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Social Darwinism as a political issue

By JENNIFER C. KERR
April 5, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks during the Easter Prayer Breakfast in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Social Darwinism, a popular topic in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is making its way into modern American politics.

President Barack Obama invoked the theory this week to criticize his likely Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, for embracing a new House GOP budget-slashing plan.

Obama argued that the plan was “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”

But what exactly does the president mean? And will the theory’s negative historical background be lost on most people?

For language expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, social Darwinism seems like a risky term to use for political ammunition.

She says most people are familiar with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection — survival of the fittest.

But Jamieson, a political communication authority at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center, explains that social Darwinism is a concept, an extension of Darwinism, that essentially says that those who are innately superior, often biologically superior, are advantaged in the conflict among or between groups.

She doesn’t think that is what Obama is suggesting when he uses the term. Instead, what he is probably trying to convey is that he thinks Republicans subscribe to a theory that each person is on his own — no help from others, no government help.

The term is loaded with all sorts of negative historical associations. It has ties in the past to the rationalization of inequality, says Jamieson, as well as to the eugenics movement and the idea that those who are unfit should not be allowed to propagate.

And that’s probably not what the president intends to suggest.

It’s not the first time Obama has used the term.

He appealed to the country back in 2007 for a change from eight years of the Bush administration, which he accused of pursuing a policy of social Darwinism that leaves every man and woman struggling. “It’s a strategy,” he said, “that basically says government has no role to play in making sure that America is prosperous for all people and not just some.”

This week, he raised the issue again as he attacked Republicans for a budget plan that would slash the deficit by gutting social programs regarded by Democrats as safety nets for the poor, while offering sharply lower tax rates that benefit wealthier people.

Obama likened the plan to social Darwinism, saying it is “antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who’s willing to work for it … It is a prescription for decline.”

But for those steeped in the historical background of the term, it might be a prescription for some confusion.

(c) Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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20 Responses to Social Darwinism as a political issue

  1. griff

    April 5, 2012 at 6:54 am

    No, running up more than 5 trillion in debt over three years, having no plan whatsoever to reign in spending, and piling on more and more debt at a historic rate (Obamacare will cost tens of trillions), is antithetical to our history and is a prescription for decline.

  2. Willie Buck Merle

    April 5, 2012 at 10:50 am

    header misspelled

    • Jim B.

      April 5, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Good catch, Willie!…Now, if they would’ve added a “t” between the “S” and the “o” you’d have Stoical Darwinism which is the result after Creationists attack Darwinism….You have a form of long-suffering Darwinism. :)

  3. Sandy Price

    April 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

    You are correct Griff, and it is up to the voters to at least try to fix the imbalance in our economics. Darwin described, scientifically, the evolution of the strongest of our species but he would not have voted for the results.

    I am a member of this species and took the survival information very seriously. Darwin gave us 100% control over the guidance of our children but can we handle it? Do we even want to?

    Every weakness found in our species can be gradually strengthened sometimes through selective breeding and/or a focus on correction on education. We are not individuals as we are born. We are simply an accummulation of genes in search of an adult body and mind.

    From my point of view, the religious focus from the right believes we are born complete and only need a spiritual soul to follow.

    How much government do we want for the development of the next generation of our species? Do we want our children to grow up reflecting the government programs or even the threat of hell and damnation of the right? Missing from this is a set of reflections from the parents.

    Some Americans want the government to make all the choices in health care, in academic subjects, and even in religious choices which leads to moral standards. This used to be a government led by the DNC but today it is a government led by the religious right. Outside of voting for one side of the aisle over the other, the parents have no interest in which government-issued laws are accepted.

    Where is the challenge to make our children better prepared to handle the classroom teacher, the pressure of the kids themselves during recess and after school activities?

    Parents make no demands for better classrooms, better food available for their children, and they make no demands to develop individual and unique kids.

    The GOP has nothing to offer our children except to teach the terrorism of Islam. There is no political movement based on the development of the individual in our society.

