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Let’s face it. Our ass is in a crack. We’re gonna have to let this nigger bill pass. —Lyndon Johnson to Sen. John Stennis, 1957
The transformation of the Democratic Party from the party of racism and segregation to the party of civil rights is, according to historian Eric Rauchway, the central political arc of the 20th century. Rauchway is a left-wing historian, and what he means is that it is the central theme of progressive history about the twentieth century. Yet progressive history has become conventional wisdom, and it is that conventional wisdom I challenge in this article, excerpted from my new book Death of a Nation.
The progressive narrative begins by crediting President Lyndon Johnson almost single-handedly for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This focus on LBJ is critical because progressives don’t want to admit that proportionately, more Republicans in Congress voted for those laws than Democrats. The main opposition to the civil rights movement didn’t come from the Republican Party; it came from the Democratic Party. These inconvenient truths are skipped through a singular focus on LBJ.
Progressives know that LBJ, in his early career, was a bigot and a segregationist. He was part of the most racist wing of the Democratic Party. Yet progressives like Rauchway and his sidekick Kevin Kruse have turned LBJ into one of their great icons. In some respects, this is understandable. The Left, in recent decades, has distanced itself from Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, who respectively were the founder of the Democratic Party and the first progressive Democratic president. The progressives need LBJ, just as they need FDR, if they are to have any heroes at all.
And, boy, has LBJ become a progressive cult hero! Antifa and Black Lives Matter activists wouldn’t dream of yanking down LBJ statues. That’s because the progressive narrative for LBJ is even more positive than it is for FDR, at least as far as race is concerned. LBJ was the “flawed giant,” in the title of a biography by historian Robert Dallek. Marshall Frady in the New York Review of Books affectionately calls him “the big guy” and revels in his “brawling, uncontainable aliveness,” his “galumphing conviviality.”
The story that Rauchway, Kruse, Dallek and other progressives tell about LBJ is a triumphant account of how a redneck white country boy underwent a moral transformation. To paraphrase Obama, the arc of his life bent toward justice. When he got the power, he used it for good.
According to the left-wing journalist Bill Moyers, LBJ once told him that as a consequence of supporting civil rights laws, “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” This seems so altruistic on the part of a famously cynical man as to almost inspire wonder. And as progressives tell it, the political transformation of the Democratic Party was no less altruistic and wondrous.
That’s because in miniature the progressive narrative about LBJ mirrors the progressive narrative of the Democratic Party. As the narrative goes, civil rights was no less of a political risk for a party previously wedded to white supremacy than it was for LBJ. Yet the Democrats were up to the challenge, and came out better for it. For LBJ as for the Democrats, a faulty start led to a happy ending. The party of bad guys became the party of good guys.
This account of LBJ is unbelievable and fantastic, by which I mean it cannot be believed and is the product of fantasy. Is it really plausible that a man obsessed with politics, whom historian Doris Kearns Goodwin termed “the greatest political bargainer of them all,” a man who once said he thinks about the subject of politics for 18 hours a day, would bargain away his party’s interests without recompense to the other side “for a long time to come”?
If such strange behavior was indeed the result of a wrenching transformation there is no plausible evidence for it, not from Dallek, not from Goodwin, not even from biographer Robert Caro, who seems to have followed LBJ’s life virtually day by day for decades and is working on the fifth massive volume of his LBJ biography. LBJ told no one of his great conversion, he never wrote about it or made a speech about it, so if it happened he kept it entirely to himself.
Here is a man who, according to a memo filed by FBI agent William Branigan, seems to have been in the Ku Klux Klan. This memo was only revealed in recent months, with the release of the JFK Files. Progressive media—even progressive historians—largely have ignored it, trying to pretend it does not exist. Branigan cites a source with direct knowledge, even though he does not name his source. As one blogger notes, no one with even a cursory knowledge of LBJ’s background could regard his involvement with the KKK as a shock or a surprise.
