Conservatives don't appreciate the inevitability of this reaction because they think of The New Deal as a radical, top down policy agenda that FDR and a bunch of other elites conceived and implemented by forcing it upon the country. In their version of the 1930s, Dr. Townsend and others like him don't exist. In actual history, however, it is astonishing how rapidly and widely the idea he put into the newspaper spread.
The immediate reaction was encouraging enough that he and a colleague incorporated Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd. on January 1, 1934. Eight months later, the first Townsend Club was organized, and chapters soon sprang up all over the United States. "By January 1935, a half million Americans had joined Townsend Clubs and were sending nearly $1 million in dues and other donations into the movement's headquarters," Starr writes. That same year, a newly elected congressman from Los Angeles arrived in Washington, D.C., and promptly introduced legislation to implement The Townsend Plan. Townsend made the cover of Newsweek. Come 1936, membership in Townsend Clubs surpassed 2.1 million people, and The Townsend National Weekly was earning roughly a quarter-million dollars a year in advertising fees for support stockings, constipation remedies, and other geriatric products. "In terms of yearly coverage in the New York Times," Edwin Amenta wrote in his history of the movement, the Townsend Plans rank "as the eighth-most publicized U.S. social movement organization of the twentieth century."
The takeaway is simple: Old age pensions were a bottom up demand made by the citizens of a country far less accustomed to social welfare spending than is ours. Nor were they merely a leftist phenomenon. There were FDR Democrats and Upton Sinclair socialists, to be sure, but the Townsend clubs tended to support Republican candidates, and were seen by contemporaries and some historians as right-wing populists -- that era's answer to Glenn Beck fans. "In Sinclair Lewis' best-selling It Can't Happen Here (1935), a demagogue modeled on Huey Long manipulates organizations like the Townsend Plan to win the presidency and implement fascism," Amenta writes.
Dr. Townsend, an obscure senior citizen turned national activist and celebrity, wrote a letter to the editor at a moment of personal failure and anxiety about the future. His legion of fans faced straits as dire, and conservatives of that era had no compelling counter-proposal to address their needs.
That dynamic tells us as much about the passage of old age pensions in America -- FDR pushed Social Security through as a more moderate iteration on the same idea -- as the abstract debate about the appropriate role of the federal government that we have all these years later, removed from Depression era need.
We pretend that first principles and presidents make policy. In the long run, however, bad times always arrive, and anxious citizens look to big government unless functional alternatives are available. It's something Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek both understood, but the most strident advocates of ending big government seem to have forgotten it.