Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bad History in the Social Security Debate
I think we can expect a lot more of this in the coming months.
In an attempt to promote President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security, nationally syndicated radio host and former Reagan administration official William J. Bennett and FOX News managing editor and anchor Brit Hume falsely claimed that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advocated replacing Social Security with private accounts. In fact, while Roosevelt advocated "voluntary contributory annuities" to supplement guaranteed Social Security benefits, he never proposed replacing those benefits with private accounts.


Former Social Security associate commissioner James Roosevelt Jr., Roosevelt's grandson, noted in a January 31 Boston Globe op-ed piece: "The implication that FDR would support privatization of America's greatest national program is an attempt to deceive the American people and an outrage."

As a debate tactic, what Bennett and Hume are attempting is as old as written language and probably older. They are attempting to make their ideas unassailable by claiming that they spring from ancient revered authorities. This argument is especially effective with conservative audiences, so it's no wonder that conservative pundits would use it to push forward the agenda of an ultra-conservative president.

As history, Bennett and Hume are committing two sins. The first is misrepresentation or just plain lying. The second is trying to draw an ahistorical parallel. This is the act of pulling historical examples and saying they are relevant to present day issues because of some similarity. There is nothing wrong with using historical examples in debate, but the issues have to match.

In this case, the real problem is the misrepresentation. If the Roosevelt program had been what Bennett and Hume claimed it was, then they would have had a valid parallel. But it wasn't, so they don't. This then undermines the debate tactic. They appealed to a revered authority for support and the authority didn't support them. They lose this round.

Cross posted at The Carnival of Bad History.

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