The Resource War and Social Security Expansion

One of the most important chimeras of contemporary American politics is that the major political party that has for decades schemed to undermine the New Deal and Great Society retirement programs–albeit via proposals marketed as reforms or even as ways to “save” the programs–now claims white seniors as its crucial electoral base.

To some extent that’s because white seniors do have interests beyond protecting Social Security and Medicare, both material and cultural. But Republicans deserve some credit for managing to pose as the champions of the retirement benefits of their senior constituents, partly by grandfathering them out of all the various “reform” proposals in ways that suggest they are willing to execute big benefit cuts for tomorrow’s retirees in order to protect today’s, and partly by claiming that Democrats are poaching on old folks’ earned benefits (they’re not really entirely earned, but don’t tell a senior that!) to generate money to give to those people via “welfare” benefits. This is how you get Paul Ryan, one of the craftiest schemers for getting rid of Medicare as we know it, standing next to his mother at a Republican National Convention pledging to protect Mama’s Medicare from that evil Barack Obama.

As befits someone who was among the first to spend a lot of time analyzing the “resource war” Republicans were waging on behalf of their demographic constituencies against the Obama Coalition, Tom Edsall is continuing to warn progressives that the politics of senior economic anxiety is not, as one might expect, stimulating old folks’ progressive inclinations. Instead, fears about retirement security are making many seniors habitually open to conservative attacks on “welfare,” Obamacare, SNAP, and other safety net programs that are not for their own benefit.

That is one reason why, says Edsall, Democrats are increasingly inclined to re-establish their reputation as the champions for retirees by favoring an expansion of Social Security.

One strategy that holds promise for Democrats is to go on the offensive, to shift attention to domestic programs that have strong public support. In fact, segments of the party are moving in this direction, proposing to expand benefits rather than to merely defend them, especially in the case of universal programs that voters back decisively, like Medicare and Social Security.

Eighty-two percent of voters support maintaining Social Security payments even if it means raising taxes, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. More than two-thirds of poll respondents favor raising the $118,500 cap on income subject to Social Security taxation.

Merits aside, the big advantage of this strategy is that it virtually guarantees a re-establishment of partisan differentiation on retirement programs. Republicans may disguise their bad intent towards Social Security and Medicare, or ensure current seniors are exempt from cuts. But they cannot follow Democrats into the land of expanded retirement benefits without the virtual certainty of being hunted down by the Koch Brothers and targeted for extinction in their
next primary.

And so it makes abundant political sense, so long as progressives are willing to be honest and careful about two interconnected issues: (a) the fiscal tradeoffs involved in expanding retirement programs, and (b) the moral risk of abandoning or taking for granted those people in pursuit of those more-likely-to-vote old white folks. It’s not enough to intone “universal benefit programs are more popular” and act as though need should no longer be considered a moral criterion for redistribution, or pretend there’s a way to build the society we want with no redistribution at all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.