OP-ED

The Rebirth of Social Darwinism

What kind of society, exactly, do modern Republicans want? I’ve been listening to Republican candidates in an effort to discern an overall philosophy, a broadly-shared vision, an ideal picture of America.

They say they want a smaller government but that can’t be it. Most seek a larger national defense and more muscular homeland security. Almost all want to widen the government’s powers of search and surveillance inside the United States – eradicating possible terrorists, expunging undocumented immigrants, “securing” the nation’s borders. They want stiffer criminal sentences, including broader application of the death penalty. Many also want government to intrude on the most intimate aspects of private life.

They call themselves conservatives but that’s not it, either. They don’t want to conserve what we now have. They’d rather take the country backwards – before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the forty-hour workweek, laws against child labor, and official recognition of trade unions; even before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Federal Reserve.

They’re not conservatives. They’re regressives. And the America they seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century.

It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free enterprise, but few Americans actually enjoyed much freedom. Robber barons like the financier Jay Gould, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, controlled much of American industry; the gap between rich and poor had turned into a chasm; urban slums festered; children worked long hours in factories; women couldn’t vote and black Americans were subject to Jim Crow; and the lackeys of rich literally deposited sacks of money on desks of pliant legislators.

Most tellingly, it was a time when the ideas of William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, dominated American social thought. Sumner brought Charles Darwin to America and twisted him into a theory to fit the times.

Few Americans living today have read any of Sumner’s writings but they had an electrifying effect on America during the last three decades of the 19th century.

To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive – and through this struggle societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.

Listen to today’s Republican debates and you hear a continuous regurgitation of Sumner. “Civilization has a simple choice,” Sumner wrote in the 1880s. It’s either “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest,” or “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

Sound familiar?

Newt Gingrich not only echoes Sumner’s thoughts but mimics Sumner’s reputed arrogance. Gingrich says we must reward “entrepreneurs” (by which he means anyone who has made a pile of money) and warns us not to “coddle” people in need. He calls laws against child labor “truly stupid,” and says poor kids should serve as janitors in their schools. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says,  ”I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing.”

Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.”

Mitt Romney doesn’t want the government to do much of anything about unemployment. And he’s dead set against raising taxes on millionaires, relying on the standard Republican rationale millionaires create jobs.

Here’s Sumner, more than a century ago: “Millionaires are the product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done… It is because they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands – both their own and that intrusted to them … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society.” Although they live in luxury, “the bargain is a good one for society.”

Other Republican hopefuls also fit Sumner’s mold. Ron Paul, who favors repeal of Obama’s healthcare plan, was asked at a Republican debate in September what medical response he’d recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Paul’s response: “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” The Republican crowd cheered.

In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.

Social Darwinism offered a moral justification for the wild inequities and social cruelties of the late nineteenth century. It allowed John D. Rockefeller, for example, to claim the fortune he accumulated through his giant Standard Oil Trust was “merely a survival of the fittest.” It was, he insisted “the working out of a law of nature and of God.”

Social Darwinism also undermined all efforts at the time to build a nation of broadly-based prosperity and rescue our democracy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the privileged and powerful to convince everyone else that government shouldn’t do much of anything.

Not until the twentieth century did America reject Social Darwinism. We created the large middle class that became the core of our economy and democracy. We built safety nets to catch Americans who fell downward through no fault of their own. We designed regulations to protect against the inevitable excesses of free-market greed. We taxed the rich and invested in public goods – public schools, public universities, public transportation, public parks, public health – that made us all better off.

In short, we rejected the notion that each of us is on his or her own in a competitive contest for survival.

But make no mistake: If one of the current crop of Republican hopefuls becomes president, and if regressive Republicans take over the House or Senate, or both, Social Darwinism is back.

Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997. He shares many of his thoughts and columns at Robert Reich, where this post first appeared.

