Conservatives are big on “liberty” and “freedom.”
The “Liberty Lobby” was a conservative, white supremacist organization started in the late ‘50s. The Liberty Conservative is a right-wing online magazine.
There’s the tea party-tilting Republican “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives. “Freedom’s Watch” and “Freedom Works” are pro-GOP conservative organizations.
Conservatives believe that government has little or no responsibility to help people who need help. Instead, government is supposed to give individuals the “liberty” and “freedom” to make as much money as they can, while not worrying about consequences to a nation’s social fabric, notably the gross maldistribution of wealth that unfettered capitalism inherently creates.
The United States is the richest country on earth. And yet, despite the New Deal and the Great Society—small potatoes compared to Social Democratic welfare structures in western Europe—the gap between rich and poor is wider here than in any other developed country except Turkey, Mexico, and Chile, according to The Wall Street Journal.
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Social Darwinism comes to America … and to the Church
The conservative idea of “liberty” and “freedom” is largely rooted in social Darwinism, a 19th-century notion which holds that economies work like nature. It’s “survival of the fittest,” said Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher who came up with social Darwinism.
“Poverty is nature’s way of eliminating inferior types of people,” Spencer also declared.
William Graham Sumner popularized social Darwinism stateside when America rapidly industrialized after the Civil War. He piggybacked on Spencer to help justify the greed of industrialists who made enormous fortunes by ruthlessly exploiting their workers.
Christian millionaires who rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution as anti-religion, eagerly embraced social Darwinism. It let them off the hook on that conscience-nagging admonition from Jesus: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Well-heeled pastors slapped the Almighty’s seal of approval on social Darwinism. They all but ordained God as a capitalist. (More than a few modern-day Republicans act as if GOP stands for “God’s Own Party.”)
Christ championed the poor and powerless, according to the Good Book. Even so, the Rev. Russell Conwell said it was a man’s Christian duty to get rich and powerful.
“Money is power, money is force,” he said. “Money printed your Bible, money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers. The man who gets the largest salary can do the most good with the power that has been furnished to him.”
Conwell preached that earthly wealth was a sign of godliness and that poverty was the wages of sin. “Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of someone else,” he said, meaning somebody connected to the poor person.
So with social Darwinism, it became “blessed are the rich,” not the “meek.”
- If you’re rich, it’s because you’re strong, hardworking and smart. If you’re not, it’s your fault.
- If you’re rich, congratulate yourself. If you’re poor, blame yourself.
Pastor Conwell was among a multitude of apologists for the Donald Trumps of his day. Indeed, a slew of other well-heeled preachers, politicians, and press lords assured the factory and mine owners that they needn’t fret (not that many tycoons fretted anyway) about their workers, including children, who toiled long hours at miserably low pay in dangerous conditions that broke their health and threatened—and even cost them—their lives and limbs.
The workers, and only the workers, created their own misery, according the social Darwinists.
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Antipathy toward unions
Of course, social Darwinists damned anything that interfered with the “natural workings” of the marketplace. They especially despised labor unions.
They also scorned child labor laws and laws designed to make workplaces safer and more healthful. One social Darwinist denounced safety and health laws because they only prolonged the lives of workers “of the lowest development.”
Coal mining was, and still is, one of the most dangerous of jobs. “They don’t suffer. They don’t even speak English,” coal baron George F. Baer said of anthracite miners, most of them immigrants, who struck in 1902 for better wages and humane working conditions and for recognition of their union, the United Mine Workers of America.
Added the fiercely anti-union Baer: “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.”
Said another social Darwinist fan later in the 20th century: “Truly, this earth is a trophy cup for the industrious man. And this rightly so, in the service of natural selection. He who does not possess the force to secure his living space in this world, and, if necessary, to enlarge it, does not deserve to possess the necessities of life. He must step aside and allow stronger peoples to pass him by.”
That fan was Adolf Hitler.
The myth of social Darwinism – still around today
Rich conservatives who tout “liberty” and “freedom” have always claimed that under unrestrained or “laissez-faire” capitalism, any poor person who is hardworking, sharp, and ambitious can become rich. Research proves otherwise.
