Great Society

Great Society

The Great Society was a sweeping set of proposals for social reform, put forward by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and aimed at improving access to education, good jobs, and healthcare for ordinary Americans.

Johnson had already proposed a “War on Poverty” during his State of the Union address, warning that “many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

A few months after declaring war on poverty, Johnson set out his vision for a “great Society” in a 1964 speech in two speeches, at the University of Ohio and the University of Michigan. He argued that the nation needed to establish a level playing field so that all Americans had an equal chance at success. 

In a speech to the graduating class at the University of Michigan, Johnson described the “Great Society” he wanted to see America transform into. The picture he painted was every bit as utopian as John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.” Johnson said:

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talent. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”

As part of the Great Society initiative, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, banning all discrimination based on race and gender in the workplace. The Act also banned segregation in any public facility. Congress also passed the ambitious Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. That law created vocational training and jobs programs aimed at getting more Americans good jobs. The Johnson administration also dedicated funds to improve schools and set up preschool programs, and made it easier for working and middle class Americans to attend college.

Historians continue to debate whether the “Great Society” ever achieved its goal. Johnson’s administration was also bogged down in the Vietnam War, which took funds and attention away from the president’s domestic goals. 

One of the Great Society’s staunchest enemies was Ronald Reagan. In 1966, when Reagan was preparing to run for governor of California, he delivered a speech denouncing the Great Society and warning against “an unprecedented federalization of American life” and a “welfare society.” In 1983, after becoming president, Reagan called the Great Society “the central political error of our time,” warning that the governments believed that “government and bureaucracy” was “the primary vehicle for social change.”