Conservative Confusion over Obama and 'Social Darwinism'

Jennifer Rubin, blogging at the Washington Post, has this to say about President Obama's use of the term "thinly veiled social Darwinism" to describe Paul Ryan's budget: "Let's be clear about two things. The supposedly erudite Obama labeled Ryan a race supremacist..."

Let's be clear about one thing: Jennifer Rubin doesn't have the slightest idea what she's talking about.

The term "social Darwinism" was made famous by Richard Hofstadter's 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter called social Darwinism a "phase in the history of conservative thought" and wrote:

Darwinism was used to buttress the conservative outlook in two ways. The most popular catchwords of Darwinism, 'struggle for existence' and 'survival of the fittest,' when applied to the life of man in society, suggested that nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement. In itself this was not a new idea, as economists could have pointed out, but it did give the force of a natural law to the idea of competitive struggle. Secondly, the idea of development over eons brought new force to another familiar idea in conservative political theory, the conception that all sound developments must be slow and unhurried.

If you look at all the thinkers Hofstadter labeled Social Darwinists, you will find some who were racial supremacists and illegitimately used Darwinian language or ideas to justify their positions. But you will also find some who weren't and who chose other areas for their misapplication of Darwinism. In fact, if you read Hofstadter's ten-page introduction, which is devoted to defining "social Darwinism," you won't find a single reference to racism or racial supremacism. Rather, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on class supremacism, and on the use of Darwinian ideas or language to justify laissez faire economics. Social Darwinism, wrote Hofstadter, was above all the idea that "attempts to reform social processes were efforts to remedy the irremediable, that they interfered with the wisdom of nature, that they could lead only to degeneration."

Whether there's merit in Obama's associating some contemporary conservative ideas with this kind of thought is debatable. What's not debatable is that he's not calling anyone a racist.

You might ask how Rubin got the idea that he is. She says she got the idea from David Brooks. Brooks had written, "Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples."

Well, that's slightly more nuanced than Rubin's regurgitation of it, but not nuanced enough. Hofstadter didn't say social Darwinism was a coherent "philosophy" with a set of tenets that included racial supremacism. He described it, rather, as a tendency of thought--a tendency to find right-wing implications in Darwin's evolutionary theory, typically by a kind of metaphorical extension rather than rigorous thought; and one variant of that tendency is racial supremacism. By Darwinian analogy: A monkey is one variant of primate, but if I call Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks primates, I'm not necessarily calling them monkeys, because there are other variants as well, such as humans. 

And, just to be clear: I'm not calling Brooks and Rubin monkeys. To err, after all, is human.

[Update, April 6, 3 p.m.: Alert commenter Absurdbeats says the term "social Darwinism" wasn't "coined" by Hofstadter, as I'd originally said, but rather was introduced to America by Hofstadter. Hofstadter writes in his introduction of a "style of social thought that can be called 'social Darwinism,' " so it sounds like he was under the impression that he coined the term, and, moreover, it looks to me as though the earlier use of "social Darwinism" to which Absurdbeats alludes has a very different meaning from the one the term came to have as a result of Hofstadter's book; this 19th-century British use of the term seems to have been as a mere synonym for "social evolution." In any event, I've changed my wording for good measure. Sorry if my earlier version was misleading. To err, as I've been known to point out, is human.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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