Some things never change. “The lash of the dictator will be felt," a Republican House member said in 1935 when Social Security was first proposed. “Social Security is the delinquent child of the left,” a Fox News commentator said this week, “that grew up to be an evil dictator.”
“Dictator”? A program created by popularly elected politicians, and which enjoys widespread support among voters?
Polls have consistently shown that Americans are extremely pleased with Social Security, which provides benefits are costs far below those in the private sector. But, as the program celebrates its 80th birthday today, Republicans are still working to erode the public’s trust in it, just as they did when GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon called it “a fraud on the workingman” in 1936 and said “the saving it forces on our workers is a cruel hoax.”
To campaign against Social Security is to court political suicide. (It certainly didn’t help Alf Landon; he was trounced.) It therefore becomes imperative to convince voters instead that the program is unreliable. That’s the Republican strategy.
Elements of the strategy include:
Insist that the program’s $2.8 trillion trust fund isn’t real, that it consists of “only IOUs” – a description that could just as easily be applied to the Treasury bonds held by billionaires and Wall Street banks, or any other legally executed instrument of debt.
Exaggerate minor imbalances between the retirement and disability funds – funds which many experts believe should have been merged long ago – in order to convince voters that one or both of them is “running out of money,” despite its $2.8 trillion size. This gamesmanship extracts a very real human cost.)
Repeatedly describe Social Security as “going broke,” despite its massive cash flow. Exaggerate relatively minor future shortfalls, without mentioning that they could easily be fixed – and benefits expanded – if millionaires and billionaires were willing to pay into the program at the same rates as middle-class Americans.
Starve Social Security’s administrative budget, even though that budget comes out of Social Security funds and not general revenues, just as millions of baby boomers claim retirement benefits for the first time. Use any resulting delays or difficulties to claim that “government isn’t as efficient as the private sector,” despite the fact that Social Security is run much more cost-effectively than any private corporation in the same general line of business.
The Social Security Act was signed on August 14, 1935. Eighty years later, that’s a heck of a way to wish it a happy birthday.
Why do they do it? Part of the objection is clearly ideological. They don’t want to admit that there are some things that government simply does better than the private sector. That helps explain the overheated rhetoric from the Fox set. To that extent, at least, Social Security’s detractors are sincere (if wrongheaded).
But one cannot discount the self-interest of the billionaires who serve as the patrons of right-wing politicians and (at times) pundits. Many of them don’t want to pay into the Social Security system at the same rate as middle-class Americans and the working poor. It is in their self interest, therefore, to convince voters that Social Security contributes to a larger federal deficit (it doesn’t, because it’s fully self-financed) and that it’s “going broke.” That way, they hope, voters will insist on cuts in order to “preserve the program for future generations.”
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his race against Landon, “It is an old strategy of tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.”
At least 14 of the 17 Republican candidates for the presidential nomination have come out for Social Security cuts in some form. Only Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump have indicated they oppose cuts, while Dr. Ben Carson has remained silent on the subject. (Nancy Altman has more details here, and you can read some of the candidates’ anti-Social Security rhetoric here.)
Republicans also oppose expanding Social Security’s benefits, although polls show overwhelming support for the idea among voters across the political spectrum. But the idea has gained ground among Democrats. Of the three major Democratic candidates for president, only Hillary Clinton has yet to indicate support for a benefit increase. (This week she appeared to move closer to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan to increase taxes for very high earners, however, an idea she opposed in 2008.)
That’s a major shift from recent decades, during which “centrist” Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama indicated their support for benefit cuts – a gesture that was too often taken as a sign of “maturity” or “realism” in the money-fueled Beltway culture.
The shift in Democratic rhetoric seems to reflect a growing awareness of the electorate’s deep satisfaction with Social Security, and its deep commitment to the program’s survival and expansion. It also highlights the extent to which, on this historic anniversary, Republicans are out of step with both history and the public mood when it comes to Social Security.