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GOP vs. LBJ?

Historians are influenced by the context in which they live and write. I began this book during the administrative and political challenges Barack Obama faced launching the Affordable Care Act.

Ironically, it’s not Obama’s legacy that the GOP Congress and president wish to dismantle. It’s LBJ’s. Block-granting Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, making sharp cuts to school nutrition programs and SNAP, steering federal education dollars to private religious academies, rolling back voting rights—even proposing vast religious exemptions to public accommodations laws: All of these longstanding policy aspirations are an attempt to unravel the Great Society.

LBJ and his staff enjoyed certain advantages that may be forever lost. They governed in a rare moment of unbounded economic growth. People generally trusted government and experts—until LBJ’s own dissemblance on Vietnam, followed by Watergate, triggered a half-century of public skepticism that has poisoned American life.

But many of the challenges are the same. The Great Society attempted to redistribute some of the artificial economic and political privilege that white Americans had come to view as their birthright. That’s where much of the opposition to contemporary liberalism crystalized. We’re still grappling with that problem today.


Available Jan. 30, Building the Great Society (Viking) is Joshua Zeitz ’96’s fourth book.