The Choice In 2012: Social Darwinism Or A Decent Society

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By Robert Reich

(This article originally appeared in Robert Reich’s blog on April 3, 2012)

President Obama didn’t wait for all the returns  on Tuesday’s Republican primaries. He kicked off his 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney with a hard-hitting speech centered on the House Republicans’ budget plan – which Romney has enthusiastically endorsed.

That plan, by the way, is the most radical reverse-Robin Hood proposal propounded by any political party in modern America. It would save millionaires at least $150,000 a year in taxes while gutting Medicaid, Medicare, Food Stamps, transportation, child nutrition, college aid, and almost everything else average and lower-income Americans depend on.

Here’s what the President had to say about it:

Disguised as a deficit reduction… it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism.

We are likely to hear a lot more about social Darwinism in the months ahead. It was the conservative creed during the late 19thcentury – legitimizing a politics in which the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of money on legislators’ desks, and justifying an economy in which sweat shops were common, urban slums festered, and a significant portion of America was impoverished.

Social Darwinism encapsulated the idea of survival of the fittest (a phrase Charles Darwin never actually used) as applied to societies as a whole. Its chief apostle in America was Yale Professor William Graham Sumner.

Here’s what Sumner had to say in his social-Darwinian classic “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” (1883):

Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: Liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.

Could there be a better summary of what today’s regressive Republicans believe?

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written thirteen books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet, Supercapitalism, and his most recent book, Aftershock. His “Marketplace” commentaries can be found on and iTunes. He is also Common Cause’s board chairman.

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