Deja views

Attacks on Social Security are as old as the program Itself.

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Social Security is a “cruel hoax…unjust, unworkable,…and wastefully financed.” Sound like the words of millionaire presidential contender Steve Forbes? Or maverick billionaire Ross Perot? Or maybe Robert Shapiro, of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council? Actually, the sentiments come from 1936 Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon.

Business groups from that era also took swipes at the program. “Self-reliance has been the key to American success…the initiative, thrift, and self-sacrificing foresight of the individual,” explained one group.

Social Security has been a fixture for so long — since 1935 — that we take it for granted. But until the 1950s, it was hotly contested. In its early years, conservatives pursued two strategies to undermine it: They tried to limit who could benefit from it, and they opposed the accumulation of a vast government-managed pool of investment funds for Social Security.

These early critics of Social Security claimed that aiding the least privileged of society was their top priority. They advocated minimal “flat-rate” pensions for anyone in extreme need, while arguing that the nation could not “afford” to pay for pensions calibrated to middle-class incomes. Why would conservatives want to help the poor first? Because it made political sense. The last thing Republicans and business leaders wanted was for middle-income Americans to gain a stake in a large, popular federal government program. Conservatives, then and now, know it’s far easier to minimize — or eliminate — programs that benefit only the poor.

Critics also campaigned hard against the government investing accumulated payroll taxes in interest-generating securities — even though that would have been the most fiscally sound plan for the long run. Again, their political logic was paramount: They wanted to minimize government’s role as much as possible.

Conservatives largely prevailed on the matter of investments, but over the decades they lost the struggle to keep the middle class out of Social Security. By the late 1970s, most American families had a big stake in Social Security.

After 1980, conservatives realized the program was too popular to attack head-on. Today, their tactic is to convince younger, middle-income Americans that Social Security is on the brink of bankruptcy. They denounce proposals for publicly managed investments and maintain that the only way to prepare for the retirement of the baby boom generation is to break Social Security into individual accounts and let Wall Street take over. To realize this right-wing dream, conservatives — Republicans and Democrats alike — are exhorting Americans to turn away from government and rely on free enterprise and individual initiative. Where have we heard this before?

Skocpol is the author of Boomerang: Clinton’s Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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