Social Darwinism And The Republican Party


Logo of the Republican Party of the United States of America via Wikimedia Commons

Despite their widespread diffidence towards Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution, Republicans are in many ways indebted to social Darwinist principles, whether they are aware of it or not.

In recent decades the GOP has developed an ideology that is based on the concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’ applied to human society. The result of such ideas has been the promotion of oligarchism, understood as the celebration of the ‘great men’ able to win the struggle for success.

In a recent interview Housing Secretary and Trump supporter Ben Carson argued that ‘poverty is a state of mind’:

I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.

The underlying idea of Carson’s statement is that society is a battlefield in which the strong win and the weak lose. According to this model, rationally debatable social and economic policies on the part of the state do not have a positive impact on collective welfare.

Rather, it is strong individuals who gain wealth through hard work and talent, regardless of, or even against, state policies, while the weak succumb to hardship. The implicit moral conclusion is: the poor deserve to be poor because they do not possess the moral qualities to succeed. Republicans therefore denounce state intervention as ‘socialism’.

In 2014 Bill O’Reilly explained it clearly in a piece titled ObamaCare and socialism:

President Obama and the Democratic Party want to put as much money into the hands of the poor and less affluent as they can and the healthcare subsidies are a great way to do just that. And of course, the funds for those subsidies are taken from businesses and affluent Americans who have the cash.

Similar ideas have been expressed by various GOP politicians and are at the heart of the Republican Party’s ideologically motivated rejection of Obamacare.

Let us for a moment set aside the contradictions of the GOP’s economic programme, which we will discuss in another article. Here we shall show how Republican ideology draws from social Darwinist theories of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and why such concepts lead to the creation of an oligarchy (‘rule of the few’) by elites who believe that they are entitled to take over the state by virtue of their success and to lead the majority of the citizens, whom they consider weak and unworthy.

They claim that state policies that don’t benefit the oligarchy are socialist ‘class warfare’, while not realizing that class warfare can be waged not only by the poor against the rich, but also by the wealthiest against the rest of society.

Social Darwinism – A Brief Overview

The term ‘social Darwinism’ was popularized in the 1940s by the American historian Richard Hofstadter, a New Deal liberal, who used this word to describe advocates of laissez-faire capitalism (what is nowadays commonly called ‘free market’). Hofstadter’s book was partisan and ideological, but it remains useful to define certain characteristics of laissez-faire which its advocates often fail to systematize.

Diane B. Paul explains:

In Hofstadter’s historical account, social Darwinism was an essentially conservative ideology and social movement, which appropriated the theory of evolution by natural selection to support unrestricted laissez-faire at home and colonialism abroad.

It ostensibly flourished in the late nineteenth century, reaching its zenith in Gilded-Age America, where it appealed not just to professional social thinkers, but to a wide swath of the middle class. Its proponents held that it was only natural that ‘the best competitors in a competitive situation would win’, that this process would lead to continuing (if slow) improvement, and that efforts to hasten improvement through social reform were doomed to failure (Diane B. Paul: Darwin, Social Darwinism and Eugenics, in: The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, ed. Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick, 2003, p. 224).

Similarly, we use here the term social Darwinism to define ideologies derived from Darwin’s theories which describe social progress as a struggle between strong and weak.

In On the Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin laid out principles of biological evolution. He argued that living beings, including humans, were not, as people had long believed, immutable, but that they had developed through a gradual process of genetic changes which he called ‘natural selection’.

Darwin asserted that “the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase” inevitably caused a “struggle for existence”:

[A]s more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life (Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species, ed. Gillian Beer, 1996, pp. 53 – 54).

From this premise Darwin drew the conclusion that variations occurred in individuals of each species over time, and that such changes would give certain individuals “any advantage, however slight, over others” so that they “would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind”.

On the other hand, “any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.” Darwin called the “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations” natural selection (ibid., pp. 67 – 68).

According to the Pew Research Centre, nowadays Darwin’s evolution theory is accepted by “virtually all scientists”, but it is rejected by many Americans, often “because it conflicts with their religious beliefs about divine creation.” Numerous Republicans, including Vice-President Mike Pence, do not accept Darwin’s evolution theory.

Although they reject the scientific elements of Darwin’s theory, Republicans seem comfortable with the most controversial application of his principles. Shortly after the Origin was published, people began speculating about how the theory of evolution applied to humans and to what extent it helped understand human behaviour.

In 1871 Darwin published The Descent of Man, a book that sought to answer the question of the applicability of his theories to human beings. “Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication,” Darwin wrote, adding that a “severe struggle” was necessary to human advance:

Otherwise, [man] would soon sink into indolence, and the more highly-gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring (quoted in Paul 2003, p. 221).

This was the beginning of what we may call ‘social Darwinism’, that is, the use of Darwin’s theory to explain human social behaviour. The term in itself is fraught with contradictions, but here we shall focus only on two of its basic principles: the struggle for survival and the natural superiority of the strong over the weak.

One of the most notable ‘social Darwinists’ was Herbert Spencer, whose theories are particularly interesting because they led him to advocate free competition and small government. Spencer believed that the strongest members of society would survive and reproduce, bequeathing their strengths to the next generation, while the weakest would perish.

