in the 1960s that they have since lost: huge unions with crucial manpower and funding, a massive civil rights groundswell, "modern" Republican allies, brain-trust and whip organizations in Congress that Zelizer here thankfully recovers from obscurity. But one thing that has not changed is America's uniquely divided governmental system. Reformers dream of Great Men and focus on the White House, not Capitol Hill and the built-in features of gridlock, to their peril.


Lawrence JacobsWho Governs?: Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation

May 18, 2015

Lawrence Jacobs is the author (with James Druckman) of Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Just how responsive is […]

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Richard Kreitner, ed.The Almanac: 150 Years of The Nation (3)

May 18, 2015

The Nation magazine, a beacon of the cultural and political left, is celebrating 150 years of publishing. As part of its celebration, it's publishing a daily blog called The Almanac that looks at events on each day of the year and how The Nation covered them. In this New Books Network journalism podcast, you'll hear Richard Kreitner, the magazine's […]

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Lee DrutmanThe Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate

May 12, 2015

Lee Drutman is the author of The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate (Oxford UP 2015). Drutman is a senior fellow at New America. How do corporations seek influence in Washington? And should we be worried? Drutman's book moves beyond simple notions of how money and politics […]

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Richard Kreitner, ed.The Almanac: 150 Years of The Nation (2)

May 10, 2015

The Nation magazine is one of America's most distinguished journalistic enterprises featuring the writing and work of such notable people as Calvin Trillin, Noam Chomsky, Jessica Mitford, James Baldwin and Naomi Klein. The Nation was founded 150 years ago this July. It's America's oldest weekly magazine. To mark its 150th anniversary, it's publishing a daily […]

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Peter HansonToo Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate

May 5, 2015

Just a few weeks ago, we heard Matthew Green discuss the minority in the House. Green explained that the minority party may not be as powerless as we typically think. In Too Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Peter Hanson offers another side of a similar […]

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Jason StanleyHow Propaganda Works

May 1, 2015

Propaganda names a familiar collection of phenomena, and examples of propaganda are easy to identify, especially when one examines the output of totalitarian states. In those cases, language and imagery are employed for the purpose of shaping mass opinion, forming group allegiances, constructing worldviews, and securing compliance. It is undeniable that propaganda is employed by […]

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Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. ParentAmerican Conspiracy Theories

April 27, 2015

"Conspiracy theories are neither the vile excrescence of puny minds nor the telltale symptom of a sick society. They are the ineradicable stuff of politics." That's a quotation from American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford UP, 2014), by Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, two professors of political science at the University of Miami. Their study of conspiracy […]

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Kevin Dougherty and Rebecca NatowThe Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformations

April 25, 2015

Funding for higher education in the U.S. is an increasingly divisive issue. Some states have turned to policies that tie institutional performance to funding appropriations so to have great accountability on public expenditure. In exploring the origins and implementation for these kinds of policies, Kevin Dougherty and Rebecca Natow recently published a new in-depth book […]

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Jennifer DeltonRethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal

April 23, 2015

Conventional wisdom among historians and the public says anticommunism and the Cold War were barriers to reform during their height in the 1950s. In this view, the strong hand of a conservative anticommunism and Cold War priorities thwarted liberal and leftist reforms, political dissent and dreams of social democracy. Jennifer Delton is a professor of […]

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