Fast Takes | High Society’s Role in the Great Society

We think of LBJ as a rural president, but the Great Society was tailor made for big cities. * The Blue Dogs bark * Iowa journalist paints a different picture of the Heartland.

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Most of the Democratic vote is in the central areas of the nation’s largest cities. The political landscape isn’t urban versus rural. It’s the central counties of metro areas of a million or more people versus everywhere else.

How did that come about? There are probably a lot of reasons, but one seems to be that Democrats have long been tailoring their party for people attracted to big cities.

We are reminded of this in reading Irwin Unger’s book The Best of Intentions, a history of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Johnson was from the country, the dry hills west of Austin, Texas. But when he was thrust into the nation’s highest office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he inherited a largely urban-oriented staff.

Unger writes that when Johnson ordered up a reform agenda, the plan that came out of committees and meetings in the White House reflected an urbanizing and increasingly affluent people. He writes:

“The Great Society, as Johnson described it … posited a large middle-class constituency and it sought specifically to please that constituency. Clean air and water, new and improved national parks, highway beautification, consumer protection laws, federal subsidies for the arts and humanities, public broadcasting, loans to college students — all these would touch the lives of solvent, well-educated, and politically literate men and women, the people who read books and weekly newsmagazines, bought classical records, toured America by car, and traveled abroad.”

In other words, urban Americans. In fact, historian Eric Goldman, who Unger said came to the Johnson White House to replace Kennedy’s Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as a kind of intellectual-in-residence, described this class as “Metro-Americans.”

Johnson provided his own rural slant on what constituted a Great Society. We can’t forget that the new president came to Martin County, Kentucky, in 1964 to hunker down on the front porch of an unemployed sawmill operator and to announce a War on Poverty.

In the more than half a century since, however, Goldman’s influence in the party appears to have been greater than Johnson’s.

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The Blue Dogs are barking again.

We hadn’t heard much lately about the Blue Dogs — a group of conservative and often rural Democratic members of Congress. Bloomberg News reports, however, that the Blue Dogs — all 18 of them — are back at it trying to keep the party’s focus on rural areas.

The Dogs released a plan this past week on tariffs, the rural economy, veterans and health care. “If we’re going to send a message to our constituents that we care, we have to send it in a way that’s representative of what we need to be, and why we need to do it and have a plan for their future,” said Representative Tom O’Halleran, a first-term Arizona Democrat and the chairman of the coalition’s rural task force.

Bloomberg reports that the plan envisions “a commonsense, bipartisan approach to revitalizing rural America.” The BDs want to stabilize health care markets, pass a new farm bill and, in particular, they advise that the growing trade war with China is not helping American farmers. “Obviously the tariffs haven’t helped the farmers, we have to work together to find fairness for America’s trade agreements,” O’Halleran told Bloomberg.

Is there life for Democrats in the argument that President Trump’s trade war is hurting farmers? The AP, reporting from eastern Washington, says that tariffs are a big issue in a congressional race there.

This is wheat country, and Democrat Lisa Brown is running against seven-term incumbent Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Rodgers says she doesn’t support the president’s trade war, but Brown is pressing this issue with Washington farmers.

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Writing in the New York Times, Iowa journalist Robert Leonard tells how Democrats should talk to people in farm country.

He tells about the Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of state. Deidre DeJear is a 32-year-old black woman running for office in a state that is 91 percent white. Race, however, doesn’t play a big part in her campaign:

“When I talk to Iowans,” she told me, “it’s about values — of course people see I’m black, and that I’m a woman, but ultimately it’s values that matter to people.”

The simple (minded) analysis of American politics is that farm country is conservative and racist. Leonard reminds us, however, that Iowa legalized interracial marriage in 1851, gave African-American men the right to vote two years before the 15th Amendment, and outlawed segregated schools in 1868. Iowa was also the place Barack Obama won the first election of the 2008 primary campaign.

DeJear doesn’t talk about race. She talks about values. Leonard writes:

Mr. Obama stressed unity, and Ms. DeJear is following his path. Democrats might recall it was an effective path, especially for Democrats in rural America. Nationwide, in 2016, over 200 counties that had gone for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted for Donald Trump. For the record, if these people voted for Mr. Trump because they are racists, they became so after electing Mr. Obama to office not once, but twice.

Something to keep in mind.

 

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