    America needs an ever-powerful government or many of our citizens will starve to death. It comes from two generations of television addicted humans. No drug has ever been as harmful as the television set in the family home.

    I hate to admit it but this proves that Darwin was right! Humans can go only so far in their development when so many hours each day are focused on silly shows and horrible commercials.

    In the future, we may actually see the development of a political party focused on the development of the human individual. I noticed this morning that a young man from San Diego has changed parties due to a lack of an agenda based on individual programs. He has been a Republican all his years in politics and this morning became an Independent. Keep an eye on Nathan Fletcher who walked out of the GOP and will run as an Independent.

    The Democrats will fill the need for care for all Americans and that just may be what the majority demands. When we demand this from the government, we must be prepared to lose some of our freedoms.

    • Jim B.

      April 5, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Along the lines of what you’ve stated, Sandy, the libertarian columnist, Steve Chapman, says “As these believers [Evangelicals]became more vocal and visible in the Republican Party, they sent an unmistakable message: If you’re not a conservative, you’re not a Christian. So a lot of people who are not conservative but once would have gone to worship services have decided they don’t belong. They see the GOP claiming to represent the will of God and run the other way.”

      And, near the end of his article, he states, “The Republican practice of spurning “none/other” voters (basically, all who don’t identify themselves as Christians) could turn out to be a fatal error. The Georgetown University blog Nineteen Sixty-four says they are now so numerous that “Obama could lose both the Catholic and Protestant vote to the Republican nominee — even lose badly — and still win re-election.”

      http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ct-oped-0405-chapman-20120405,0,7104250.column

  4. Sandy Price

    April 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Jim, I hold no occult beliefs but have always been very much a believer in the Constitution. I am not just a member of a minority but have been labeled a freak. Personally I have no interest in any superstitious god until they start wanting to legislate their positions into any state or federal law.

    I went so far as to develop my own children into individuals basically to protect them from the bullies within their schools or neighborhoods. I had no idea what they would look like or how they would act during their teen years. I was never bullied but I was sent to a small private school the last 4 years of high school. It took me over 65 years to realize I was one in a million white female Republicans. It took a State Senator from Arizona to tell me I have to be a Christian to be a Republican. I became a Libertarian. The point is that I had somewhere to go to be a part of the political process.

    Why must we, as adults, be forced into one corner or the other? What happens when neither corner fits?

    • Jim B.

      April 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      Great response, Sandy!….I’m not a libertarian, but I could not agree with you more that the wall between religion and government needs to remain strong with as few leaks as possible. As the first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..” And, I think most Americans are comfortable with a government that does not meddle in religion. And, that is part of the reason the social conservatives will not succeed.

      When the Bush, the younger, was in office I was surprised at his steps to set up funding by the federal government for religious organizations. The idea made me uncomfortable.

      To make this point even more strongly, we need only to look toward H.L. Mencken who said, “The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.”

  5. Lillibet Hunt

    April 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    It is astounding that a group that vocally spouts a non-evolution basis for development of life forms, insists that the principle of survival of the fittest should govern social services, health care and other policies that affect the old, the poor, the underpaid, underprivileged, disabled and downtrodden.

    I too became a libertarian, and left mainstream religion long ago for its insistence that my faith in God demanded I move substantially to the right of Attila the Hun.

    What the Social Darwinists forget is that Darwin himself stepped back from his Theory of Evolution, and also decried the application of a developmental system requiring a thousand generations or more to change organisms to the fittest, and pancaking it onto short term or single years of governmental policy aims.

    Of course, even the wealthy eventually need government handouts to survive and make their part of the Darwinian equation work for them. This is the hush-hush part of Social Darwinism. Examples include tax breaks for oil companies, subsidies for giant agribusinesses, pharmaceutical support systems, research monies for industrial development, and a tax rate that is the envy of everyone paying 35% or more.

    As usual in such situations, the mind boggles.

    • Jim B.

      April 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Lillibet….

      ….and it’s interesting that Obama would raise this issue…If anything, it might force a bit of education on many when they ask, “What the heck is social darwinism?”

