"Social Darwinism, a popular topic in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” reported the Associated Press on April 5, “is making its way into modern American politics.” The news peg for the story was President Obama’s claim that the House Republican budget is nothing but “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” It is, he added, a “Trojan Horse,” hiding within in it “a radical vision” that is “antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity.”
To the surprise of no one, the New York Times hailed the “thunderclap of a speech” in an editorial titled “Calling Radicalism by Its Name.” But Social Darwinism has been thick in the air of late (according to Lexis-Nexis, over 100 articles used the term in the 90 days prior to Obama’s speech). Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich had days before already denounced the GOP budget as not merely Social Darwinism but “radical Social Darwinism.”
This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”
Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.
But let us start with Herbert Spencer, the man who is always cast as the villain of the tale and the “founder” of the Social Darwinist “movement.” A writer for one British paper insists Spencer was “a downright evil man . . . whose passion for eugenics and elimination made him the daydreamer of things to come.” Edwin Black, in his history of eugenics, War Against the Weak, writes that Spencer “completely denounced charity and instead extolled the purifying elimination of the ‘unfit.’ The unfit, he argued, were predestined by their nature to an existence of downwardly spiraling degradation.” Hofstadter himself wrote that the (almost wholly progressive) eugenics movement in America “has proved to be the most enduring aspect” of Spencer’s “tooth-and-claw version of natural selection.”
The most creative assault on Spencer must be Richard L. Schoenwald’s psychological autopsy in the 1968 summer issue of the esteemed journal Victorian Studies, in which the historian reveals that Spencer’s twisted and deformed worldview stemmed from his fascination with feces.
Starting with Spencer’s childhood in the 1820s, Schoenwald concluded that “Spencer’s self-esteem had been undermined hopelessly in the oral and anal stages of his development; he could commit himself only to paper, not to a woman.” As a baby, Spencer rejoiced in his ability to “create excrement.” He never forgave his parents’ efforts at toilet training, which revoked the “freedom in which he had gloried.” This “fearful attack from behind” left permanent scars, which is why, for example, Spencer would one day oppose public sanitation regulation, because he “saw in sanitary reform an attack on his magical anal producing powers.”
We’ll just let that speak for itself.
The truth of the matter, as aggrieved libertarians have been saying for years, is that Spencer was a thoroughly benign classical liberal. Yes, he coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (a term Darwin embraced), but contrary to generations of propaganda, he did not oppose charity (he celebrated it at great length), did not advocate the mastery of superior races over allegedly inferior ones, did not believe corporations should ride roughshod over the poor (he supported labor unions), and was in fact a great foe of imperialism and a champion of women’s suffrage.
Oh, and he never called himself a Social Darwinist. He didn’t call himself a Darwinist at all (he had a different theory of evolution).