January 18, 2008
News pundits have been exploring the political battle now raging between Hillary and Obama and their respective followings about who was most responsible for the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, the then president Lyndon Johnson, who helped to grease the skids for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act, or the later publicly revered object of our new civil cult, MLK. In a recent syndicated column, George F. Will defends Hillary for “uttering the incontestable truth that President Lyndon Johnson as well as Martin Luther King Jr., was indispensable to enactment of the civil rights act of 1964 and 1965.” With due respect to the black partisans surrounding Obama, who have objected to conceding too large a role to the federal government in King’s achievement, Hil may in fact be right. I for one couldn”t imagine how King could have had any long-term effect on our lives without the assistance of the state and the pro-big-government media. The modern managerial state has been a key player in all kinds of social and cultural transformations. Without state power, for example, neither German Nazism nor Soviet Communism would have become world historical disasters. Moreover, it inconceivable that the Cultural Revolution that engulfed Western Europe in the 1970s would have impacted as strongly as it did on succeeding generations, if its promoters had not taken over their governments and imposed behavior modification on their fellow-citizens.
What explains the unwillingness of blacks to appreciate state power in this case is their reluctance to share the credit for constructing a “racially sensitive” society with white administrators. But it was indeed white and black administrators who were delighted to enforce what the black activists wanted. Within sixteen months of the enactment of the Civil Rights bill, public administrators had used it to push affirmative action programs, in violation of the bill’s apparent race-neutral principles. While these enforcers might have been pursuing their own goals, e.g., increasing their control over an increasingly docile and disunited society, what they did also affected the fortunes of black activists and, to a lesser degree, those of a larger black constituency. Hillary Clinton and I would disagree about the merits of what these arrangements created, but she is to be commended for understanding the significance of that fitful expansion of administrative power that occurred in the 1960s.