Robert Galbraith / Reuters

The Dignity Deficit

Reclaiming Americans' Sense of Purpose

"He who establishes conventional wisdom owns history,” a historian once told me. So it’s no surprise that ever since last year’s extraordinary U.S. presidential election, all sides have been bitterly fighting over what happened—and why. The explanations for Donald Trump’s surprise victory have varied widely. But one factor that clearly played an important role was the alienation and disaffection of less educated white voters in rural and exurban areas. Trump may have proved to be a uniquely popular tribune for this constituency. But the anger he tapped into has been building for half a century.

The roots of that anger lie all the way back in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his so-called War on Poverty. Only by properly understanding the mistakes made in that war—mistakes that have deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity—can the country’s current leaders and political parties hope to start fixing them. And only once they properly understand the problem will they be able to craft the kind of cultural and political agenda that can heal the country’s wounds.

ALL THE WAY WITH LBJ

On April 24, 1964, Johnson paid a highly publicized visit to Inez, the biggest town in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County. Inez was the heart of coal country, the most typical Appalachian town that Johnson’s advisers could find. In the 1960s, “typical Appalachian” meant a place suffering from crippling despair. The citizens of Inez were poor. Many of them were unemployed, and their children were malnourished. Johnson had chosen Inez to illustrate that dire poverty was not just a Third World phenomenon: it existed right here at home, and not just in cities but in rural America as well. But he also came to Inez to announce that this tragedy could be remedied.

In one famous photo op, Johnson stopped by the home of a man named Tom Fletcher, an unemployed 38-year-old father of eight. The president climbed Lexington Herald-Leader by John Cheves, “Fletcher never finished elementary school and could not really read. The places where he had labored—coal mines, sawmills—were closed. He struggled to support his wife and eight children.” The president used Fletcher’s struggles as a springboard for his own announcement. “I have called for a national war on poverty,” he declared. “Our objective: total victory.” Years later, Cheves reports, Johnson still remembered the encounter. “My determination,” he wrote in his memoirs, “was reinforced that day to use the powers of the presidency to the fullest extent that I could, to persuade America to help all its Tom Fletchers.” Over the next five decades, the federal government would spend more than $20 trillion trying to achieve Johnson’s dream with social welfare programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. 

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