Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams have brought together first-rate scholars from a wide range of subfields who are making structures of state power—not moments of crisis or partisan realignment—integral to their analyses. All of the contributors see political history as defined less by elite subjects than by tensions between state and economy, state and society, and state and subject—tensions that reveal continuities as much as disjunctures. This broader definition incorporates investigations of the crosscurrents of power, race, and identity; the recent turns toward the history of capitalism and transnational history; and an evolving understanding of American political development that cuts across eras of seeming liberal, conservative, or neoliberal ascendance. The result is a rich revelation of what political history is today.
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Private Data and Public Culture in Modern America
Sarah E. Igo
How are Americans known by their state, and with what ramifications for individual privacy and political culture? Asked urgently today, the question surfaced as early as the first censuses of the population. But it captured broad public attention in the decades defined by the Depression and World War II, provoked by the U.S. government's new — or at least newly open — methods of tracking its people. Honed during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the century and refined through the Bureau of Investigation's domestic surveillance activities during World War I, such techniques were in this era extended to a much broader swath of the citizenry. From birth certificates to passports, administrative tracking was becoming part of the bureaucratic everyday. In the New Deal, it would come wrapped in the guise not of social order but of social benefit — indeed, social security.
What scholars have termed the administrative state entered citizens' lives in new ways and to novel ends in the 1930s. It ballooned further during World War II, when the scale of government activity came to dwarf the New Deal programs "that had seemed gargantuan only a few years earlier." The state had been a locus for fears about centralized authority since the first days of the American republic, of course. But the state understood as administrator or bureaucrat was a product of the twentieth century. As federal agencies loomed larger in Americans' lives, they also became a focal point for reflecting on individual privacy. How much knowledge about its own citizens ought a government possess? And what would an administered society mean for the people caught in its net?
These questions became less abstract with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. A landmark piece of legislation, still considered "the most expansive and important social welfare program in the United States," the act ushered in old-age and unemployment benefits for a large segment of the population. Less noticed, it also marked the U.S. government's first widespread use of personal information to identify and administer specific individuals, in the form of the Social Security number (SSN). The SSN was an essential mechanism of the ambitious new program, which as reformer and social scientist Sophonisba P. Breckinridge put it in 1935, "contemplates the participation in all of our lives of the federal, state, and local governments and puts, for the first time, a degree of validity into the expression 'American standard of life.'"
Standard here referred to a minimum threshold for subsistence, but it implied a kind of standardization common to large-scale administrative projects. Unprecedented though it was in scope, Social Security was in step with a set of identification and documentation practices well advanced by the early decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, its planners drew from other nations' experiments with administering citizens' identities, particularly those of France, Britain, and Brazil. "Seeing like a state," in James C. Scott's influential formulation, hinged on making citizens "legible" and thereby amenable to the designs of officials and planners. The expansion of "paper identities" was thus intertwined with a mode of governance able to register and recognize specific persons.
States were never the only authors of this documentary impulse. Life insurance outfits and credit agencies were two of the powerful private entities driving the creation of what we would now call "personally identifying information." Through the efforts of private as well as public agencies, modern Americans were becoming deeply enmeshed in webs of bureaucratic verification. A columnist for an Atlanta newspaper wryly testified in 1942 that "every law-abiding citizen today" had "his vest pockets ... crammed with credentials," including "a draft registration card, a social security card, a driver's license, a hospitalization card, an insurance card, a gasoline ration book, a sugar ration book, a finger-print identification card, a shopper's credit card," and so on. "Practically all of these items stress the fact that I am me and nobody else; without them, I would officially cease to exist," he quipped.
For this columnist, Social Security cards were just one piece of a "thoroughly classified, documented, and cross-indexed" modern existence. Yet these cards warrant special scrutiny for the fashion in which the numbers imprinted on them bound data to entitlements and individuals to the state — enlisting Americans in their own bureaucratic visibility by making manifest the benefits of identification. The federal government's numbering of individuals, and the potential tracking it permitted, did not escape public notice. Quite apart from discussions over Social Security's substantive merits, this feature of its operation engendered sharp questions from a strange set of bedfellows: the Republican opposition as well as African Americans, labor unions, working women, and religious groups. But we must not read backward from our anxious contemporary stance toward identity documents; nor should we assume that state surveillance loomed large for most citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. Concern about Social Security numbers in that era, while evident, competed with another view, in which the nine digits were broadcast, even cherished, as proof of membership in a newly generous polity. This was, we might say, legibility with benefits.
