On Jan. 1, 1937, Social Security became effective, which meant workers and employers began making payments into a special U.S. Treasury account. The Republican Party, seeing an opportunity to siphon off labor support from President Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election began a political fear campaign.
In the weeks preceding the election, workers’ pay envelopes were stuffed with this message: “We are compelled by a Roosevelt New Deal law to make . . . a deduction from your wages . . . you might get this money back, but there is NO guarantee. . . . Decide before election day whether or not you wish to take these chances.”
The Republican leadership joined the scare tactics. GOP vice presidential candidate Frank Knox declared that Social Security “puts half the working people of America under federal control.” Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon asked, “Imagine the field opened to federal snooping. . . . Are their photographs going to be kept on file in a Washington office?” A Hearst newspaper front page screamed, “Do You Want A Tag And A Number In The Name Of False Security?”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speechwriter later recalled, “At least 85 percent of the press was against him.” Of the metropolitan dailies, about 75 percent had endorsed the GOP challenger.
The two previous Democratic Party presidential candidates, Al Smith (1928) and John W. Davis (1924), campaigned against Roosevelt’s re-election.
But FDR never flinched. In a Madison Square Garden speech, he declared, “Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that government is best which is most indifferent.” Then he added, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”
Republican leaders underestimated American workers. A Social Security supporter asked: “Why didn’t the boss put any political propaganda in your pay envelopes four years ago? Because there weren’t any pay envelopes.”
On Election Day, American voters bestowed upon Roosevelt five million more votes than he received in 1932.
A few weeks ago Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who is now a spokesman for the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, claimed in an Illinois Times column: “The really effective legislation in our history – Social Security and Medicare, for instance – was passed with solid, bipartisan support.”
Ignoring sacrifices made by President Roosevelt is a common tactic used by corporate Democrats today.
In 1966, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson said this about the politics of Social Security and Medicare: “I didn’t have time to check all the record but in the first bill – the Social Security Bill – the Republican Party – 99 percent of them – voted to recommit (i.e. kill) on the grounds that it was Socialism, and only a few months ago (1965), 93 percent of them voted to kill Medicare – another very important part of Social Security.”
The real work in Congress takes place in committees. Both Social Security and Medicare passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee without a single Republican vote.
In 1965, Illinois had 24 congressmen – 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans. All 14 Democrats voted for Medicare on final passage, and so did a lone Republican from Waukegan. Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, voted for Medicare, but all of his Indiana Republican House delegation voted against it.
FDR fought against those who believe in a “most indifferent” government. When a group of his advisers attempted to change the funding system for Social Security, Roosevelt responded: “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their benefits . . . with those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”
Let’s make sure 2018 candidates stand for something besides fear and bogus calls for bipartisanship. As a labor leader once said: “Reward our Friends, and Punish Our Enemies.” Let’s pay enough attention to the candidates, the issues and the coming election so we know the difference.
Bill Edley is a 36-year Democratic Party activist, former Illinois Democratic Party state representative, Illinois Democratic National Convention delegate and Bernie 2016 field organizer. He earned a master’s degree in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2012. He lives in Springfield.