So how does a Klansman change his spots and become a moral idealist without telling anyone? Moreover, it seems difficult to credit moral idealism to a manifestly dishonest man. Here my exhibit is LBJ’s 1965 address at Howard University, which progressives celebrate because in it LBJ makes a bold defense of affirmative action. “You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race saying ‘You are free to compete with all the others’ and still believe you have been fair . . . We seek not just freedom but opportunity; not just legal equity but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and result.”
Impressive stuff, as far as it goes. But how far does it really go? The merits of LBJ’s argument have been debated ever since by the Left and the Right. But what typically goes unnoticed is that LBJ’s telling silence on why blacks were for so long hobbled by chains and also on who it was that hobbled them. Let’s recall that here we have a longtime Southern segregationist giving an account of the sins of segregation in the third person as if he were a mere observer, not a participant.
Even so, Dallek’s only comment about LBJ’s Howard address is that, in retrospect, it seems “excessively hopeful,” as if LBJ’s only problem is an excess of moral idealism. The progressive historian Ira Katznelson, one of the few to notice LBJ’s complete omission of his own role in the events he is describing, nevertheless downplays its significance by noting of LBJ, “His personal record and sense of pride were at odds with the quality of his history.” In short, he lied.
Katznelson adds that LBJ “missed the chance to come to terms with the most dismal, even exploitative, aspects of the New Deal.” This, he frets, must have been “particularly agonizing” for him. I don’t know whether to regard this as naïve or sneaky on Katznelson’s part. Surely Katznelson is smart enough to know LBJ had not the slightest intention of fessing up that he was a member of the racist group that hobbled blacks. If he had, his audience immediately would have recognized that the very man who poisoned the waters was now hypocritically pretending to show up as the water commissioner.
Third, by every account, LBJ was a nasty, bullying, crude, selfish, mean-spirited, and abusive individual. These are not qualities that we associate with a moral exemplar undergoing a crisis of conscience. There was the time he gave dictation to a female secretary while urinating in a corner washbasin. In the account of a Senate aide, on another occasion, while sitting next to a woman in his car with his wife Lady Bird on the other side, “Johnson made a point of placing one of his hands under the woman’s skirt and was having a big time, right there in front of Lady Bird.”
There is much, much more in this vein in Caro’s biography. I don’t need to go into LBJ’s serial infidelities, even in the Oval Office, his chronic boasting about the women he had conquered, the name that he gave to his penis, his boasting about its size, and so on. Suffice to say that Johnson would not survive five minutes of scrutiny by the #MeToo movement. LBJ, like JFK and Bill Clinton, reflects the priapic aggression of the prototypical plantation boss.
Yet even more than the other two, he liked to lord it over people, not just women but everyone. As Caro shows on page after page, he derived pleasure from degrading and humiliating others. He was known to converse with aides in his office bathroom while emptying his bowels, which Marshall Frady interprets as a sign of his “Rabelasian earthiness” but which less charitably reveals an ugly demonstration of his power over subordinates.
LBJ was a pervert in every sense of the word; if I can pursue the excremental theme, he was into this shit. As LBJ himself put it, he wanted the type of person working for him “who will kiss my ass in the Macy’s window and stand up and say, ‘Boy, wasn’t that sweet!’” Surely many Democratic plantation bosses of the 19th century could have said pretty much the same thing.
A Lifelong Bigot
These traits do not describe the “old” LBJ, prior to some moral transformation. This is who LBJ was the whole time. And the same is true of LBJ’s racism. We can see this in LBJ’s use of the term “nigger” or “uppity nigger.” LBJ didn’t just use these terms in the early days, when under the tutelage of his segregationist mentor Richard Russell he upheld segregation, upheld the poll tax, and fought to undermine anti-lynching laws. No, LBJ showed a special fondness for them when he was Senate leader, vice president and president—in other words, the very time when, supposedly, he was undergoing his moral transformation.
In the mid-1960s, LBJ nominated African-American lawyer Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. When an aide suggested to LBJ that there were other qualified black jurists he could have chosen, suggesting as an alternative possibility Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, LBJ responded, “The only two people who ever heard of Judge Higginbotham are you and his momma. When I appoint a nigger to the court, I want everyone to know he’s a nigger.”