The proud claiming of a Social Security number, a bureaucratic instrument of the expanding welfare state, may today strike us as strange. That dissonance compels us to recognize the ways that the New Deal state has been remembered differently — both in our partisan political culture and in our scholarly accounts — than it was experienced at the time. The lived history of the SSN reveals that earlier Americans' relationship with their identity cards, and with the agencies that tracked their affairs, diverged markedly from our own. It also helps us appreciate the fungibility of the very contents of the public and the private. Understanding how, in those decades of depression and war, "private" data could advance a public claim or identity requires an imagination tempered by time.
The Early Days of Tracking
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in American history. Intended to provide benefits for the elderly, dependent, and unemployed through a payroll tax, it pledged — in a word — security for millions of Americans. A vast scholarly literature now examines the impulses behind, the architects of, and the ideological assumptions built into Social Security and other institutions of the New Deal state. Considerably less attention has been paid to the by-products of the new administrative system, and particularly the assigning of unique identifying numbers to citizens. What did this intersection of numbering and state building mean for the Americans newly in Social Security's embrace?
Given its exclusion of certain classes of workers — agricultural laborers and domestics, and thus African Americans, most prominently (and deliberately) — Social Security was not a national system in the sense that it covered all citizens or residents. Initially, only those in commercial and industrial employment, roughly 60 percent of the nation's paid workforce, were encompassed by the program. Nevertheless, the legislation's reach was unparalleled, establishing something akin to a "national enumeration system." It also differed in kind from most prior state ventures to gather information from Americans. The U.S. Census, although it aggregated reams of personal information, made no decisions pegged to particular individuals' data. The Social Security system was designed to do just this: track specific workers' payroll contributions over their entire lifetimes in order to pay out appropriate benefits. Not only, that is, did Social Security need to enlist millions of workers into the program; it also had to keep those individuals in its sights for decades to come.
As a result, SSNs raised in an early form the dilemmas of a society organized around the collection and maintenance of what the agency itself described as "considerable personal and confidential information." It was an issue tailor made for partisan combat, and Social Security's opponents did not squander the opportunity. Republican operatives seized upon the issue of state-issued identification numbers, whipping up fears of regimentation and improper state invasion into Americans' private lives.
This was the point of a colorful political stunt engineered by the publisher William Randolph Hearst and the Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman John D. M. Hamilton on the eve of the 1936 presidential election. Not only would workers hand over to the state a stash of sensitive private information, including — the RNC (falsely) claimed — one's religious and union affiliations, "physical defects," and marital status. They would soon also be required to wear "dog tags" listing their Social Security number. A central exhibit in the Republican campaign against Social Security was a fabricated photograph of the offending item, pictured on a chain around a young man's neck. "If the Roosevelt administration is returned to power, we shall see two groups of citizens in this nation," thundered the RNC chair at a rally in Boston: "those who are numbered and those who are not numbered." The former were the unlucky "27 million men and women who will be forced to report to a politically appointed clerk, every change of their residence, every change in their wages, every change of their employment." For at least some in the crowd of twenty thousand at the Boston Garden who responded with "repeated waves of applause" to Hamilton's invocations of police cards and state surveillance, this was the road to European-style despotism. As Americans watched developments unfold in Hitler's Germany, associating Social Security with other forms of state coercion was a charge with some potency.
The episode fits neatly with conventional wisdom about Americans' reflexive antistatism — their jealous resistance to infringements of their individual liberty — not to mention American historians' received view of the New Deal as cementing the modern liberal-conservative divide. Indeed, even before the Republican attack, the Social Security Board (SSB) was highly sensitive to the public relations of numbering the population, certain it served a people who had "always been fearful of anything that might suggest the loss of some personal freedom through formal records of identities." Thus the board scrupulously avoided the term registration to describe the enrollment effort, instead favoring enumeration — an attempt to assimilate the new practice with the long-standing one of census taking. It also insisted, somewhat disingenuously, on the "entirely voluntary" nature of applying for an account number. Moreover, that number, it was stressed, was for the holder's convenience and not for identification. In response to the RNC "forgery," planners stated emphatically that Social Security did not "intend nor had it ever intended to issue identification disks to American workers." Finally, the SSB described information about marital status and union ties as "matters private in their nature and of no legitimate concern to the Federal Government," adding that "no such questions would be asked now or at any time in the future."
Evidently, the board believed that it was tightly constrained by the public culture in which Social Security was taking root and needed to tread carefully. Each decision it made regarding the rollout of the SSN was carefully weighed not just for its administrative implications but also for its political ones. Internal debates over how best to track Social Security's beneficiaries, vigilant attention to questions of public reception, and strenuous avoidance of fingerprinting or anything that resembled "registration" all point to a bureaucracy focused on exerting the lightest touch possible. But was the Social Security Board — or the RNC, for that matter — correct in its estimation of the American public? Evidence suggests that citizens were not nearly as anxious about "registration" as either Social Security's strongest advocates or bitterest opponents suspected. Indeed, a mere twenty-eight days after the initial distribution of employee forms, Social Security reported the receipt of more than twenty-two million completed applications out of an expected twenty-six million. Moreover, it seems clear that those who did worry about the gathering and use of their personal data did not direct that worry at the state.
