Wednesday, May 2, 2012

“Social Darwinism”: The Political Spectrum’s Fungible Taking Point

“In remarks later Tuesday, President Barack Obama will slam the Republican budget plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as "nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism."

"It's a Trojan Horse," Obama will say during remarks at an Associated Press Luncheon, according to excerpts released by the White House.

"Disguised as [a] deficit reduction plan, it's really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It's nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work for it -- a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last -- education and training; research and development -- it's a prescription for decline," the president will say.” (1)


One might ask oneself what does social Darwinism mean? That is, the phrase “social Darwinism” is not a common phrase. Matter-of-fact, the phrase is used so infrequently that it prompted a Washington Post article entitled What Obama meant by ‘social Darwinism’:


"Simply put, it means applying the ideas of Charles Darwin — that species adapt over time — to human society, arguing that competition over resources helps humanity evolve for the better as the weak are weeded out and the strong survive and thrive.

But social Darwinism is seen as more as an epithet than a useful description, because the idea is so malleable.

Social Darwinism gained some popularity early on among British landowners and American capitalists, who saw in it a justification for their own wealth.

Imperialism was
justified on Darwinist grounds as strength honed through warfare, with stronger races overtaking weaker ones. But peace was too, on the grounds that the fittest members of society should not be wasted in war. 

“The concentration of capital is a necessity for meeting the demands of our day, and as such should not be looked at askance, but be encouraged,” Carnegie wrote in his autobiography after reading social Darwinist theory. “There is nothing detrimental to human society in it, but much that is, or is bound soon to become, beneficial.”

Social Darwinism is also seen in eugenics, the idea that certain races and physical traits should be weeded out of the general population. It played a role in the American progressive movement and in Nazi Germany — both movements that went against laissez-faire capitalism, in very different ways. In this interpretation, the weak must be culled so that the society as a whole can evolve more quickly.

Thus “social Darwinism” can be used to attack all sorts of enemies.”


“While the term “social Darwinism” was used as early as 1877, it did not gain widespread popularity except in retrospect, and mostly as an insult.” (2)



Hence one finds oneself with a seldom used phrase, used as an epithet, a phrase that is highly malleable which can only mean one has arrived once again at the intersection of politics-and-talk otherwise known as political talking points. That is, Mr. Obama does not like Mr. Ryan’s’ plan. Rather than empirically disproving Mr. Ryan’s plan Mr. Obama merely relies on a political talking point that attempts to vilify by denying legitimacy to the plan and the plan’s sponsor through a malleable epithet. Moreover, if one is out to disparage without evidence, one might reconsider using a political talking point phrase that doesn’t prompt everyone to run to textbooks to find the meaning of the vilifying talking point.

Furthermore, the disparaging political talking point of social Darwinism, as a political short cut attempt to avoid evidence to empirically refute, and the subsequent attempt by others to explain what the heck the political taking point means, still leaves us with no insight regarding social Darwinism. That is to say, we still are left with: why is it a political talking point and why is it considered disparaging and why can all corners of the political spectrum use the talking point against one another?

For those seeking some grand insight into the political talking point “social Darwinism” one may find that Thomas C. Leonard offers such insight. Leonard’s 2007 essay Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

One very, very odd point that Leonard uncovers is that the phrase “social Darwinism” was hardly ever used prior to Richard Hofstadter’s 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought. Moreover, Hofstadter basically declared “social Darwinism” as dead at the end of World War One. However, after Hofstadter’s 1944 book, the use of the phrase “social Darwinism” skyrocketed. Hence we have a very obscure concept, rarely referred to and when the rarely mentioned obscure concept is pronounced dead, it suddenly skyrockets in its use. Odd to say the least.

A link to Leonard’s essay appears below:



(1) Obama: Paul Ryan's Budget is 'Nothing But Thinly Veiled Social Darwinism', Huffington Post, 04/03/2012,



(2) What Obama meant by ‘social Darwinism’, Washington Post, 04/04/2012,











1 comment:

  1. I recommend Johah Goldberg's new book The Tyranny of Cliches. Chapter 8 Social Darwinism

    In that chapter Goldberg lays out the historical origin of the term and the modern myths surrounding it. He also cites the factual refutation of Hofstadter's work by Wyllie and Bannister.