How can the historical record help us make informed decisions about modern debates, such as those over immigration and welfare?  Using examples from Johnson Great Society Program.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The value of the historical record in assisting with making informed decisions about modern social issues such as welfare and immigration lies in being able to understand the past approach's strengths and weaknesses.  For example, when evaluating Johnson's range of social programs in the Great Society, the historical record reveals compelling strengths and weaknesses that need to be integrated into policy making and decision calculus in the modern setting.

The historical record in Johnson's set of domestic programs reveals the idealism can prove to be a very compelling notion in constructing policy.  For the pragmatic deal maker that Johnson was seen as, the historical record regarding the Great Society displays much in way of his idealism and hope:

...the challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of American civilization.

In constructing the Great Society programs like the war on poverty, health care, and welfare advances, the historical record reveals how important idealism is in framing a debate on social values for the American public to understand and appreciate.  Johnson was not afraid to show his idealism and link these programs to an idealistic base in order to gain public acceptance.  Certainly, this part of the historical record can be reviewed and understood in the light of current social debates.  Idealism is critical in the framing of political policy and in how it is shown to the American people.

With regards to the Great Society, the historical record can reflect specific weaknesses in how social policy is constructed, as well.  One area where this is extremely relevant to the modern debate is the role of federal government that Johnson saw in the Great Society.  For Johnson, federal government was the sole agent of change. The Great Society made little effort, if any, for local governments to be a part of this broad element of social change.  In the modern construction of federalism, this seems unlikely. The federal government can be an agent of action, but the strength of local governments makes it unlikely that an approach that Johnson took is one that can be taken today.  The historical record can show how elements are different then and now.  There were many more barriers that prevented local governments from enacting full voice of either support or opposition.  Local governments did not have the strength then that they do now.  In the modern political setting, federalism is stronger than it was then.  This makes the role of the federal government less centralized than it was in Johnson's Great Society.  It is in the understanding of the historical record where this element can be seen.  In the passage of modern social programs like welfare and immigration, local governments are essential in implementation and have to be a part of the legislative process.  If not, great resistance, such as Arizona Stat Law SB 1040 on immigration and the Governor of Texas' claim to wish to secede, will be evident.  In this, value is gained from understanding the historical record in light of modern social policy programs.