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What FDR knew . . .
And Democrats today haven’t figured out
Better than any other president, Franklin Roosevelt understood that bad things can happen to good people. His first 39 years had been blessed by inherited wealth, educational opportunity, handsome looks, an athletic constitution, and ready access to the corridors of political power. He became a rising star in the Democratic party, landing a spot on the national ticket as vice presidential nominee in 1920.
And then disaster struck, or what seemed like disaster at the time. Roosevelt contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. His disability appeared to signal an end to his political career. "Cripples," as disabled people were often called in those days, were rarely seen in political life, and never at the highest level. Most observers, including members of Roosevelt's own family, expected him to retire to the family estate at Hyde Park, New York, beyond intrusive public view.
But Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, had different ideas. Overcoming her own shyness, she kept his name alive in New York politics by speaking on his behalf to various constituencies. And she pushed him to get back out in the arena. He ran for governor in 1928 and was elected in time for the stock market crash of 1929. Re-elected in 1930, he had responsibility for the most populous state in the Union amid the worst depression in the country's history.
Roosevelt knew that he hadn’t brought on his own personal misfortune, and he could appreciate that millions of New Yorkers and Americans ruined by the Great Depression had not brought on their misfortune. They were the unlucky victims of forces beyond their control.
This understanding caused Roosevelt to champion a new approach to the relationship between government and individuals in American life. He persuaded Congress to approve the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided income support in old age and times of adversity. It was based on the principle that bad things can happen to good people through no fault of their own, and that a civilized country has an obligation to support those in need.
The idea was not original with Roosevelt. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, had pioneered it in the 19th century. American progressives had taken steps in this direction in the early 20th century.
But no American administration had embraced it as comprehensively as Roosevelt's did in the 1930s. The idea met stiff resistance from conservatives who complained that such an approach undermined the individualism that had made America great. Government handouts would erode initiative, the conservatives said; they were the first step on the path to socialism.
Roosevelt overcame the opposition by a deeply insightful tactic. He presented social security not as a gift to the impoverished but as a guarantee to all. Pension payments, the most visible part of the program, would not be means tested. Rich people would receive social security checks just as poor people did.
This was dubious economics, making the program much more expensive than it otherwise would have been. To many people, it appeared ridiculous. Why should a millionaire receive a comparatively puny pension check from the government?
Roosevelt understood the economics, but he understood the politics of social security even better. He was asking the American people to take collective responsibility for one another. The essence of social security was the belief that we're all in this together. Everyone gets old; everyone is subject to the vicissitudes of the economy and of life in general. We are all alike in facing risks none of us can control.
It was to foster this feeling of one for all and all for one that Roosevelt insisted on the comprehensive approach to social security. Everyone would contribute, via payroll taxes; everyone would receive, via pension checks and, potentially, unemployment benefits. "We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits," Roosevelt explained afterward. "With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”
Roosevelt's approach got the social security law through Congress, and it has preserved Social Security ever since. Social Security has become the most popular government program in American history. Every generation or so, budget cutters propose means-testing Social Security payments. The idea makes economic sense, just as it did in Roosevelt's time. But the politics have always stood in the way. Defenders of Social Security understand that as soon as it is seen as a program for the poor, it will lose support among the larger number of non-poor. As from the beginning, it has to be viewed as something that unites rather than divides. Otherwise those damn politicians will pick it apart.
Today's progressive Democrats would dearly love to create something comparable to Social Security, whether a Green New Deal, an expansion of the Affordable Care Act or something else. Many of them cite Franklin Roosevelt as their inspiration.
But meanwhile they pursue policies that make that goal impossible. The identity politics that has come to dominate the Democratic party contradicts the all-in-this-together approach that Roosevelt understood to be crucial in getting Americans to go along with a broad expansion of social services. Equity, in Democratic parlance, has come to mean treating different groups differently. The professed justification is that this is merely compensation for previous discrimination. This argument might persuade those making it, but it is lost on many others who don't feel responsible for that past discrimination, not having been alive at the time.
The equity argument has been conspicuously unsuccessful in winning majority support among the American people. If anything, it seems to be losing ground for the Democrats. Meanwhile it continues to block the other half of the Democratic agenda. Progressives express frustration and often puzzlement, wondering why they’re getting nowhere in such a worthy cause.
Franklin Roosevelt could have told them why.