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.

34 replies »

  1. Definitely imagine that that you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the net the
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  2. Just curious, how do some commenters here define “quality of life”?

  3. 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 invented non-capitated skilled nursing to take sicker patients who used to stay in hospital.

    Professional path Utilization Review to Case Management.
    In the 1990s Disease Management was a reinvention of CM with disease specific guidelines.
    Somehow folks forgot that patients were complex interdependent contributors to a family and social sub-system (learned this in my 10 years a rehab. program manager).
    So now we have Patient Advocates who are a rebranded Case Manager without requirement for clinical credentials.

    At my Professional Patient Advocate Conference 80% of attendees were hospitals or insurance company based. 20% were independent.

    Answer the following:
    If you work for a hospital how do you advocate for patient who exceeds cost cap and needs to stay?
    If you work for insurance company how can you advocate for patient to enter hospice early?
    The independents I spoke with did not take Medicare, Medicaid or Health Choice as there is no payment. One stated she did take wealthy Medicare patients who could afford her $200 per hour fee. Most of her contracts were with companies that self-insured so once again we have the case management model of consistently moving patient to next less costly treatment model.

    In my career I have watched ego kill patients
    In my career I have been asked to project an individuals life-span to determine if their assets were sufficient to create investment opportunity in extended care.
    In my career I have been denied glucose monitoring devices, fought the fight because I am the lucky 1% of patients who are educated on how the system works, clinical guidelines and down-right stubborn.
    In my career I have watched wealthy (>= $100M net worth) people become richer by selling vapor-ware.

    My judgment: We made a mistake in 1910 when we allowed the AMA to talk us out of universal coverage which would have forced a, more efficient and still innovative healthcare system (sorry too many scientist friends in other nations who validate my points).

    Instead we get a classical free market system not unlike auto service with too many “value added” suppliers who create their own standards for qualification and inflate their rates.

    I have been invited twice in last week to give knowledge away on what Jeff considers we need for service architecture. I have declined both offers. Even when I engaged a successful social network I heard the quote “Pharmaceuticals is the only industry that cares about us patients” (insert game show noise) SORRY WRONG ANSWER

    So here is my point: Folks like you are emerging. You have figured it out.
    I want to focus on educating the public on money flow or the M1 in economic terms so we can begin our own reform through creating collectives.

    That said, I believe is is our responsibility to be culturally sensitive and create a value exchange so “poor folk” can have the same care that you and I enjoy.

    Here is my judgment: The failure of the legislature to force universal coverage in 2014; extending it to 2017 is allowing insurance companies and others to remodel and create products that will be equally expensive. We will have a two tier system emerge and we will never achieve parity.

    My last consulting job ended February 21st 2011 due to my disagreement on data being reported to the feds to secure a recuing $8M grant.

    We are not creating sustainability here.

    You, others like you and folks like me who have spent decades on the inside and are willing to risk rejection and financial opportunity can make a difference.

    We have all the data, the industry keeps it isolated in costly silos for a reason. Within it lays the clinical and business intelligence required to empower consumers.

    If you would like to talk some time, I am around.


  4. 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 let them create new ways to disempower and enslave the population.

    If doctors really cared, go on strike as a sizeable majority and watch the population descend on Washington with pitchforks and torches. And then be turned around once the liars convince the mob these doctors are the villains. That is why doctors can’t change the system. Care to ask an abuse victim how many times they will risk another slap on the face!?

  5. 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 current appearances, the fundamentals have not changed.

    As to good doctors, you are a dying few, only if you chose to be so. See my response at the thread above.

  6. 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.”

    Not paraphrasing it perfectly, but the point was, we can do such wonderful things, and then wipe them out with such complete failures, and it comes down often to blind trust.

    Do you really see leadership at hand now being focused solely on the needs of the many? I don’t. That may be cynicism to you, but, I see the system attract what culture is increasingly becoming: what’s in it for me, and how can I surround myself with as many who think solely like me. And boy, does this medium of the internet foster that mentality!!!

    Good doctors have and never will entertain this kind of thinking. But, maybe we are a dying few in the profession. And if that is true, that is not cynicism, that is sad vision.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!!!

  9. 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 wait until it is not available anymore.

  10. “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.

  11. 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 up for re election in Congress. Remember, they are the idiots behind PPACA passing in the first place, Obama was just a poster child.

    I just want to know why the owners of this site put this crap up, even if the next one is equally disgusting and pathetic Republican rhetoric. Extremist rants and cronyism should be avoided at sites that want credibility in the debate about the direction of health care.

  12. 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 party nod.

    Even someone from Wall Street/finance isn’t necessarily ‘tainted’ enough either not to consider running. It depends more on the individual. Best example I can think of in American history is Teddy Roosevelt who grew up in power and opulence in NYC & went on many of his ‘Western adventures’ to remode his political character. Just like GWB conveniently bought a ranch on Rove’s advice while Gov. of Texas in his 2nd term and then sold it almost immediately after leaving the White House.

    Hell, with the right positioning he could paint himself/herself as a person who has ‘seen the light’ and says that he knows what needs to be done to reform it ‘blah, blah, blah.’ Actual specifics don’t really matter except to a small minority of voters. Why I always laugh when you see these detailed policy sheets that describe ‘the issues’ in more detail than just 1-2 sentences the candidates’ positions. Waste of time.

    I do agree about the political machines doing the best they can do knock the candidate out of the race. Given that it would likely be more of a center-right candidate, it would be the GOP that would attempt to do it. It would be incredibly nasty and if the candidate actually should a chance they would threaten both the candidate and his/her family with whatever dirt they could disclose.

