Did the Great Society Produce a New Democratic Coalition?

by John Sides on January 15, 2009 · 3 comments

in Campaigns and elections


In 1964, as he signed the historic Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Baines Johnson is said to have remarked, “We have lost the South for a generation.” Johnson’s prediction proved accurate, as the Democrats went on to lose seven of the next ten presidential elections and the white South became the anchor of the Republican Party. The 2008 election, however, marked the possible emergence of a new Democratic coalition that rests upon several historic changes brought about by LBJ’s Great Society.

So begins this article by Philip Klinkner and Thomas Schaller. They argue that three parts of the Great Society were responsible:

  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enfranchised black Americans and expanded the number of black elected officials.
  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1865, which removed national origins quotas and thereby increased the level of immigration. This then helped contributed to the growing number of Latinos and Asians.
  • The Higher Education Act of 1965. This helped increase the number of Americans with a college degree.

This, to me, is one of the more interesting arguments in this issue of The Forum. It’s noteworthy in a couple of respects. For one, we are accustomed to thinking of events of this period as helping the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party. This is the traditional narrative that involves race riots, the Southern Strategy, the dissolution of the New Deal Coalition, the exit of the white working class from the Democratic Party, and so on. (How much of that narrative is true is a different question.) Klinkner and Schaller provide a counter-narrative. It’s unlikely that LBJ foresaw or could have foreseen the possible consequences, but nevertheless, the events of the 1960s may have had significant, if somewhat delayed, benefits for the Democratic Party.

Second, this argument has an important larger theoretical premise, which I’ll simplify thusly: policies make parties. Or at least party coalitions. This premise is a familiar one. But it gets a bit lost in the hoopla of campaigns, where so much focus is on campaign strategy and rhetoric as a means of shaping and re-shaping coalitions. Klinkner and Schaller direct us to the long-term consequences of public policy, not simply to the short-term consequences of political strategy.

A remaining question is how the two might interact. Yes, the Great Society may have created an electorate that is increasingly composed of educated and non-white, but how did these growing constituencies become part of the Democratic coalition? Campaign strategy could be one answer. To the extent that “new” voters are up for grabs, parties obviously woo them. The question is how, and with what effects. A historical account of what Klinkner and Schaller call the “Latent Great Society Majority” would be appealing Perhaps someone has already written that story—as a whole or in part?


Shag from Brookline January 16, 2009 at 7:46 am

The South may have reacted to the Great Society as a zero sum game but current voters in the South may no longer have the same memory of pre- Great Society.

LFC January 18, 2009 at 1:05 am

“To the extent new voters are up for grabs, parties obviously woo them.”
Unless the parties are committed to strategies that entail alienating or writing off segments of the electorate as a perceived price of holding onto the party base. Some Republicans may be coming to realize that the Southern Strategy is more and more a losing one as the racial and ethnic composition of the country becomes steadily less white and more Hispanic (and African-American). But changing the image and approach of the party won’t be easy, notwithstanding the pundits, e.g. Douthat, rushing in to tell them how.

John Sides January 18, 2009 at 2:08 pm

LFC: Point well-taken. My use of “parties” created something of an artificial Leviathan. As you note, there are obviously debates within parties about which groups of voters to woo.

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