New Castle News

April 9, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Is ‘social Darwinism’ a new species of insult?

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — If Barack Obama wanted to insult the political right in America, he picked an unusual way to do it.

And I’m pretty sure his use of the term “social Darwinism” was a deliberate insult.

While such conduct doesn’t quite match the rhetoric of a man who pledged to restore civility to Washington upon taking office, it fits into the general scheme of things these days.

As this year’s political campaign unfolds, all manner of name calling is employed. We hear terms such as “socialist” and “radical” bandied about with ease. So why shouldn’t Obama pull out “thinly veiled social Darwinism” to describe Republican policies?

Well, I suppose one reason is because the term is a bit of a head scratcher for most Americans. People are probably familiar with Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking work on evolution. But what’s social Darwinism? Is an insult effective when the audience doesn’t get it?

It turns out, however, the term is ruffling the feathers of those whom Obama intended to target. Some are even claiming the president is calling them racist.

Specifically, Obama was referring to a GOP budget proposal and its focus on cutting programs that benefit the poor when he played the social Darwinism card. Technically, the term isn’t about racism, but it is about superiority — or at least the belief in superiority.

In the United States, the term social Darwinism appears to have been used first by political scientist Richard Hofstadter in a 1944 book that examined the political right in America. He cited assorted examples of people who took Darwin’s theories and tried to equate them to human social conditions. For instance, Darwin’s depiction of “survival of the fittest” was used to justify aggressive means of accumulating wealth and power. It was simply the way the world was intended to work.

It’s worth noting that Darwin was not a social Darwinist. He was too much a scientist for that. Instead, he limited his findings to nature and biology. (His term “survival of the fittest,” by the way, referred to the ability of species to reproduce themselves in sufficient quantities to ensure future generations.)

But social Darwinists twisted evolutionary science to rationalize social inequities. In a hard and cruel world, those individuals who are willing to act aggressively to achieve success will outpace those who merely muddle through. And in such a world, social Darwinists would argue, sharing the wealth is, well, contrary to nature.

Obviously, there is a fair amount of truth to the notion that some people are more driven to accomplish certain things than others. How much of that is genetic and how much is psychological can be a matter of opinion. Also open to debate is what, exactly, constitutes success. And then there’s the matter of what responsibility should we have for one another in a supposedly civilized society.

These are deep philosophical matters. But they have nothing to do with Washington’s name-calling exercises. A big part of that game is employing different derogatory terms to see which ones stick in the public psyche.

Will social Darwinism achieve its goal? It’s too early to tell if it will resonate with the American people. But at least Obama got under the skin of some conservatives, so I’m guessing it has legs.