by Geschichte Grad | 7/22/2009 07:26:00 PM
Progressives, I would think, would be well advised to engage in some fruitful comparisons between the social security debate of 1935 and the health care debate of 2009. I'm sure someone's written on this already--although I Googled "compare new deal social security debate and health care debate" and didn't get anything, so this must be original, right?--so clue me in in the comments. Until then, here are my own thoughts on the matter, both for the sheer fun of historical comparisons and the action I hope such a comparison inspires.

Ahh, the summer of 1935...we remember it so well. FDR was facing criticism from the right (the American Liberty League) and from the left (Huey Long, Father Coughlin, etc.). Democrats held the House and Senate. Meanwhile, the American people demanded the relief that private, local, and state institutions could not provide. After decades of abortive attempts, the time finally seemed right for some sort of old-age and unemployment insurance. FDR's administration and Democrats in Congress launched a massive push for a program of economic security. Republicans were outraged, claiming that Social Security would bankrupt the government, introduce socialism, assault liberty, and destroy America. Progressives clutched their pearls, as well, noting all the limits to the administration's plan: its regressive contributory model; its exclusion of farm workers and domestic servants; its relinquishing of power to undependable state governments; etc.. Social Security, it must have seemed at the time, was on the ropes.

In the summer of 2009, we see plenty of similarities. New president facing left/right criticism: check. Democrats holding legislative and executive branches: check. American people demanding relief (this time, from the cost of health care or the lack of it): check. And it seems like now, more than ever--more than Truman facing resurgent Republicans, more than LBJ racking up immense war deficits, and more than the Clinton machine thirsting for power instead of designing policy--health care reform might actually make it. The right hates the idea, of course: socialism, bankruptcy, un-American, etc. The left, too, has its issues, particularly with censorship of the words "single payer," and those misgivings have led some progressives to hold back their support.

But it seems to me that we (progressives, that is) have a choice. We can abandon this leaky health care reform ship and let it go down. The best case scenario is that there's such a wide-spread public reaction that we get a proper single-payer health care system. Worst case: people get sick without health care. This is happening already, and I don't think that's acceptable. Health care reform, much like social security, begins with an essentially moral proposition: it's wrong that millions of people don't have access to health care.

The second option is to throw our support behind the best bill we can get now and work on it later. This is precisely what happened in 1935. SSA passed and it was seriously limited, but revisions in 1939 and 1950 removed those limits, and the Social Security Act of 1965 went even farther with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid. I'd suggest that the same thing can happen with health care reform: we can make it better later.

Because here's the crucial point: once it's in, it ain't going away. The first post-FDR Republican president, Eisenhower, wouldn't touch Social Security with a ten-foot pole, and his conservative successors have followed in his footsteps. Bush tried, but even with total Republican control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, it didn't happen. And they're scared now for the same reasons: (a) it's going to make Democrats wildly popular and (b) once we get it, it's not going away.

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Blogger AndrewMc on 7/26/2009 1:28 PM:

Good essay. What's also amazing is how often the right uses "socialism" as a scare tactic. Social Security, medicaid, medicare, anti-smoking legislation, &c &c &c. It's their go-to phrase whenever they hate something but cannot muster a decent argument against it.


Anonymous Nashville_fan on 8/12/2009 10:06 AM:

Excellent article - I found this by trying to find info about the very same thing! lol

Keep up the great work!

Americans aren't too big on history or facts these days sadly . . .


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/12/2009 11:26 AM:

"These days" as opposed to which days?


Blogger MadMc44 on 3/22/2010 9:10 AM:

This is the morning after the House Vote on Health Care Reform '10 and I googled what measures did the repubs. use in 1935 to prevent Social Security from passing. It will be interesting to see if the President will have the support to get it past the Senate's muster and if it passes hopefully it will be treated like Social Security --too hot to touch in the years ahead.
No legislation is perfect but I have to say Timothy Jost, Law professor at Washington & Lee commenting on C SPAN this morning had comments that were constitutionally sound.
Thank you for this essay-it put some light on the subject for me.