May 29, 2005

The Joys of 'What If?'

Following one of the comment threads earlier this week, I decided to finally read Master of the Senate, part of Robert Caro's massive ongoing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, while I was traveling. Marvelous stuff! And Johnson was indeed the master.

Still, one question: to what great and noble end was all this "Master of the Senate" stuff? True, under his leadership (1953-1960) Johnson managed to wedge a few important bits of progressive legislation—a minimum wage increase and the disability portion of Social Security—through a chamber that had not passed any important bits of progressive legislation since the early days of Roosevelt's first term. But most liberal programs were watered down to the point of irrelevancy, and the northeastern liberals were duly abused and marginalized all throughout the '50s. Fair enough, but with such Democratic dominance—especially after they won massive majorities in the 1958 midterms—you would expect more substance. Sadly, no. Thanks Lyndon! Though it's a good reminder that liberals have far, far more influence and power in the Senate nowadays—even under the past two Congresses—than they ever did during the Truman/Eisenhower administrations.

Anyway, that leaves the 1957 civil rights act, the first of its kind in some 80 years, as Johnson's major liberal accomplishment in the Senate, and Caro really points out how difficult it was for the Majority Leader to finesse a compromise between the Paul Douglas liberals and the southern Democrats. Again, marvelous stuff. But what if he hadn't finessed a compromise? Presumably, the other southern Democrats would've just joined Strom Thurmond in filibustering the bill altogether, so then the Democrats would've been pilloried in the upcoming midterms, and the GOP would've captured the African-American vote, as per Richard Nixon's strategy at the time, and presumably retaken the Senate. That, in turn, would've pushed the southern Democrats off the Senate chairmanships, perhaps pulled in enough votes to shatter a southern filibuster, and in the end made it much more likely that the Senate could've passed a much stronger civil rights bill than what actually came out in 1957—mostly a toothless voting act that was all but unenforceable—sooner rather than later.

So then, and I'm just guessing here, you have a big realignment in which Republicans become the pro-business, pro-civil rights, and perhaps mildly pro-labor party (the AFL-CIO, as Caro tells it, was willing to make civil rights its number one priority at the time, even at the expense of certain labor provisions). At this point, alternate history gets too murky to say for sure, but presumably the Republicans would've remained strongly conservative on economic issues, there would've been no unified liberal political coalition in the 1960s (no Goldwater!), and hence: no Great Society, no Medicaid, no Medicare, no War on Poverty. Many northeastern and midwestern progressives would've still stuck with the Democrats for some time (though some would've joined the Republicans, perhaps), but their influence would be much reduced. So in the long term, perhaps that 1957 act meant a lot more than simply getting one foot in the civil rights door. I don't know. Good book, though.
-- Brad Plumer 9:35 PM || ||