Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) thinks that America was on point before 1965. Recently, the hardline conservative — who just became a contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination — expressed his sentiments at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, DC. According to Santorum, things were just fine in the U.S. before the creation of the welfare state. And he claims that President Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism.
“Social conservatives understand that America was a great country because it was founded great,” Santorum told the crowd. “Our founders, calling upon in the Declaration of Independence, the supreme judge, calling upon divine providence, said what was at the heart of American exceptionalism…’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.’”
“He was talking about Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance, and it was in response to the Ryan budget,” Santorum said, referring to Obama. “And he said this, talking about these three programs: He said ‘America is a better country because of these programs. I will go a one step further: America is a great country because of these programs.”
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“Ladies and gentlemen, America was a great country before 1965,” Santorum added. But was it?
In 1965, in the middle of the civil rights movement, the country was in the midst of eliminating the vestiges of Jim Crow racial segregation, a system that disenfranchised African-Americans. That year, police brutally attacked voting rights protestors during a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The previous year, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, where they were registering blacks to vote. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fifteenth Amendment that was ratified 95 years earlier.
The act states that “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The legislation was special because it allowed for direct federal action to help blacks register to vote. The U.S. Attorney General was now empowered to appoint supervisors to oversee voter registration where literacy tests and other poll tests were in use, or where fewer than half of voting age residents voted or were registered to vote in 1964.
The Voting Rights Act was a perfect complement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbade discrimination by race and gender. The act outlawed discrimination in voter registration and public accommodations, encouraged public school desegregation, and authorized the withholding of federal funds to agencies that discriminate. In addition, Title VII of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in businesses with 15 or more employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to enforce Title VII. Civil rights legislation was an integral part of Johnson’s Great Society program. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning,” President Johnson said in remarks at the University of Michigan in 1964. “The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents…. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”
With laws against discrimination in daily life came legislation banning discrimination in America’s immigration policy. The Immigration and Nationality Act ended discriminatory quotas based on race and ethnicity, which allowed primarily Northern and Western European immigrants to enter the U.S. As a result of the act, immigration increased dramatically, as did the country’s ethnic diversity. In the 1950s, 53 percent of immigrants were Europeans, and only 6 percent were Asians. Meanwhile, by the 1990s, only 16 percent were Europeans and 31 percent were Asians.
Another element of Johnson’s Great Society was the Social Security Act of 1965, which gave birth to the signature government programs known as Medicare and Medicaid. The former — which would undergo dramatic changes and become a private voucher system under Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposed budget plan — provides federal health insurance coverage to people 65 years and over and the disabled. The latter provides medical benefits for the poor.
The 1965 of which Rick Santorum speaks was a big year in the war on poverty. The Omnibus Housing Act provided federal funds to construct housing for low-income Americans. School breakfast programs and food stamps have helped millions of families fight hunger. And Head Start was launched that year to help with the social and cognitive development of low-income preschool children through educational, health, nutritional, social and other services. Conservatives opposed Head Start, characterizing it as a Soviet-style program that interfered with parents raising their children.
Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government for the first time committed itself to funding American public schools. Special education has aided children with learning disabilities, and bilingual education has helped transition Spanish-speaking students so that they do not fall by the wayside. In addition, Congress made legal services available to the poor through the Economic Opportunity Act, while Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) served as a domestic Peace Corps by providing vocational training to the underprivileged.
With the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities would fund artists and galleries with public money, and make theater accessible to a national audience through the development of new orchestras, opera and dance companies and playhouses. Two years later, Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB provides funding to PBS, NPR, and public radio and television stations.
Conservatives such as Santorum decry liberal judges, and favor conservative judges who believe in the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers. Santorum once called for the abolition of the Ninth Circuit Court, a federal appeals court on the West coast that is regarded by conservatives as a liberal body with a high proportion of Democratic appointees. He campaigned against three Iowa state judges who ruled in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, and said liberal judges are “destroying traditional morality, creating a new moral code and prohibiting any dissent.”
Meanwhile, in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, a liberal-leaning Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn the anti-miscegenation laws, Jim Crow statutes that prohibited interracial marriage.
That year, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibited employment discrimination against people 40 years of age or older. And the 1968 Civil Rights Act provided for equal opportunities in housing, and prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing based on race, religion, or national origin.
In one respect, however, things actually were better in the good old days whose praises Rick Santorum sings. However, it might not be what the presidential candidate had in mind. Since the 1970s, income inequality in the U.S. has increased, and is now at an 80-year high. Arguably, the rising inequality is due to attacks on the Great Society legacy, including banking deregulation and taxation policies that benefit the wealthy — ranging from Reagan-era trickle-down economics to Clinton-era neoliberalism — policies which Santorum favors.
So the question remains, was America better before 1965? Well, it depends on your point of view. If you are a conservative who views the Great Society legacy as a big government intrusion into the lives of people, then the answer is yes. If you think government has no business protecting civil rights, funding schools and feeding hungry children, increasing economic opportunity and promoting the arts, your answer will undoubtedly be yes.
However, if you are an African-American who enjoys exercising the right to vote, or a senior who doesn’t want anyone touching your Medicare, or someone who believes the federal government has a role to play in fighting poverty, chances are you have a different view of things.