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BrandyOmizzy911Jeff HarristimDeterminedMD Recent comment authors
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Brandy
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Definitely imagine that that you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the net the
simplest factor to be aware of. I say to you,
I certainly get annoyed at the same time as other folks consider issues that they just don’t realize about.
You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the entire thing with
no need side-effects , people could take a signal.

Will probably be back to get more. Thank you

Omizzy911
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Omizzy911

i still dnt get what Social Darwinism is?>

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Just curious, how do some commenters here define “quality of life”?

Jeff Harris
Guest

To my peeps….I know you are there. I am patient also with 45 years of diabetes, hep C for 33 years and debilitating connective tissue disease. Projected longevity at age 19 was 42. I am 55 and still HERE. Healthcare Reform is creating a market for “Patient Advocate”. I have lived through no control, gate-kedeping PCPs, Managed Care, Cost Sharing and Disease Management and participated in all throughout my healthcare career. Every time we “re-model” we add another fix in the form of a professional discipline or market . For example: Acute care LOS is capitated by DRG so we… Read more »

DeterminedMD
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DeterminedMD

I read this last comment this morning and then again just now, and just don’t get what you are attempting to say, Ms G-A. You think being in the minority as being responsible, ethical, and caring doctors means we choose to be and can impact on the rest? Sorry, watching this bs business model just get reinforced and entrenched is the proverbial “hear the lie enough and it becomes truth.” Besides, those who are behind making medicine a business will do whatever it takes to squelch the voices fighting the assimilation. We joke about “kill the lawyers”, and yet we… Read more »

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Umm, this is 2011, people do not run for office to be selfless and altruistic, and know when to bow out after serving public office for no more than a generation’s period of time, politicians are now lifetime positions, and that is not what people envisioned when this country was created. Our system is set up to attract narcissists, antisocials, and clear incompetents who are good at being flashy and cute. If you think otherwise, let me know where you park that time machine you use to journey back and enjoy those good ol’ days, I would love a ride!!!

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

Our system is not set up in any differently than it was set up during the similar debacle almost a century ago, with the exact same results.
The people produced the leadership that was needed then, and we will do so again. This is just an unfortunate detour.
I can feel the pain, the despair and the rage, but I cannot subscribe to the cynicism because it, by definition, leads to absolute failure.

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Cynicism can screw up the process, but, I have learned this: better to prepare for the worst and then be happy you are wrong, than the alternative to just cluelessly expect responsibility and appropriateness to prevail when evil and ignorance wait for those to just stand idle. Penn State is somewhat of an example of the latest poor choices too many made, if the allegations have merit. Check out the part near the end of the movie “Contact”, when the alien says to the Jodie Foster character, “your species has the potential for such beautiful dreams, and such terrible nightmares.”… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

I see the same mess you see, Dr. D., perhaps from a slightly different perspective. But I also see good people everywhere, and I see young people growing up, some in my home, that do not share this unfortunate mentality and on the contrary, they view public service as what it used to be and what it should be. We’ve hit a rough spot, no doubt, but it’s not the first one and not even the worst one. It may take a while longer and it may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better, because, despite… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

“Ha ha ha ha ha, what responsible and invested person in his or her right mind would run for President of the United States with the current state of affairs as is in DC?”

The Roosevelt type of person (either one), or the Truman type, or the JFK or Johnson type. The type that whether filthy rich and super educated, or dirt poor and with no college degrees, still managed to have both heart and head in the right place.
I doubt that the prevailing strain of Darwinism managed to wipe this type of person out completely.

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

Ha ha ha ha ha, what responsible and invested person in his or her right mind would run for President of the United States with the current state of affairs as is in DC? And expect the American people, as a whole, the way they think and act, to appreciate and sacrifice for what said responsible and invested person would ask of the citizenry? Dream freakin’ on, people! We will have a choice of Obama versus Romney or Gingrich? Heckyl or Jeckyl, Beavis versus Butthead, Spouting Dependency versus Fostering Greed? Hey, this election is about the status of the incumbents… Read more »

tim
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tim

I could have saved the Secretary an entire hour of his life:

Vote for Democrats or you will die.

