What were the successes and failures of American liberalism in the 1960’s?

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The greatest successes achieved by liberalism in the 1960s were related to (a) the institution of civil rights as an explicit policy and responsibility of the federal government, and (b) the implementation of an expanded social safety net that built on the foundations laid by the earlier Depression-era policies of...

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The greatest successes achieved by liberalism in the 1960s were related to (a) the institution of civil rights as an explicit policy and responsibility of the federal government, and (b) the implementation of an expanded social safety net that built on the foundations laid by the earlier Depression-era policies of the Roosevelt administration. The primary failure of liberalism in this period, one that remains with us today, was the inability to translate its progressive policies into a higher standard of living for a large enough segment of the population. The idealistic promises of the 1960s foundered upon the rocks of economic stagnation and runaway inflation in the 1970s. Arguably, the popular disillusionment that accompanied this stagnation helped pave the way for the bitterly partisan anti-liberalism that would follow in the ensuing decades.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a seminal milestone for the progress of racial equality in America. Racial segregation had always been a cultural fixture in the US, notably in the former Confederate states since the Jim Crow–era backlash against post–Civil War Reconstruction. The 1964 Act explicitly banned segregation in public places and made discrimination on the basis of race (as well as religion, gender, and national origin) illegal. It made important civil functions such as the ability to vote accessible to many effectively disenfranchised citizens.

Expanding the social safety net through affordable access to health care, via the new federal programs of Medicare and Medicaid, represents perhaps the most well-known of the economic components of president Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," an ambitious national vision to dramatically reduce poverty, afford greater access to education, and improve the environment, among other goals. But this lofty vision ran into the unforgiving headwinds of the Vietnam War as the decade progressed. The war took an increasing toll both politically—reducing Johnson's supporting bloc of Democrats (and some liberal Republicans) in Congress—and economically as the cost of the war escalated alongside the already increased spending demands of Great Society programs, igniting what would become a ruinously high level of price inflation in the years to come.

The bitter social and cultural divide in America brought about by the Vietnam War may have been able to recede over time had the economics of the Great Society delivered on its promises. What happened instead, as the optimistic sixties morphed into the stagnant seventies, was a deep-set feeling of national malaise in America for the first time in the post–World War Two period. The postwar environment popularly known as "Pax Americana" got its first major reality check in the 1970s. Blame was laid, not always fairly, at the feet of the economic and cultural liberalism of the 1960s and the overreaching of the Great Society. Much of the deep partisan divide in our country today has its roots in liberalism's stumbles of the late 1960s.

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The greatest successes of American liberalism in the 1960s have to do with civil rights and with anti-poverty programs.  The greatest failures of American liberalism during that time are connected to the Vietnam War and to the fact that liberalism was unable to prevent the country from splitting on cultural lines.

In some ways, the 1960s were the greatest decade for American liberalism since the New Deal.  The most important thing that liberals accomplished was the increase in racial justice during this decade.  At the beginning of the decade, segregation was legal and prevalent throughout the South.  By 1964, the US Congress passed a law banning racial discrimination in public accommodations in all parts of the country.  The next year, Congress passed another law making it harder for Southern governments to suppress the black vote.  These were monumental accomplishments that most people would credit to liberalism.

President Lyndon Johnson helped push those two civil rights laws through Congress and he is also mainly responsible for the other major accomplishment of American liberalism during this time.  This was the “Great Society” that Johnson pushed for.  Johnson wanted to create a set of government programs that would rid American society of poverty and which would (he thought) improve American society by doing things like guaranteeing medical care to seniors (Medicare) and protecting the environment (many laws, including the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966).

However, American liberalism would not continue to thrive through the end of the decade.  Instead, it foundered, partly from its own successes and partly because of the Vietnam War.  The Vietnam War cost a great deal of money, making it harder for the government to afford Great Society programs.  The war, along with liberal successes, also split the country.  Many conservatives were very unhappy with the changes in American society that they blamed on liberalism.  The anti-war movement and the Counterculture in general appalled traditional Americans, leading them to turn against liberalism.  Because of this, the US started to split by the end of the 1960s.  Those splits are still with us today.  The inability to prevent them from happening is perhaps the greatest failure of American liberalism in the 1960s.

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