TLDR: Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which led to a more robust safety net and other societal changes, started with a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1964.
He used the popular idea of equality to entice Americans to catch his vision, and challenged them to become the “Great Society” he knew they could be.

So What? Johnson implemented his policies (such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Civil Rights) during his administration, and over the next several decades, they became the standard for how society takes care of the “least among us.”

President Lyndon Johnson presented the idea of the “Great Society” as one where fighting poverty, ignorance, and racism were our paramount challenges. While we see these goals as normal and positive today, Johnson had to make his argument repeatedly to implement the change he wanted to see.

It’s important to understand the context of the Great Society. In many ways, it was one of the most forward-looking and progressive political platforms the U.S. had seen in decades. Johnson saw its emphasis on social justice, equality, and support for the poor and marginalized as the moral obligation of a society that purported to call itself free. 

Still, some politicians argued that these programs would create a welfare state where citizens would depend on government programs to survive. While conservatives might say that ideal policy should discourage long-term dependency on the government, few would suggest rolling back such initiatives as Medicare, Medicaid, education funding and development aid for depressed areas, and the removal of obstacles to voting that included literacy tests. 

Indeed, The Great Society’s initiatives have permeated the national consciousness in a way that now seems irreversible. Johnson’s speech was the beginning of this permeation. How did he communicate so effectively?

Focus on the Ideal

An extension of Johnson’s focus on equality was how he incorporated other aspects of an ideal society and encouraged people to pursue them. He championed taking care of the environment, improving education for all students, and improving city life by funding public transportation and developing blighted areas–initiatives Americans still fund and support today. 

Johnson’s language urged people to develop a vision of how “great” our society could be. He said, 

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. 

Johnson knew that the 1950s had produced rapid economic expansion and wealth, and he wanted to see that wealth used to benefit everyone in society, not just those already rich or greedy enough to grab as much wealth as possible.

The Great Society was to be a great leveler among Americans, and even if it didn’t exactly make the rich poorer, it did a lot to raise the standard of living for most Americans and lifted many people out of poverty through better education and better access to health care and other government services.

president Lyndon Johnson portrait signing papers

Issuing a Challenge

Probably the biggest strength of Johnson’s speech was how he challenged his audience–in this case, brand-new college graduates–to fulfill his vision for the country. Johnson carefully crafted the speech to issue this challenge and plainly used the word “challenge” several times in the speech.

He sets the tone this way: “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 our American civilization.”

He also uses the word at the conclusion of his image-casting: “It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

Near the end of his speech, he combines his challenge with repetition to directly ask whether his audience will join him in the efforts to make America into his vision of a “great society.”

So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace–as neighbors and not as mortal enemies ?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?

Emphasis on Equality

The most important thing Johnson did to get the ideas of the Great Society into the minds of Americans is emphasize the concept of equality. At the time, people were awakening to the idea that one’s race should not impact their value in society and the country was truly embracing the ideal of equality for all Americans of all races and genders. 

“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” he said. Johnson would go on to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made segregation and discrimination illegal. 

He knew that education was the main way his goals of equality could be achieved. He said, “Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.” While complete equality in education and in society has not been achieved, the barriers to opportunity have been lowered to a great extent compared to 1964.

The clear way Johnson communicated his goals and objectives for America helped people see it as a possibility, then as an imperative in many cases. “Great Society” programs became Johnson’s legacy after he left office in 1968, and have continued to define how most people think the government should help the poor.

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