This was in 1965, one year after LBJ helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The man he called a “nigger” was the nation’s most prominent African-American attorney who had argued the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. Yet progressive historian Robert Dallek, who recounts this episode, interprets it in a way to minimize LBJ’s culpability. “Johnson’s pejorative language was partly his way of intimidating a new staff member or of showing how tough and demanding he was.”
Yet for LBJ this kind of talk was a consistent pattern. The same year, LBJ told his aide Joseph Califano that the black riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles showed how blacks could not control their emotions. Pretty soon, Johnson warned, “Negroes will end up pissing in the aisles of the Senate and making fools of themselves, the way . . . they had after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.” The very fact that LBJ continued to embrace this view of Reconstruction—once promoted by the progressive racists of the Dunning School and popularized by Thomas Dixon in The Clansman and Birth of a Nation—suggests that contrary to progressive rumor, LBJ’s racism was never rehabilitated.
Robert Caro describes an incident involving Robert Parker, LBJ’s chauffeur. Parker recalled the occasion when Senator Johnson asked him whether he would prefer to be called “boy,” “nigger” or “chief.” Parker asked to be called by his name. Johnson erupted, “As long as you’re black, and you’re going to be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.”
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in an otherwise positive biography Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, cites LBJ telling Senator Richard Russell during the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1957, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”
This admission is telling not merely because of its use of the insulting reference to the “uppityness” of blacks, but also because it shows that LBJ’s support for civil rights legislation wasn’t the result of some moral awakening on his part; rather, it was part of a strategy. This notion is confirmed by what LBJ allegedly told two governors regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for 200 years.”
Some progressives—notably the “fact checking” site Snopes—have questioned this quotation, which appears in Ronald Kessler’s Inside the White House but not in any other source. Kessler attributes it to Air Force One steward Robert MacMillan, who claims to have heard LBJ say this. And as we can see the quotation is consistent with several others whose veracity is undoubted. My conclusion is that LBJ remained the vile bigoted Democrat he always was, and the notion that he underwent some sort of enlightened conversion is pure humbug.
How Declining Racism Became a Problem
It is time to reinterpret LBJ’s “conversion,” and to do this, we must try to imagine the political landscape that LBJ saw before him, a landscape very different from the one that FDR encountered a generation earlier. Two big things were changing and fast. First, white racism was declining precipitously all over the country, but especially in the South. Second, blacks were getting up and moving out of the rural South, and many of them were voting for the first time. Both these things were a big problem for the Democratic Party.
Let’s take them in sequence. As innumerable surveys confirm, white racism—at least white racism of the old sort, which is to say old-fashioned hatred of blacks, holding them to be inferior beings, and sanctioning violence and degrading treatment of them—this type of racism plummeted through the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. So sweeping was the change that many survey questions routinely asked prior to World War II—are blacks entitled to the same legal rights as whites? Would you consider voting for a black candidate for political office?—Are no longer even asked because white support for these things is nearly universal.
Political leaders across the spectrum noticed the change, some earlier than others. Harry Truman saw it even in the late 1940s, and this—not some moral evolution to a higher state of being—is the sea change in American public opinion that pressured him to desegregate the military. LBJ also knew this because he could see it, even in the Texas backcountry.
Now it is tempting to believe that racism declined in America because of the moral suasion of the civil rights movement, but to believe this is to put the cart before the horse, as most progressive accounts predictably do. The reason they do this is so that they can credit LBJ and progressive activism with the civil rights laws, and then credit those laws not only with creating legal equality but also with combating racism. In reality, however, the steep decline in racism preceded the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement didn’t facilitate it; it facilitated the civil rights movement.
