The ’60s were not just about the shaggy counterculture—as much was accomplished in reshaping the status quo by “the institutions of national politics and the politicians and bureaucrats who inhabited them.”
So write Mackenzie (Government/Colby Coll.; The Irony of Reform: Roots of American Political Disenchantment, 1996, etc.) and Weisbrot (History/Colby Coll.; Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence, 2001, etc.), who submit that the story of these often faceless civil servants is little known. Yet, they convincingly demonstrate, the ’60s afforded perhaps the last time that a liberal government and a liberally inclined voting populace agreed that government could be an agent of change for social good, and that it could both lead the people and follow their will. At the beginning of the decade, note the authors, much of America was locked in a state of racial apartheid, while Dixiecrat segregationists controlled nearly three-quarters of the standing committees in Congress; women scarcely figured in politics, and not a single major corporation had a woman at its head; the environment was a mess; many cities were impoverished and crime-ridden, their white middle-class population having begun to depart for the suburbs en masse. But since the people largely trusted government, it could do something about all these things and, moreover, actually did do something. Mackenzie and Weisbrot trace the shift of political power to younger liberals such as Philip Hart, Eugene McCarthy and Dan Rostenkowski through the workings of the Democratic Study Group, a party within the Democratic Party that “allowed its leaders to…galvanize a liberal coalition on significant pieces of legislation.” So thorough was the shift that Lyndon Johnson would quietly complain that “John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.” During the years 1963–66, the liberals forced significant progress in almost every aspect of American life. Yet, as the authors suggest, it was the failings of the Johnson administration—particularly the Vietnam War—that eventually ended the liberal moment.
Apart from a good, sturdy narrative history, there are useful lessons here for political activists and progressives.