“While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not,” wrote Howard Zinn in his book, A People’s History of the United States. “A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad, and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of ‘rags to riches’ were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.”
The same is largely true today; look no further than the White House. The president’s daddy was wealthy. Trump is another one of those rich guys who was born on third base and talks like he hit a triple.
One Republican who rejected social Darwinism
In contrast, the first Republican president really was born poor, and he never got rich. He didn’t aspire to wealth.
Abraham Lincoln was not a social Darwinist. He hated slavery. He stuck up for working stiffs. He denounced anti-immigrant bigotry. If he were around today, he’d likely be drummed out of the GOP as a “RINO”: Republican In Name Only.
Between December 1860—a month after Lincoln was elected—and June 1861, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America because their white supremacist leaders were afraid Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” would deny them their “freedom” to keep African Americans unfree.
In April 1864, before he was elected to a second term, slavery and its Confederate defenders seemed to be on their last legs. Lincoln gave a speech in which he pointed out that everybody uses the term “liberty” but for different ends.
“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor,” Eric Foner quoted The Great Emancipator in The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
Concluded Lincoln: “Hence we behold the process by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.”
In the 16th president’s day, the Republicans were proud to call themselves the party of “Lincoln and Liberty.” The president led the Union to victory in the Civil War and put slavery on the road to extinction. After the war, the Republicans won ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ended the last vestiges of slavery; the 14th Amendment, which made African Americans citizens; and the 15th Amendment which empowered black men to vote.
That Republican party is long gone.
Today’s social Darwinists – conservative Republicans
“Social Darwinism Is What Truly Guides Trump” said a headline atop a Jonathan Chait column in New York magazine last summer. The GOP Robin-Hood-in-Reverse tax bill is more proof—as if it were needed—that the headline is still true.
“Social Darwinism is the tissue connecting this shady conduct with the Republican Party’s highest policy priorities,” Chait wrote. “Conservatives believe programs that tax the rich and benefit the poor illegitimately meddle with the natural and correct distribution of wealth produced by the marketplace.”
Chait doesn’t pull punches. He said the Republican House and Senate healthcare bills conferred “a nearly trillion-dollar tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. That appears to be its sponsors’ primary consideration. Secondarily, it strips away an equal amount in Medicaid and middle-class insurance tax credits.”
“Conservatives have little difficulty applying the logic of social Darwinism to justify punishing the sick. Vice-President Mike Pence explains that the administration’s health-care plan supports the promotion of ‘personal responsibility.’ Kellyanne Conway implies that only an unwillingness to work would cause an able-bodied adult to have trouble affording health care: ‘If they are able-bodied and they want to work, then they’ll have employer-sponsored benefits like you and I do.’ The Republican plan, explained Alabama congressman Mo Brooks, will reduce ‘the cost to those people who lead good lives. They’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.’ Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, allowed that while people who ‘get cancer’ should have a ‘safety net,’ ‘that doesn’t mean we should take care of the person who sits at home, eats poorly, and gets diabetes.’”
President Trump, you’re no Abraham Lincoln. You, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mo Brooks, and almost everybody else in your party are the reincarnations of Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Russell Conwell, and George F. Baer.
The party of Lincoln and Liberty is no more. Kentucky’s greatest native son must be spinning in his Springfield tomb at the party of Trump and plutocracy.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” He didn’t mean just rich people.
The Trumpian, social Darwinian GOP and its conservative allies feel “nothing but contempt for the very idea of democracy,” Chauncey Devega wrote in a December Salon online article headlined “GOP tax bill: Social Darwinism makes a big comeback.”
He said that by embracing social Darwinism, “a malevolent ideology,” the Republicans are “deliberately advancing a backward-facing view of American society and human development. … In this paradigm, the real value of individual human beings (and societies) is determined by their economic productivity and financial value as decided by capitalism.”
That malevolent and un-Lincoln ideology rolls on in today’s GOP in the name of “liberty” and “freedom.” That ideology, and the politicians who espouse it, should be rejected.
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