Think about why Martin Luther King, Jr., encountered so little intellectual resistance to his challenges to segregation. Fifty years earlier, he would have. This is not to deny that local officials, like Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor, unleashed dogs and hoses on civil rights protesters. King himself served time as a political prisoner in the Birmingham jail, an experience that strikes a chord with me. But by this time the intellectual fight had been won. The local segregationist establishment, not King, was on the defensive. That’s because popular opinion in America had shifted dramatically between the time FDR died in 1945 and the 1960s.
So what caused the shift? The obvious answer is: Adolf Hitler. In the end, the horrific crimes of Hitler overthrew the doctrine of white supremacy. Once American troops entered the concentration camps, once people saw those ghostly emaciated figures emerge out of the camps, they could not longer subscribe to theories of Nordic superiority they might once have held. Those doctrines were now permanently discredited.
The progressive historian George Fredrickson points out in Racism: A Short History that the very word “racism” came into common use only in the 1930s “when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews.” This shows how closely linked racism and Nazism were in the popular mind, and helps confirm that it was the Nazis who, against their intentions of course, finally put white supremacy into the grave.
We can imagine that LBJ watched with horror the decline of racism in America, not simply because he was a nasty bigot himself—and bigotry loves company—but also because white supremacy had been the central political doctrine of the Democratic Party for at least a century. Once the Republicans ended slavery the Democrats turned swiftly to white supremacy which became the glue, both in the North and the South, holding the party together.
With racism dwindling fast, LBJ knew his party would lose voters whose allegiance to the Democrats had been based on the party’s support for racist policies. This was a serious problem. From the Democrats’ point of view, it meant that if racism could not be revived—and there was no way after Nazism to revive it—then the party would need new voters, and lots of them, in order to compensate for the losses in white racist voters who were regrettably losing their prejudices.
Where to look? There was only one place: black voters. And blacks in the 1950s and 1960s were voting in greater numbers than ever before. For the first half of the twentieth century, the Democrats had through racial intimidation and other means largely suppressed the black vote in the South, where the vast majority of blacks lived. But starting around World War I, a great migration occurred in which blacks over the next several decades literally got up and moved.
As Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, some 6 million blacks—nearly half of the entire black population of the rural South—left the farms, plantations and cotton fields of that region and moved to cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia. Some moved to smaller cities like Milwaukee and Oakland. The great migration was, as Wilkerson puts it, “an unrecognized immigration within this country.”
In the cities, blacks could vote and did vote, so for the first time in American politics, the black vote became significant by the late 1940s and 1950s. The black vote was especially important in swing states like Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Fully aware of this, Republicans offered the most sweeping and forceful endorsement of civil rights for blacks to appear in any party platform since the nineteenth century. The party of Lincoln was making a bid for these new black voters.
Again, this was as major problem for LBJ and the Democrats. LBJ knew that in order to make up for the racist vote the Democrats must win not just some black votes, not just a majority of black votes, but virtually all the black votes. The Democrats needed blacks to be just as uniformly loyal to the Democratic Party as white racists previously had been. LBJ had to figure a way for blacks to vote for Democratic candidates automatically, habitually, regardless of the qualities or qualifications of the Democrat on the ticket.
But how to achieve this? After all, Democrats had been segregating, degrading and abusing blacks for a long time. LBJ knew this as well as anyone because he had been one of the abusers. How then to convince blacks, who were now voting, to vote en masse for a party that had enslaved them, had formulated a “positive good” doctrine of black enslavement, had invented segregation and Jim Crow, racial terrorism and the Ku Klux Klan, and was still the party of bigotry in the 1960s?
LBJ realized that the Democrats could no longer whip the blacks into submission, as in the past. The Democrats needed a new relationship with blacks and on different terms than before. However reluctant LBJ may have been to admit it—we see that reluctance in his statements to fellow Democratic bigots in the Senate—he was also a realist. If he wanted virtually unanimous black support for the Democrats, he knew he couldn’t just beat it out of them; he would for the first time in the party’s history have to woo them.
But how? This is a difficult topic to talk about, and I am about to go into controversial territory. I have to tread carefully. I don’t know a better way, however, than to illustrate the state of mind of a sizable segment of African Americans in the aftermath of slavery—a state of mind that became critical to LBJ as he attempted to solve his political conundrum.