    If Americans are waiting for a ground swell from the bottom to radically change (and I agree change has always come from the rank-and-file in the US but it does need coherent organization and leadership soon after), we are going to be waiting for a while. Things aren’t nearly bad or rotten enough yet sadly and we are generally passing the point where a grand political compromise with decreased spending & increased revenues could be implemented in time to rectify the federal budget.

    Local and state budgets are still a mess and I think that is where when the pressure mounts it will be from there because the Fed generally has enough tools in their arsenal and ability to expand their balance sheet to deal with just about everything except a general worldwide collapse.

  13. 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.

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

    Vote for Democrats or you will die.

  15. “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 banker groundswell? We’ll need a much bigger crisis Margalit for that to happen.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 12 months given the authority. That would open things up for some fresh parities and ideas.

  18. 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!?

  19. 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) unless you vote strictly along partisan lines.

  20. 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 2:1 with Paul with seniors. What is going to be interesting is to see how well Paul’s much younger volunteers and wider grassroots support plays out in 5 weeks and just how much of a hit Romney takes. Romney can recover if he wins NH and the lack of space between the Iowa and NH primaries (it used to be nearly a month) helps Romney too even if he loses unexpectedly in Iowa.

    Who is leading in polls though in December for presidential politics means nothing. Really less than nothing. Until Iowa & NH, it is just a bunch of hot air unless a candidate commits a brutal gaffe.

    What I find interesting is that for the first time in American presidential politics there is a real chance that the right 3rd party candidate could come in ala Perot in ’92 and change the election and course of American political history entirely. Perot declared in Feb. 1992 and put the election upside its head.

    The candidate could run on mainly fiscal issues (mainly conservative) but be more moderate/liberal on social issues. Huntsman is that guy but he never had a chance getting out of what is an incredibly right-wing GOP primary process. What gets overlooked is that Huntsman is incredibly conservative on economic issues but because he is socially moderate or even liberal on issues he had no chance in Iowa and just didn’t do anything in the debates or NH.

    In fact, I do predict with about a 70% change you will see a 3rd party candidate emerge in Feb/March that terms this election upside but the problem is that the candidate will need an insane amount of money to buy national TV time. Means he needs a large personal fortune to do so and is willing to spend that money despite the odds that he will almost certainly lose as the party machines kick into full effect & things truly get nasty. This time around though unlike say in ’68 with Wallace who had no chance nationally or with Perot in ’92, a viable 3rd party candidate without much of a political background could conceivably come in and win the presidency.

  21. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/jon-corzine-to-tell-house-panel-he-doesnt-know-where-customers-money-went/2011/12/07/gIQAwLUleO_story.html?hpid=z1

    “Jon S. Corzine, the former U.S. senator and New Jersey governor who presided over the collapse of the commodities brokerage MF Global, said he cannot explain what happened to “many hundreds of millions of dollars” that the firm was holding for customers.”

    Pretty much the Democrats’ canned responce for everything they do. At this point I don’t care if the Republicans nominate a cross dressing womanizing highschool drop out, as long as they don’t;
    Arm Drug Cartels on our border
    Collapse brokerage firms and “lose” billions
    Rig elections
    add 1 trillion+ per year to our deficit
    stop drilling in the US in the name of the enviroment so its drilled in other countries that have zero regard for the enviroment and cost us billions in GDP.

    There is nothing at a circus the Republicans could nominate worse then the liberals running this country right now.

  22. “Liberals don’t believe in Darwin either, thats why they spend all the resources helping the weakest so the entire population dies off.”

    So does that mean Republicans believe the strongest (best connected) should get the resources?

  23. I do agree with your description of the media, but I cannot understand how people are not disturbed by this continuous spectacle, of foolishness and cruelty, or maybe they are…..

  24. Liberals don’t believe in Darwin either, thats why they spend all the resources helping the weakest so the entire population dies off. See any big city ran by liberals as an example.

  25. I didn’t think conservatives believed in Darwin? Don’t they believe in Creationism? And God said, “Let there be Republicans.”

  26. Margalit they need to put anything on TV so they don’t have to talk about;

    Corzine stealing 1.2 billion while paying Clinton 50K per month
    Obama fradulently getting on the IN ballat
    Obama Admin selling guns to drug cartels as an excuse to regulate guns then those guns killing a border patrol agent
    15 trillion in debt

    yes we should all be so scared of the Republican primary becuase their is nothing else to worry about

  27. This should be beneath you, Margalit. The “freaks” are the media. None of these candidates would choose to campaign in this fashion. One cannot pass up national exposure. And one cannot appear to fear a forum. That explains why they let MSNBC host a debate.

  28. In MDFT, adolescent drug abuse is viewed as a complex phenomenon in which personal issues, interpersonal relationships, overall family functioning, and social forces must all be addressed to effect enduring change. Some MDFT sessions involve both generations, some only the adolescent, and some just the parent or parents. In joint sessions, the therapist guides parents and teens through discussions of family problems and introduces methods that build family strengths, improve communication, and reduce conflict. Counselors also help families negotiate school, work, justice systems, and community service agencies.

  29. Here is another “projection” for you, Nate: the traveling freak show headed for a Donald Trump establishment near you, a.k.a. the “Republican candidates”, does nor represent the silent conservative majority, which is largely sane, and there will be a price to be paid for this folly in 2012.

  30. ” I’ve been listening”

    You might be listening but you haven’t heard a thing in 20 years. Keep wallowing in your projections while the rest of us clean up your mess.