Modern politicians have come to recognize the power of idealism. In 2008, a little-known senator from the state of Illinois rode powerful, sweeping rhetoric about opportunity and the American dream to the White House. And, in 2016, a businessman pledged to tear down the political establishment and “make America great again,” earning the adoration of a legion of supporters anxious for a fresh start. He captured the presidency against all odds.
Naked appeals to idealism have long been a part of our democracy. But as Jonathan Darman illustrates in Landslide, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan made these appeals central to their rhetoric, crafting utopian visions of America that seduced voters but could not become reality. By dispensing with complexity in favor of simple expressions of what America should be, both Johnson and Reagan set the stage for the high-minded idealism of the modern political era—and for the frustration and failure that came with it.
Darman begins by discussing Johnson’s vision of America, embodied in the Great Society. A package of ambitious social spending policies designed to “solve the great problems of American life,” the Great Society promised to harness the nation’s “unprecedented economic affluence” to alleviate the most persistent afflictions of human civilization.1 It would eliminate poverty, discrimination, hunger, and disease, summoning “a new world” that would “bend … to the hopes of man.”2 Johnson especially reveled in the grandeur of this promise. “It’s the time—and it’s going to be soon—when nobody in this country is poor,” he thundered at a campaign stop in the final week of his 1964 presidential bid. “It’s the time when every slum is gone from every city in America, and America is beautiful.”3
It was on this promise, borne of the prosperity of post-war America, that L.B.J. built his spectacular 486 electoral vote landslide against Republican Barry Goldwater. But as Darman recalls, it was only a matter of time before his vision would collapse under the weight of its fantasy. Two years after Johnson vowed to drive poverty to extinction, the Republicans dealt his party a crushing defeat in the 1966 midterm elections.4 As both liberals and conservatives recognized at the time, this amounted to a repudiation of the Great Society. As one Democrat mayor put it to the president, “I don’t think we can keep pushing this Great Society idea because it hasn’t worked.”5 In 1968, foreseeing the drubbing that would accompany a reelection bid, President Johnson announced that he would not seek an additional term, tacitly acknowledging his failure to realize the expansive ambitions of his flagship domestic policy program.6
Johnson promised to eliminate the most persistent afflictions of human civilization through good government, but his vision collapsed under the weight of its fantasy.
As Ronald Reagan ascended through the ranks of the conservative movement during the 1960s and ‘70s, he too promised utopia. But where Johnson promised security from hardship, Reagan inspired hope for deliverance and restoration. Painting a picture of a broken government managed by arrogant, hapless bureaucrats, he spoke of the “elites in Washington” as a bottleneck upon the unique potential and creativity of the American people.7 “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth,” he uttered in his famous “A Time for Choosing” address. 8 Sixteen years later, with the country roiled by economic crisis, he summed up his philosophy with the simple slogan: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”9 In other words, Ronald Reagan was the antithesis of L.B.J.
But even Reagan, remembered today as a conservative paragon, fell short of his vision. His tax cut package, designed to force an ever-expanding government to shrink, never produced a corresponding decrease in federal outlays. In a special twist of irony, the man who had proclaimed the incompetence of government throughout his political ascendance ultimately added “more debt to the nation’s ledgers than had all of his predecessors … combined.”10
Through his extensive accounts of Reagan and L.B.J., Darman hammers home a blistering critique of idealism in American politics. The men could not have been more different; they hailed from different walks of life, wrestled with different personal and political flaws, and embraced different governing philosophies. Yet, both leaders promised much and achieved little, establishing the basis for the tumult, gridlock, and polarization of today’s politics.
Even Reagan, remembered today as a conservative paragon, fell short of his vision. In a special twist of irony, the man who had proclaimed the incompetence of government throughout his political ascendance ultimately added “more debt to the nation’s ledgers than had all of his predecessors … combined.”
Darman is right when he blames the “fantastic visions” of Reagan and L.B.J. for today’s twisted political discourse.11 Politicians now live or die by campaign promises and high-minded ideals. Barack Obama’s soaring message of change and progress produced a massive electoral victory, a turning point in American politics on the scale of Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980.12 And when Mr. Obama failed to meet his lofty rhetoric as president, disappointed Americans on both sides of the political spectrum continued to agitate for the change he promised—and more.
