Social Security: America’s Longest Legislative War

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President  Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot, while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

The State of the Union Address is typically an annual demonstration of frictional political masturbation, in which the sitting Chief Executive uses up an entire bottle of presidential speech-writers’ lube in an attempt to assure the American public that the future is bright and that they aren’t getting royally screwed from every possible angle by a sweaty, panting, Viagra-popping combination of sociopathic plutocrats and re-election-obsessed government drones. As a result, the SOTU usually ends up as a crusty rhetorical sock in the national bedroom’s unattended hamper: forgotten, unacknowledged, a source of necessary shame.

But on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama, a Commander-in-Chief now well into the twilight, lame-duck years of his two-terms in the Oval Office, decided to kick off his last years in power by using the State of the Union address to launch a bucket-full of rhetorical grenades into the squawking macaw gallery that is the Republican Party. Now free from the burden of re-election, and facing a conservative-controlled House and Senate that won’t touch his legislative proposals with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole, Obama nonetheless gave a full-throated defense of American liberalism. He defended the use of government to mitigate the blunt force of market fundamentalism that, for decades now, has left American wages stagnant, has flooded the one-percent’s coffers with Scrooge McDuck levels of cash, and has turned the government into one giant, sticky-floored lobbyists’ whore-house.

The President invoked liberalism’s legacy to trumpet “middle-class economics.” The ideological core of his speech lay in the following lines: “Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work…We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street.” Middle-class economics, the President reminded us, is embodied in the idea that, “this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Obama then rattled off a list of major initiatives designed to bolster his program of “middle-class economics,” including affordable healthcare, college, childcare, housing, and retirement.

As the New York Times’ Thomas Edsel highlights, the President’s proposed broad-based tax-cut for middle-class Americans, when combined with a relatively minor tax increase on the über-weathly, would help mitigate the anxiety currently wracking the middle class and working poor in an economy that is overwhelmingly titled in favor of the obscenely rich. Of course, none of these proposals have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of passing through the Republican-stuffed congressional Turducken, and Obama knows this. But he wasn’t looking for legislative action; rather the President sought to reestablish the value of American liberalism as a worthy political ideology, one that has served America well in the past and can serve it even better today.

And why should a lame-duck president launch a defense of liberalism in the last years of his second term, you may ask? The answer is straightforward: the successes of American liberalism has always been rivaled by conservatives’ relentless drive to destroy those successes, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the 80-year war over one of America’s most cherished benefit programs — and a linchpin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — Social Security.

As Talking Points Memo’s Dylan Scott reports, on the first day of the 114th Congress, conservatives enacted a little-noticed rule designed to kill Social Security via a slow bleeding death. This change “puts a new restriction on the routine transfer of tax revenues between the traditional Social Security retirement trust fund and the Social Security disability program.” This rule, couched in obscure language, will likely trigger a manufactured funding crisis in Social Security’s disability trust fund, giving Republicans the chance to use the threat of benefit cuts to “negotiate” a “grand bargain” that would ultimately slash entitlement programs that benefit millions of Americans.

A 1930s era poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. Just look at that socialist moocher!

A 1930s era poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. Just look at that socialist moocher!

And why would Republicans launch this type of attack on such a cherished program that provides millions of elderly Americans with a major source of income? Simple: conservatives don’t believe that the state has the right to help those who cannot help themselves. Instead, they believe that the marketplace is a proving-ground that separates the worthy from the unworthy, and that those who fail to succeed in this allegedly fair capitalist Thunderdome deserve to be treated as the moochers and deadbeats that they supposedly are, as opposed to being feted with state-sponsored pay-outs robbed from truly deserving capitalist Übermensch.

Thus, we see prominent wingnuts like Kentucky senator — and libertarian nematode — Rand Paul claim that most recipients of Social Security disability checks were “gaming the system,” and that, “if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.” Well, that settles it then! Everyone who benefits from Social Security is a moocher, because…well…just because! Paul’s claims are the kind of by-the-numbers right-wing boilerplate that wingnuts have lobbed at Social Security and, by extension, the New Deal, for almost a century now. Indeed, the American Right is nothing if not persistent in their never-ending quest to restore pre-New Deal America.

In 1935, FDR signed the original Social Security Act into law as part of his larger series of programs and initiatives, referred to collectively as the New Deal, that were designed to combat the Great Depression. Social Security began as a form of old-age insurance, funded through payroll taxes, which Roosevelt imagined as a tool for reducing Depression-era labor force competition by removing older workers from the market and giving them a guaranteed, secure retirement — thus making room for younger workers who desperately needed jobs.* As renowned historian David M. Kennedy writes in his book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, Social Security was one of three elements: work relief, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions, that FDR saw “as parts of a unitary whole, a comprehensive strategy to put the country on a pathway to sustainable economic and social stability.”* Indeed, like the rest of the New Deal, Social Security was an attempt to save capitalism from its worst excesses.