      As the article states, I think the use of this issue is fraught with a bit of danger for Obama as the article above states…. “The term is loaded with all sorts of negative historical associations. It has ties in the past to the rationalization of inequality, says Jamieson, as well as to the eugenics movement and the idea that those who are unfit should not be allowed to propagate.”

      RE: what you wrote: “…even the wealthy eventually need government handouts to survive and make their part of the Darwinian equation work for them…” So true…so true.

  6. Almandine

    April 5, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Why is it that concepts such as Social Darwinism command attention and discourse when the country is rotting from all the spending (and associated debt) hurled at anyone with a hand held out for at least the last 20 years? NO social safety net? Horse hockey.

    How many more failed attempts at re-jiggering the work ethic of the chronically poor will it take before it becomes clear that anyone, everyone who wants to work and become self-sufficient can do so? Is that them? No.

    Then again, will a bigger hand out accomplish that? Uh, get me a beer there, babe, and roll one, will ya?

    One might rightfully ask… if “let them eat cake” has been the conservative mantra, how is it that millions of Hispanics have surreptitiously come here and thrived at the hands of the RETHUGS (monied ones) who had jobs to give?

    Yep… this is just another load of campaign crap aimed at those who can’t see past the propaganda.

  7. woody188

    April 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I drive past a panhandler on my way home from work. His sign reads, “Everyone needs help sometimes.”

    Since I’ve seen him there most nice sunny days all mind thinks is, “Sure, but you seem to need that help every day.”

    • Almandine

      April 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm

      Easier to panhandle than mow grass.

      • Doc_Holiday

        April 7, 2012 at 8:49 pm

        With what?

        • Almandine

          April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am

          The lawnmower of the guy who owns the grass. Plenty of folks would hand the actual mowing off to someone willing to do it.

        • Almandine

          April 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm

          BTW – How’s your dad?

          • Doc_Holiday

            April 8, 2012 at 9:18 pm

            That is a good point but I do believe that it would be wishful thinking in this day and age.

            My dad is doing just fine, keeping up with the current events but sadly no longer aloud to post on here.

            • Doc_Holiday

              April 9, 2012 at 8:22 am

              *oops* allowed

            • Almandine

              April 9, 2012 at 9:51 am

              Give him my best.

  8. Almandine

    April 8, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Jim Abbott, the one-handed Olympic Gold Medalist and NY Yankees No Hitter pitcher was feted on Sunday morning TV. His life story was one of get up and get on with it, put any self pity you might feel in your pocket, and look for what you can accomplish, not how much you can shirk the reality of your life.

    Too bad we’ve become the country that JFK asked us not to become, that is a place where the government is asked what it can provide the people, not what the people can do for the country. The “I want free birth control pills” mantra being a prime example of gimme, gimme, gimme.

    No wonder politicians use the promise of govt handouts as the way to get elected.

  9. Sandy Price

    April 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Years ago I read a commentary on “The Bell Curve” where the intelligence numbers showed that Eastern Jews had a higher brain function than other humans. On the lower curve they showed that African Americans were placed below the rest of us in the middle. I was furious! My feet are always in the middle of any chart or curve but to put an entire race of people below me pissed me off!

    As a Darwin believer in evolution, I want to know why there is not a massive movement to defy these numbers. In my world we all come from the same batch of atoms and our individual development comes from our parents all the way back to the beginning.

    Humans have the ability to climb the ladder of intelligence whether it be in science including medicine, the arts or the simple act of writing about what they perceive. Are we humans supposed to accept our place on the curve and let it go on?

    I had a history teacher back in high school who proclaimed clearly that until we are all one color, America will never be of equal values. Many in my class were uncomfortable with this idea but somehow I saw the value of us all sharing the same genes. It was in this state of mind that I read Charles Darwin.

    I read hundreds of book on this racial mess in America. I also read books on the African Americans who refused to accept their status and rose up to grab the gold ring. We are all the same species and it is up to every one of us to demand equal academics and respect.

    Equality is taught from the homes, and those of us who came from bigoted homes can stop this dead in its tracks!