The average vigour of any race would be diminished did the diseased and feeble habitually survive and propagate; and… the destruction of such, through failure to fulfil some of the conditions to life, leaves behind those who are able to fulfil the conditions to life, and thus keeps up the average fitness to the conditions of life (Spencer 1898, quoted in: Peter Dickens: Social Darwinism: Linking Evolutionary Thought to Social Theory, 2000, p. 21). 

The perfect society was one in which individuals could freely realize their potential and the government did not interfere in their lives. Spencer also supported ‘private beneficence’ instead of a state-led welfare system. According to Peter Dickens, aspects of Spencer’s worldview appealed to advocates of laissez-faire, especially in the United States:

As might be expected, the conservative or freemarket version of Darwinism and of Spencer’s ‘social Darwinism’ found greatest acceptance in the United States, the home of liberal capitalism. But the extent and form of such take-up are subject to some debate (ibid., p. 24).

In What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1877) the conservative thinker William Graham Sumner wrote:

Certain ills belong to the hardships of human life. They are natural. They are part of the struggle with Nature for existence. We cannot blame our fellow-men for our share of these. My neighbor and I are struggling to free ourselves from these ills. The fact that my neighbor has succeeded in this struggle better than I constitutes no grievance for me … 

We each owe it to the other to guarantee rights. Rights do not pertain to results, but only to chances. They pertain to the conditions of the struggle for existence, not to any of the results of it; to the pursuit of happiness, not to the possession of happiness.

It cannot be said that each one has a right to have some property, because if one man had such a right some other man or men would be under a corresponding obligation to provide him with some property. Each has a right to acquire and possess property if he can …

Social Darwinists thus insist that struggle for survival is a natural phenomenon. The strong enjoy the fruit of their labour and talent, while the weak must accept their inability to succeed. This also implies that even if a small group of people emerged as the strongest, the whole society should accept this outcome of natural selection unquestioningly.

William Hurrell Mallock (1849 – 1923), an English novelist and economist, used the term ‘aristocracy’ to define the ‘great men’ who by their efforts and talent bring humankind forward. Mallock was a critic of social Darwinism, yet in many respects he adopted the idea of struggle for survival and the primacy of the strongest.

Mallock argued that he had “chosen the word aristocracy in preference to the word oligarchy because it means not only the rule of the few, but of the best or the most efficient of the few (W. H. Mallock: Aristocracy and Evolution: A Study of the Rights, the Origin, and the Social Functions of the Wealthier Classes, 1901, p. v).

Mallock believed that “progress” consisted of “two movements”: the slow movement was natural evolution, the rapid movement was “the leadership of the greatest.” He argued that economic progress could not be explained in terms of evolution because people of different generations were genetically the same, yet economic development happened rapidly. Mallock asserted that the “practical sociologist” must study “the rapid movement alone” which is brought about by “the great man, not the fittest” (ibid., p. 95).

Progress is the result of the domination or the triumphant influence of the greatest. That is to say, the civilisation of the entire community depends alike for its advance and for its maintenance on a struggle which is confined within the limits of an exceptional class; and the ordinary members of the community are connected with it only by the fact that when the fittest competitor achieves the domination for which he is struggling, they, instead of being defeated by him, share the advantage of his victory (ibid., p. 151).

According to Mallock, the great man’s motives for achieving success were wealth and power. “[I]f a community is to possess great men as actual agents of progress, and not merely as wasted potentialities, its social constitution must be such as to offer and make attainable positions, possessions, pleasures, or other advantages which its potentially great men will feel to be worth working for pleasures, or other advantages which its potentially great men will feel to be worth working for,” he wrote (ibid., pp. 152-153).

To sum up, we can say that social Darwinism is a heterogeneous, often contradictory concept. However, we can use this term to define theories of social behaviour that are based on the principles of the struggle for survival and of evolution (or progress) through the free and unfettered exertions of the strongest. In this sense, social Darwinism is a useful term that helps us understand the ideology of laissez-faire and its -intended or unintended – oligarchic tendencies.

The fact that social Darwinism has been co-opted by the Republican Party’s neoliberal version of capitalism is shown by the following excerpt from the official GOP platform. In view of what we have explained, let’s now just see what the Republicans say about themselves:

Government cannot create prosperity, though government can limit or destroy it. Prosperity is the product of self-discipline, enterprise, saving and investment by individuals, but it is not an end in itself. Prosperity provides the means by which citizens and their families can maintain their independence from government, raise their children by their own values, practice their faith, and build communities of cooperation and mutual respect. It is also the foundation for our nation’s global leadership, for it is the vigor of our economy which makes possible our military strength and our national security.

We oppose tax policies that deliberately divide Americans or promote class warfare. Because of the vital role of religious organizations, charities, and fraternal benevolent societies in fostering generosity and patriotism, they should not be subject to taxation and donations to them should remain deductible.

Private investment is a key driver of economic growth and job creation. After falling dramatically during the recession, private investment has recovered at a disappointing pace due in part to high corporate tax rates and increasing regulatory burdens and uncertainty.

We propose to level the international playing field by lowering the corporate tax rate to be on a par with, or below, the rates of other industrial nations.

A central reason why the 20th century came to be called the American Century was the ability of individuals to invent and create in a land of free markets. Back then they were called risk-takers, dreamers, and small business owners. Today they are the entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and small business men and women of our new economy … The greatest asset of the American economy is the hard-working American.

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