I turn to Eugene Genovese’s great study of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll, widely considered to be the best work on the subject. Genovese relays the testimonies of several slaves who were interviewed after they became free. We might expect them vividly to describe the horrors of enslavement, and they did. But they also confessed to something else. I quote verbatim from these accounts.
Here’s Andrew Goodman, interviewed at the age of 97: “I was born in slavery and I think them days was better for the niggers than the days we see now. One thing was, I never was cold and hungry when my old master lived, and I has been plenty hungry and cold a lot of times since he is gone. But sometimes I think Marse Goodman was the bestest man God made in a long time. The slaves cried when told we were free ‘cause they don’t know where to go, and they’s always ‘pend on old Marse to look after them.”
Here’s Henri Necaise of Mississippi: “To tell de truth, de fact of de business is, my marster took care of me better’n I can take care of myself now. When us was slaves Marster tell us what to do. He say, ‘Henri, do dis, do dat. And us done it. Den us didn’t have to think where de next meal comin’ from, or de next pair of shoes or pants. De grub and clothes give us was better’n I ever gets now.”
Here’s Ezra Adams: “De slaves on our plantation didn’t stop workin’ for old marster even when dey was told dat dey was free. Us didn’t want no more freedom than us was gittin’ on our planation already. Us knowed too well dat us was well took care of, wid plenty of vittles to eat and tight log and board houses to live in. De slaves, where I lived, knowed after de war dat they had abundance of dat something called freedom, what they could not eat, wear and sleep in. Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’ ‘less you got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis living’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work.”
As an immigrant who came to America with $500 in my pocket and no family here, no connections, nothing to fall back on, I know at least a little what it’s like to be flung into freedom. I am hardly comparing my experience to that of former slaves but in India I did see the people known as Dalits or “untouchables.” Those people have historically been treated worse than slaves; they are so reviled that traditional Hindus would not allow their shadow to cross over them. The untouchables, too, fell into a kind of collective stupor in which they could hardly imagine a route of escape from their degraded lot.
Based on that experience, I have nothing but sympathy for these poor slaves who had been turned into complete dependents during slavery and were then hurled into freedom in a society where, to put it mildly, they were not welcome. Thus I am not criticizing their longing for the security of the old plantation; I am merely recognizing it as a natural and powerful response to their dire situation.
LBJ would have recognized it just as I do. The difference is that I get it from books, reinforced by my own, admittedly quite different, experience. But LBJ grew up in the Texas Hill Country. He was a redneck from the rural backwoods. He knew people like Andrew Goodman, Henri Necaise, and Ezra Adams. He understood their insecurity; he understood their fear, in part because he was helping to create it. And now, years and even decades later, LBJ saw a way to exploit that insecurity and fear to offer blacks a new arrangement. This deal became the essence of LBJ’s Great Society.
A Corrupt Bargain
Here’s the bargain that LBJ offered African Americans. We Democrats are going to create a new plantation for you, this time in the towns and cities. On these new plantations, unlike on the old ones, you don’t have to work. In fact, we would prefer if you didn’t work. We are going to support you through an array of so-called poverty programs and race-based programs. Essentially we will provide you with lifetime support, just as in the days of slavery. Your job is simply to keep voting us in power so that we can continue to be your caretakers and providers.
Here’s the part LBJ did not say. We are offering you a living, but it’s going to be a pretty meager living. Basically you get public housing, food stamps, retirement checks every month, and medical care for the poor. If you have children we will subsidize them, provided they are illegitimate. More than this we cannot offer you, because we have to make sure that you stay on the plantation. This means that we need you to remain dependent on us so that you keep voting for us. Your dependency is our insurance policy to make sure that this an exchange, not a giveaway.
