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The Chicago Daily Tribune urged Republicans to vote against a Democratic presidential candidate in order to end “costly experiments in state socialism.” Democrats, the writer wailed, sought to “clothe the federal government with paramount power over every kind of enterprise.” A Republican slur against the $1.9 trillion economic rescue package that President-Elect Joe Biden unveiled on January 14, 2021, right?
Nope. The year was 1935. The dangerous presidential candidate Americans were being warned against was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the collectivism he was legalizing was a centerpiece of the New Deal, the Social Security Act.
Republicans have long claimed that Democrats undermine the Constitution and the free market with “socialist” proposals that take power from the people. During the most recent election, President Donald Trump repeatedly framed the 2020 campaign as “a choice between a socialist nightmare and the American dream.”
But this strategy is almost a century old, and has been used to try to drive voters away from candidates as different as Lyndon Johnson and Hillary Clinton. And programs that conservatives now take for granted were once viewed as part of a liberal totalitarian scheme. During the 1930s, for example, conservatives warned that the Social Security Act was an unconstitutional step on the road to socialism. Under the Constitution, they argued, only the states—not the federal government—had the authority to award pensions.
Under the 10th Amendment, powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people. Federal authority, conservatives like former President Herbert Hoover argued, was limited to regulating interstate commerce. Since old-age pensions and unemployment insurance did not involve a consumer good or product passing from one state to another, they believed that the federal government had no constitutional authority to establish such polices.
In the midst of the economic calamity of the Great Depression, a liberal vision for the proper role of modern government. In response to Republicans’ strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, the Roosevelt administration advanced a far more expansive view of federal power, one that had first emerged under progressive president Theodore Roosevelt. Rather than limiting the scope of the federal government to merely regulating interstate commerce, Roosevelt argued that the framers gave Congress broad powers to “levy taxes . . . and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”
A modern economy was too complex for the states to tackle alone, Roosevelt argued. Only the federal government, he claimed, could respond to the “need to meet the unanswered challenge of one-third of a nation ill-nourished, ill-clad, ill-housed.” While the Supreme Court ultimately rejected New Deal legislation like the National Industrial Recovery Act and the first version of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, it accepted Roosevelt’s reasoning and upheld the constitutionality of the Social Security Act, which—in addition to establishing the principle of national pensions for the elderly—created the framework of unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children, and other key components of the social safety net.
Today, attacks on benefits to the elderly are seen by both parties as the “third rail” of American politics, and Republicans no longer fulminate against Social Security. But the other programs that were originally bundled into this bill have continued to fuel conservative fears about creeping socialism. Republicans differentiate between Social Security—which they support—and progressive policies like Medicare-for-all, which they view as socialism (until 2019, the American Medical Association also opposed any form of national health care.) Even though President-Elect Biden has distanced himself from more radical Medicare-for-all proposals put forward by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which would eliminate private insurance, President Trump continued to insist that the Democrats would push through such a plan if the ”socialist” Biden was elected.
Labeling any comprehensive government health care plan as socialism, while maintaining a mysterious silence about social security, which enrolls nearly all Americans, has been effective. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that three-quarters of the Republicans they interviewed opposed Medicare-for-all. The most common reason given for their opposition was that they didn’t want government involved and thought that such a program would be too expensive. And Tea Party Republicans, some of the most fiscally conservative and libertarian party members, have argued that they have paid Social Security taxes and thus have a right to their money once they retire. Medicare-for-all, they believe, would raise their taxes in order to pay for someone else’s health care.
In fact, the dedicated payroll taxes that qualify a worker for Social Security also go to other people. The payroll taxes workers and employers pay today fund the old-age pensions of current retirees. Unlike a 401(k), individuals do not have a Social Security account. Taxes on the wages of future employees will pay for the retirement of current workers.
Nor do retirees receive the same amount as they paid: they receive more. A 2013 Urban Institute study found that a two-earner couple receiving an average wage of $44,600 in 2012 dollars would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and would receive $966,000 in benefits.
In other words, this couple receives about one-third more in benefits than they paid in taxes. A couple with only one wage-earning spouse who also earned $44,600 gets an even better return. That worker would have paid in $361,000 if they turned 65 in 2010, but could get back as much as $854,000.
The old-age pensions provided under the Social Security Act, once ridiculed as unconstitutional and socialist, have also been enormously successful in tempering what FDR called the “hazards and vicissitudes of life” for many retirees. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that, without Social Security, 21.7 million more Americans would live under the poverty line. Social welfare policies like the supposedly socialist Social Security Act protect, not threaten, the American dream for millions of citizens.
That would be true of Medicare-for-all as well: even after the Affordable Care Act of 2010, two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are caused by catastrophic medical bills. Without federal action, it’s easy to predict that the Covid-19 pandemic will be closely followed by a pandemic of bankruptcies, as families and individuals are deluged with hospital and ambulance bills in the tens—or hundreds—of thousands of dollars.
This is the kind of personal disaster, multiplied by millions of people, that a “socialist” program—Social Security—helped to solve. So although Joe Biden isn’t a socialist, if he can use federal dollars to solve the economic and healthcare crisis that he has inherited, maybe conservatives can look at the monthly check that their constituents, their parents, and even some Congressmen receive—and get used to a little more socialism.
Colleen Doody is Associate Professor of History at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.