For the Democrats, this meant a progressive rebellion during the 2016 party primaries against Hillary Rodham Clinton, who sought to protect the legacy of her predecessor rather than to expand upon it.13 Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian Vermont senator who campaigned against Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination, marshaled a coalition of disaffected millennials, independents, and working-class whites behind a revolutionary progressive policy agenda that some have compared to L.B.J.’s Great Society. Eric Pianin writes in the Fiscal Times:
Not since Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson has any candidate for president wanted to do as much to expand the size and scope of the federal government as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont … Johnson poured hundreds of billions of dollars into his “Great Society”– including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid – and Sanders’s revolutionary government and social welfare agenda could easily match or exceed that spending.14
Sen. Sanders even premised his appeal on similar themes. Like Johnson, he saw the pain of America’s downtrodden as a problem that he, through policy, could solve. “There are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation,” Sanders said at a rally early in his candidacy. “Children in this country go hungry … and millions of people are looking for work … This campaign is about the needs of the American people.”15
The Republicans had their own revolutionary, but unlike the Democrats, they were unable to stop him. Pledging to overthrow a corrupt and elitist political establishment, businessman and reality television star Donald J. Trump toppled sixteen other contenders in the primaries to become the Republican presidential nominee. According to Newsweek’s Chris Lehmann, he “struck a chord among a pinched conservative working-class electorate” with his opposition to globalization, mass immigration, and other high-minded designs of the political elite.16 Mr. Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp”—in reference to Washington D.C., the literal swamp home to much of America’s political class—encapsulates the core of this vision. For Trump, government is not the problem; the political class is.
But just as Barack Obama fell short of his promise to overcome politics and unify a divided nation, Donald Trump will struggle to meet the lofty standard that his own vision has set. Voters will turn against him, realizing that his promise to fix everything that is wrong with Washington has not been kept, and will look to a new figure—offering yet another path to greatness—for new answers. And as with Reagan and L.B.J., with this idealism will come more frustration with a Washington elite that always promises, but never delivers.
After L.B.J. and Reagan, America’s politicians have become merchants of myth. They trade fantasy for votes, and when reality strikes, the people feel betrayed. For true change to come, voters must demand candidates who are willing to say what they can’t accomplish, while resisting the urge to support those who pledge to fix every ill and remedy every injustice. Until this happens, Darman’s version of history will repeat itself ad infinitum.
In the afterword, Darman identifies the “old consensus vision” of American politics as a possible response to the ill-fated idealism of the modern era.17 But the return of practicality and realism is difficult to imagine in our polarized political world. With voters so intent upon rewarding politicians who tell them what they want to hear, it is unclear how or when consensus politics will ever trump the seductive power of grand ideals.
- Darman, Jonathan, Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America (New York: Random House, 2015), xxi-xxii. ↩
- Ibid. at xxii. ↩
- Ibid. at 215. ↩
- Ibid. at 342. ↩
- Ibid. at 343. ↩
- Ibid. at 353-54. ↩
- Ibid. at 360-61. ↩
- Reagan, Ronald, “A Time for Choosing” (speech), October 27, 1964. ↩
- Darman, Landslide, 362. ↩
- Ibid. at 363. ↩
- Ibid. at xxi. ↩
- Walker, Ruth, “Post-election: What’s changed, what’s stayed the same,” The Harvard Gazette, November 13, 2008 (“For [William] Kristol, 1980—the election year that swept Ronald Reagan into office—is the analogy, albeit from the other side of the aisle.”). See also Kuhn, David Paul, “Obama models campaign on Reagan revolt,” Politico, July 24, 2007 (“‘Now, it is blasphemy for Democrats,’ Obama pollster Cornell Belcher said of Reagan, ‘but that hope and optimism that was Ronald Reagan’ allowed him to ‘transcend’ ideological divisions within his own party and the general electorate.”). ↩
- Stein, Sam and Jonathan Cohn, “Obama Hits The Trail For Hillary Clinton — And To Cement His Legacy For Generations,” The Huffington Post, October 25, 2016 (“For the president and his longtime aides ― many of whom have been impassioned Clinton advocates in this election cycle ― it’s also about making sure Obama’s legacy, and progressivism as a whole, is firmly ingrained in American society”). ↩
- Pianin, Eric, “Sanders’s ‘Great Society’ Plan Could Add $15 Trillion to the Debt,” Fiscal Times, April 8, 2016. ↩
- Healy, Patrick, “Bernie Sanders Challenges Hillary Clinton at First Rally,” New York Times, May 26, 2015. ↩
- Lehmann, Chris, “Donald Trump and the Long Tradition of American Populism,” Newsweek, August 22, 2015. ↩
- Darman, Landslide, 375-76. ↩