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

“I would love to see a third party candidate even if he/she does not get elected, but instead sets the stage for a better election in ’16.” Just who is going to finance this third party? What will it stand for that will attract money; money that’s looking for a payback? Will it pledge to jail the Wall Street fraudsters, stop corporate welfare, end subsidies, return jobs from overseas, pledge no pain economic solutions for the masses, raise incomes, keep the Medicare machine printing money? “I think the “groundswell” is there,” What, the PAC ground swell, the lobbyist groundswell, the… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

I don’t think a third party candidate needs to fix everything in one swoop, and I don’t think we can have a perfect world. I would be satisfied with some integrity and genuine desire to serve the public. People are miserable and disenchanted enough, I think, to provide financial and electoral support, should someone like that decides to step forward. I think the crisis is more than big enough, and I am not referring to the budget, or health care, but to the root cause for it all. I would much rather we find a democratic and orderly solution, than… Read more »

Margalit Gur-Arie
Guest

I would love to see a third party candidate even if he/she does not get elected, but instead sets the stage for a better election in ’16.

I think the “groundswell” is there, but you still need credible leadership to make it effective in a democratic process. Otherwise the groundswell will translate into even more people not participating in the process, leaving the stage to the lunatics and crooks.

MG
Guest
MG

Building the grassroots stuff with social media technology isn’t the hard part anymore. It is the every increasing amount of money need for advertising on TV (Americans watch insane amounts of TV but it is just much more fragmented than ever which drives up the costs even more to reach a wide audience) and to a lesser degree radio/print/online.

Peter1
Guest
Peter1

“Six Reasons Why Both Political Parties Are “Econitwits”

1. The Recession Started Thirty, not Three, Years Ago

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-white/six-reasons-why-both-poli_b_973554.html

DeterminedMD
Guest
DeterminedMD

The posts by this guy are only put here to inflame, I am completely convinced of this. And the banter of the ensuing thread is equally lame.

Both parties suck as is. There is no representation here, just pervasive resentment, and, overt hate.

Just the qualities you want in leadership, right!?

MG
Guest
MG

I often try to use the word ‘despise’ but that is what comes to mind with Gingrich. I would have given serious consideration to voting for Romney or Huntsman (no shot) in a presidential election but Gingrich is a person with little-to-no personal ethics even by a politician’s standards, has an large ego for a politician, isn’t nearly as bright as he portrays himself, and instituted & did a number of things in the mid-1990s that brought the House where it is today where you get annihilated as a freshmen Congress (and guaranteed almost no support from the national party)… Read more »

MG
Guest
MG

Reich is selectively cherry-picking somewhat and these kind of rhetoric-filled essays that are largely partisan don’t bring much to the table or add to the discourse. I used to get all stirred up by them but avoid them. What I find much more interesting is that Gingrich has rallied in Iowa by really targeting seniors and playing to their fears (right-wing engineering to cut entitlements) and a bit of good old-fashioned nod to marginal conspiracy stuff. It basically is why he has surged there since Iowa has one the largest population of seniors. He is polling 3:1 vs Romney and… Read more »

Nate Ogden
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Nate Ogden

Who has the personal wealth minus the ties to Wall Street that would be toxic right now? Not only would they need to self finance but they would have to be so clean the media hatchet job sure to follow couldn’t touch them. The political machine won’t allow someone to come in and upset their cozy duopoly. It needs to be a ground swell from the public that removes the two parties leaving a number of smaller parities to comepete for the various seats and presidency. A nationally elected Criminal investigator could probably have half of them locked up within… Read more »

MG
Guest
MG

If I was to start this as a task, I would look at the Fortune list of wealthiest Americans and go from there. It is going to need to be someone though who has a fortune that is at least $100M or north that will be able to fund the campaign initially out of their own pocket. The advantage is that with the primaries earlier in the year now the person running will have a very good idea of who the candidates are for both parties by March. They also don’t have to burn any cash needlessly to get a… Read more »