In sum, LBJ modified the progressive plantation so that blacks, for the first time, would be treated as constituents, much as the Irish were in the Tammany days. No longer would Democrats directly rip off the blacks by stealing their labor. Now blacks would become partners with Democrats in a scheme to steal from other Americans. Through a variety of taxes, regulations and mandates, those would be the guys paying for the Democratic plantation.
What made the scheme beautiful, from the Democrats’ point of view, is that through the state the Democrats could force even Republicans to pay for their new urban plantation. In fact, the very sufferings that Democrats historically had imposed on blacks would now supply the moral capital for demanding that “America” make blacks whole. Future arguments for reparations and affirmative action would emphasize not what the Democrats did but what “America” did. Now the American taxpayer would be on the hook for correcting the wrongs perpetrated by the Democrats.
LBJ knew, of course, that not all blacks live in inner cities. Less than half of African Americans today do, and that was also the case in the mid-’60s. It was never LBJ’s intention for all blacks actually to inhabit the urban plantation. Rather, he wanted about half to live there, dependent on the government, and for the other half to work for the government, serving the urban plantation. These blacks could now be considered overseers of the Democratic plantation.
LBJ knew that if the government were to employ blacks on a large scale it would draw blacks out of fields like teaching, preaching, and small business. Teachers, pastors and entrepreneurs would now become administrators, service providers, and social workers. In sum, they would lose their skills for succeeding in the private sector and learn only how to administer the agencies of government. They too would become captives of a sort, fatally dependent on the Democratic plantation. They too would have no way to leave.
From the perspective of LBJ’s deal, African Americans could now look to the federal government as a new type of Big House. LBJ himself would be Massa, although he could be considered a good master as long as blacks lived up to their end of the deal. And LBJ probably genuinely believed it was a good deal for blacks. After all, who else gets a living from cradle to grave without having to work! Even so, shrewd artificer that he was, LBJ must have known that he was making blacks complicit in their own captivity, a captivity no less real for being voluntary. Few would actually have a chance to escape from the Democrats’ urban plantation. Some might even learn to love the plantation.
Blacks took the deal for the following reasons. First, having come out of the haunting experience of slavery and sharecropping, many of them were terrified of what African-American writer Shelby Steele terms the “shock of freedom.” Much as we would all feel in a similar situation, to them a meager security seemed preferable to the risk of not being able to survive. Second, some blacks had come to believe—as some do now—that because of past oppression, America owes them a living.
Republicans of course know there is some truth to this, which is why during Reconstruction Republicans attempted to give blacks a fair start but were thwarted in these efforts by racist Democrats. Today’s Democrats, however, are all too eager to affirm that blacks require the lifetime support of the U.S. government because this then provides the pathway to political dependency on the Democratic Party.
One consequence of LBJ’s deal is that race, which black leaders from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. had been trying to eradicate from public life now took on a new significance. Now blacks wanted to be known as black, and black even became “beautiful.” No was one surprised when progressive pundit Cornel West published a book called Race Matters. As Shelby Steele wryly noted, race never mattered to such people when there was no profit in it for them.
Also as a consequence of LBJ’s deal, Democrats became the new champions of blacks voting. From LBJ on, Democrats wouldn’t merely advocate that blacks vote; they would in many cases supply the buses to take them to the polls. In her book on the great migration, Isabel Wilkerson writes, without irony, “Suddenly the very party and the very apparatus that was ready to kill them if they tried to vote in the South was searching them out and all but carrying them to the polls.” If LBJ were around to read this, I’m sure he would have found it hilarious.
That’s why LBJ “converted” from a racist Democrat who sought to keep blacks down on the old sharecropping plantation to a racist Democrat who sought to create a new type of plantation where blacks would now willingly vote for their Democratic providers. That’s why LBJ pushed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the Great Society. That’s why progressives lionize LBJ even though they know what a vile scumbag he was. He’s their guy; he is the creator of their urban plantation in its most modern and most recognizable form. And that’s why blacks have become, as a group, the lifetime servile dependents of the Democratic Party.
Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book Death of a Nation was published July 31 by St. Martin’s Press. His movie of the same title is in theaters nationwide.
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