Certainly some concerns were raised about the government's information collection project: the fact that it would, under the auspices of Social Security, possess files on millions of Americans, with more to be added every year. The Social Security Board was aware that "a great many employees were naturally very anxious to know how the information on the employee's application was to be used." Alert to potential criticism, the SSB had determined early on that the "minimum necessary" information was to be requested in order to set up a Social Security account. Only the worker's name, address, date and place of birth, sex, "color," parents' names, and name and address of employer were ultimately deemed "essential for either identification or the actuarial studies required of the Board." This was a considerably less capacious list than the RNC had manufactured in its campaign against Social Security, but even it was too long for some.
African American leaders were particularly incensed about the inclusion of a racial designation on the application form. "The element of color was inserted for one reason and for only one reason," charged an editorial in the Pittsburgh Courier: "to more easily discriminate against Negroes." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) vigorously but unsuccessfully challenged the agency on this point, convinced that such information would "inevitably be used in various ways, both obvious and subtle, to practice discrimination based on race." Being tagged bureaucratically by one's race, these writers understood, was to be made more visible and thus more vulnerable in a society still structured along caste lines. A desire to keep aspects of one's identity private — whether age, marital status, religion, work history, politics, or ethnicity — was apparent in other citizens' reactions to being "registered" as well.
This was not precisely a worry about a Big Brother state, however. It soon became clear that many potential account holders were concerned not about what the government might do but about what employers would do with their newly divulged personal information. In order to obtain a Social Security number, workers were to fill out an application blank and return it to the Post Office — which was spearheading the initial enumeration effort — either directly or through their union or workplace. Just as soon as enrollment began, the board began handling questions about employer coercion. Numerous workers complained of having been instructed to return their forms via their employer or else be fired. Employees keenly understood the threat this posed. Details of their work histories and personal backgrounds were items they often kept carefully shielded.
It was a particular worry for women and Jewish workers, Social Security administrators noted, "because they have falsified their age to their employers or because they are married women representing to be single in order to retain their positions or they are jews [sic] who have changed their names because the organization for which they work is antisemitic." Here the board simply acknowledged well-known facts. Religious minorities occupied a precarious place in American society in the 1930s: one 1934 study documented still-high levels of discrimination against Jews in employment and housing and against Catholics in political and civic affairs. Divulging information about one's religion or ethnicity via a telling surname on an official form would have been especially worrisome for these Americans — particularly the chance that it would make its way back to employers. On their part, hundreds of working women called the Social Security Board to ask whether their bosses would be alerted to their age or marital status, information female workers often falsified in order to get or keep a job. An anonymous letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune, signed by "The 'Fibbers,'" fretted over this problem, asking whether Social Security applications had to be handed over to employers or could be sent to the agency directly, and whether discrepancies between what was reported to Social Security and to the company would be discovered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shaped by the State"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth-Century U.S. Political History / Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams
Part I. Building Leviathan
Chapter 1. Social Insecurities: Private Data and Public Culture in Modern America / Sarah E. Igo
Chapter 2. The Strange Career of American Liberalism / N. D. B. Connolly
Chapter 3. “Really and Truly a Partnership”: The New Deal’s Associational State and the Making of Postwar American Politics / Brent Cebul and Mason B. Williams
Chapter 4. State Building for a Free Market: The Great Depression and the Rise of Monetary Orthodoxy / David M. P. Freund
Chapter 5. La revolución institucional: The Rise and Fall of the Mexican New Deal in the U.S. South, 1920–1990 / Julie M. Weise
Part II. Crisis and Continuity
Chapter 6. The Short End of Both Sticks: Property Assessments and Black Taxpayer Disadvantage in Urban America / Andrew W. Kahrl
Chapter 7. Clearing the Air and Counting Costs: Shimp v. New Jersey Bell and the Tragedy of Workplace Smoking / Sarah E. Milov
Chapter 8. Glocal America: The Politics of Scale in the 1970s / Suleiman Osman
Chapter 9. The Government Alone Cannot Do the Total Job: The Possibilities and Perils of Religious Organizations in Public-Private Refugee Care / Melissa May Borja
Chapter 10. A Carceral Empire: Placing the Political History of U.S. Prisons and Policing in the World / Stuart Schrader
Chapter 11. Fears of a Nanny State: Centering Gender and Family in the Political History of Regulation / Rachel Louise Moran
The History of Neoliberalism / Kim Phillips-Fein
Ten Propositions for the New Political History / Matthew D. Lassiter