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The Great Society in part dealt with the unfinished business of the New Deal — giving aid to minorities, the poor, the elderly and the sick. But it also broke new ground in the use of government as an instrument for making the economy more efficient, fairer and more accountable. Bigotry has not been eliminated from the American psyche, but no one who remembers the relationship between the races before the Great Society can deny the dramatic shifts that have occurred.

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Forcing integration in classrooms, workplaces and lunch counters allowed succeeding generations of white people to look beyond the prejudices of their parents and grandparents to see African-Americans not as stereotypes, but as individual human beings. The precedent has since been spread to the cause of equal treatment for women, gays, the disabled and other historically disadvantaged groups. Second, the principle that the federal government has a major role to play in the provision of health care, primary and secondary education, environmental protection, even culture and the arts, is now accepted by the vast majority of Americans.

Despite their obstructionism, when it comes to specifics, most Republican leaders do not argue that government should have no role in the economy; the only argument is over what kind of role it should have. The sight of poor people questioning the decisions of government officials inspired more activism in middle-class neighborhoods. Over time this translated into laws requiring open hearings, advanced notice of intended changes in regulations and much more transparent and open government behavior.

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One can argue that this made government less efficient, but it surely made it more democratic. Unfortunately, war-making — the one area of government most removed from public accountability — cut off the further refinement and development of the Great Society. Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who succeeded Roosevelt and Truman, actually enlarged the economic responsibilities of government. But the divisive Vietnam War and its inflationary consequences pushed American politics to the right. A decade later, the election of Ronald Reagan began the process of slicing away at the Great Society, which the Democrats who succeeded him did not reverse.


No one knows what it will take to restore confidence and dispel this crisis of democracy. But a better understanding of the immense positive contribution of the Great Society in our lives would be a step forward. If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it. We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look.

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