Yet progressive history has become conventional wisdom, and it is that conventional wisdom I challenge in this article, excerpted from my new book Death of a Nation .
The progressive narrative begins by crediting President Lyndon Johnson almost single-handedly for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This focus on LBJ is critical because progressives don’t want to admit that proportionately, more Republicans in Congress voted for those laws than Democrats. The main opposition to the civil rights movement didn’t come from the Republican Party; it came from the Democratic Party. These inconvenient truths are skipped through a singular focus on LBJ.
Progressives know that LBJ, in his early career, was a bigot and a segregationist. He was part of the most racist wing of the Democratic Party. Yet progressives like Rauchway and his sidekick Kevin Kruse have turned LBJ into one of their great icons. In some respects, this is understandable. The Left, in recent decades, has distanced itself from Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, who respectively were the founder of the Democratic Party and the first progressive Democratic president. The progressives need LBJ, just as they need FDR, if they are to have any heroes at all.
And, boy, has LBJ become a progressive cult hero! Antifa and Black Lives Matter activists wouldn’t dream of yanking down LBJ statues. That’s because the progressive narrative for LBJ is even more positive than it is for FDR, at least as far as race is concerned. LBJ was the “flawed giant,” in the title of a biography by historian Robert Dallek. Marshall Frady in the New York Review of Books affectionately calls him "the big guy"and revels in his “brawling, uncontainable aliveness,” his “galumphing conviviality.”
The story that Rauchway, Kruse, Dallek and other progressives tell about LBJ is a triumphant account of how a redneck white country boy underwent a moral transformation. To paraphrase Obama, the arc of his life bent toward justice. When he got the power, he used it for good.
According to the left-wing journalist Bill Moyers, LBJ once told him that as a consequence of supporting civil rights laws, “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” This seems so altruistic on the part of a famously cynical man as to almost inspire wonder. And as progressives tell it, the political transformation of the Democratic Party was no less altruistic and wondrous.
That’s because in miniature the progressive narrative about LBJ mirrors the progressive narrative of the Democratic Party.
As the narrative goes, civil rights was no less of a political risk for a party previously wedded to white supremacy than it was for LBJ. Yet the Democrats were up to the challenge, and came out better for it. For LBJ as for the Democrats, a faulty start led to a happy ending. The party of bad guys became the party of good guys.