Moreover, Social Security was not intended to be a mere handout. In keeping with the American ideal that hard work should not go unrewarded, FDR and his advisors believed that Americans should contribute to Social Security through taxes in order to benefit from it. Kennedy notes that Social Security was based on “private insurance principles,” and that FDR “clearly intended to establish his social security system not as a civil right but as a property right. That was the American way.”* The original Social Security act has since been amended to include multiple social welfare and social insurance programs, and even programs such Benefits for People With Disabilities — which Rand Paul and his ilk want to torpedo — pay benefits based on strictly examined financial needs.

Ironically, as historian Ira Katznelson observes in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, a combination of conservative opposition to, and approval of Social Security secured its passage into American law. Depression-era conservative Southern Democrats stood as gatekeepers of their region’s iron-clad system of racial apartheid, and they supported government-backed social insurance only insofar as it benefitted whites only. The original draft of the Social Security act included “farmworkers and maids” as potential recipients, but the majority of these workers just so happened to be southern blacks. Thus, in exchange for conservative southern congressional support, blacks were denied eligibility for Social Security benefits. As Katznelson writes, “southerners could vote for the bill that brought much-needed funding to their poverty-stricken region while protecting the character of its racial arrangements.”*

While FDR managed to get qualified support from conservatives in his own party, his Republican opponents claimed that the act would “impose a crushing burden on industry and labor.” Moreover, conservative southern Democrats also came to reject Social Security. In 1937, Democratic Senator Josiah W. Baily of North Carolina lead a bi-partisan coalition that drafted the so-called “Conservative Manifesto,” which accepted the need for a vague type of social insurance but firmly opposed any further New Deal programs as a threat to American freedom. In a short speech to the U.S. senate, Baily exhorted fellow conservatives to action. “‘In God’s name, do not do nothing while America drifts down to the inevitable gulf of collectivism. Stand up for the American system of enterprise and the great American principles which have made enterprise what it is,'” he bellowed.*

In this respect, conservatives of all stripes always believed that Social Security should ideally be rejected or, at the very least, kept far away from the “undeserving.” As conservatism has become more openly radical over the last several decades, the “undeserving” has gradually come to mean everyone who benefits from social insurance programs, period. Conservatives of different stripes started by claiming that Social Security would unduly benefit blacks and introduce socialist precedents into the private marketplace. Now, modern conservatives are targeting the disabled as a way to finally dismantle the system for everyone, because they never really believed in it in the first place.

President George W. Bush tries to ralley suppoert for his 2005 Social Security privitzation plan.

President George W. Bush tries to rally support for his 2005 Social Security privatization plan under the humorous banner of “strengthening” the program.

But despite conservatives’ long history of ideological opposition to Social Security, millions of Americans supported it from the get-go. After FDR signed the Social Security Act into law, clergymen (yes Christian clergymen) sent letters to the President in which they voiced their support for the program. “My dear Mr. President,” wrote Charles Breck Ackley, a pastor at New York’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, “[t]he Old Age Pensions have been a wonderful thing for us here in the State of New York…and for the old people themselves no words can express the peace and sense of joy that comes from the removal of that awful dread and want which faces old age.” Walter Procter, a Presbyterian clergyman and director of the Mayor Chapel and Neighborhood House in Indianapolis, was even more forthright to Roosevelt. “Governmental capacity,” he argued, should “ally itself with the individual workers as against the greed and unscrupulousness, the ruthless competition, the brutal exercise of power and privilege of ‘rugged individualism’ to which the battle is to the strong and the devil take the weak.” Procter believed that Social Security was “an attempt to partly meet the situation. A small step, but nevertheless a step in the right direction — the faint streaks of the dawn of the better day.” How’s that for populist righteousness?!

Americans would do well to remember the long fight that made Social Security possible, and they would do well to reconnect with the Liberalism that has provided financial security to millions. This isn’t an unreasonable request. After all, in 2005, Americans of all political spectrums widely rejected President George W. Bush’s hair-brained scheme to partially privatize Social Security by allowing people to invest some of their payroll tax contributions into private accounts, where they could “invest in a ‘conservative mix of bonds and stock funds.'” Americans need only look at the 2008 economic crash to recognize the inherent folly of investing their guaranteed security funds into the unregulated casino that is the stock market, but even without this hindsight, they refused to buy President Bush’s claims about the wisdom of Social Security privatization.

Hopefully, Americans won’t buy this latest round of right-wing attacks on Social Security either. If history shows nothing else, it shows that when it comes to guaranteeing security from the worst aspects of plundering, unregulated capitalism, conservatives shouldn’t be, nay, can’t be trusted. Remember, it starts with the so-called “moochers” who are gaming the system, but this is always a ruse enacted by those who never supported the system in the first place.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 257-58, 266.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 260.

* See John Robert Moore, “Senator Josiah W. Bailey and the ‘Conservative Manifesto’ of 1937,” Journal of Southern History 31 (Feb., 1965): 36.

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One Comment

  1. Simple solution to strengthen social security is everyone has 100% of their income taxed. Require everyone including gov. workers to be in it. No cost of living increases. Of course, aggresively prosecute fraud. This is the best and fairest way to maintain this system for future generations.

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