The Tea Parties Bring Back Social Darwinism
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
One thing is certain about this fall’s election: The field upon which American politics will play out is a populist one.
Populism has long been part of the American political tradition, dating at least to the political ascent of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. Its appeal is deceptively simple. The details vary but populism’s basic, urgent message remains the same: The game has been rigged by a small group of powerful people, and something must be done. Now.
What makes the current moment so rare is that both left- and right-wing populism have surfaced at the same time. Which side’s message wins out may determine the trajectory of the next era in American political life.
With its recent national convention and the emergence of a de facto leader in Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement has sent waves of populist energy through the American electorate. The movement’s agenda is not yet fully formed, and it consists mostly of a vitriolic disdain for the Obama administration. Much work lies ahead in terms of developing its message, logic, strategy, tactics and constituency.
But if the Tea Party is a young movement finding its footing, its ideological underpinning is old indeed. The right-wing populism manifested in the movement is essentially the same old Social Darwinism that became a kind of sacred truth in American society in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Father of modern conservatism
Modern American conservatism formed in the early years of the Cold War, when New Deal liberalism seemed triumphant. Though it has many tributaries, the mainstream movement consists of several core ideas: that societies are ordered in classes based on divine intent and/or personal responsibility; that property and freedom are inseparable; that markets should be unfettered from government regulation; that traditions must be adhered to for social stability; and that societies should evolve slowly.
All of modern conservatism’s founders articulated these principles in their writings. Perhaps the most influential work in conservatism’s late-twentieth-century ascent was Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960. But one of the original progenitors of contemporary social and political conservative thought—William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)—is nowhere to be found in lists of modern conservatism’s canonical texts. The reason is simple. His philosophy is so harsh and reactionary that to embrace it openly would be political suicide. Nonetheless, his ideas are everywhere in the right-wing populism that has gained ground during the last year.
Sumner believed that the fundamental law of the universe was survival of the fittest. So progressivism or socialism or any ideology that aimed to “save individuals from any of the difficulties or hardships of the struggle for existence” was pure folly. Like today’s right-wing populist revolt, Sumner’s brand of Social Darwinism propagated an unabashed but seamless defense of two groups that would seem to be at odds: the Captain of Industry and the Forgotten Man.
For Sumner, both of these figurative “men” had more to fear from the paternal state than they did from each other. Take the Captain of Industry. For Sumner, society depended on the creation of individual wealth; thus, social advancement for all depended on the financial abilities of the few. “If we should set a limit to the accumulation of wealth,” he wrote, “we should say to our most valued producers, ‘We do not want you to do us the services which you best understand how to perform, beyond a certain point.’ It would be like killing off our generals in a war.”
Sumner believed hereditary wealth was a product of the laws of nature as well, and he defended it vigorously. Since the millionaire and his offspring were responsible for enriching their communities through their wealth production, personal wealth had to stay in the family. To do otherwise was a state-sponsored assault on personal liberty.