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Social Security: Interpretation 2

Barton Bernstein

"The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform"

Historian Barton Bernstein, writing in the late 1960’s, argued that the New Deal was no revolution, and that the changes suggested by Degler and others had been exaggerated. Bernstein argued that President Roosevelt protected the existing political system and that changes in attitude and policy regarding laissez-faire policies were less a break from the preceding years than earlier historians had characterized them. The New Deal was a narrow program of limited reform that excluded millions of Americans. Equality and justice for the poor and Blacks were not advanced by the New Deal; middle-class people and the American system of corporate capitalism got further protection. Bernstein saw the New Deal as fundamentally a conservative program partly motivated by a fear of more radical ideas.

Specifically, Bernstein saw the Social Security Act as a response to the more radical ideas and programs attractive to many Americans, like those proposed by Huey Long and Francis Townsend. The Act, he wrote, was more symbol than substance. Workers had to contribute to their old age pensions and could not depend on government contributions: thus, it was a limited kind of aid. More than one of every five workers was excluded from the pension plan, including those who worked on farms and as domestic help and this workforce was disproportionately black or female. Bernstein argued that while the New Deal reduced suffering, it did not deserve the praise for revolutionizing America that others lavished upon it. It was a limited and safe reform program couched in inflated rhetoric that actually did little to change the country’s economic and political structure and even less to reform American race relations.

Barton Bernstein (1968). "The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform" in Towards a New Past.