Real Change Comes From Outside Washington

Today we live in an era when Washington seems to be totally broken. The chances of passing any major piece of legislation are slim. Though we have had some moments of breakthrough, such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, we have not experienced anything as transformative as the New Deal or Great Society.

My new book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society, provides a narrative history of the Great Society that attempts to understand what it took to have a moment like the United States experienced between 1964 and 1966. These were years when liberal legislation passed at breathtaking speed. Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid, a War on Poverty, federal education assistance, Civil Rights and Voting Rights, immigration reform, and much more. For many Americans today, especially Democrats, it is hard to look back at these years and believe that our elected officials could do so much.

My book challenges the myth of the "Great Man" as the prime mover in political change as I go beyond using Lyndon Johnson as the sole explanation for why everything moved forward in these years. To be sure, President Johnson was an incredibly skillful politician. But his acumen and cunning were not nearly enough to get a Congress, which was also seen as dysfunctional and gridlocked at the time he took office (back then because of a bipartisan conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans who were blocking everything associated with liberalism), to pass major bills.

The Fierce Urgency of Now is the story of how social activists and voters changed Washington, albeit for a short period of time. Together, the civil rights movement and voters in the election of 1964 created a Congress dominated by liberal majorities that was willing and eager to pass liberal reform. In fact, what made Johnson so skillful was his understanding, based on years in Congress, which his power was limited and his opportunity for success would be fleeting.

So when forces external to Washington produced a Congress willing to pass bills, he moved as fast as possible to push forward with many of the key issues of the moment. His skepticism about presidential power was right on target. After the 1966 elections, when the conservative coalition regained its power, there wasn't much he could do anymore.

I hope that readers enjoy this story and that the history encourages them to think about the ways in which citizens--rather than a new president or some magical restoration of bipartisan civility--are the only answer to fixing Washington. Fifty years ago, that's how we built a Great Society.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press).