It is a little-known fact that it was the 19th-century British philosopher Herbert Spencer – and not Charles Darwin – who coined the term ‘the survival of the fittest’. In due course, Darwin, adopted the phrase and thereby it acquired popular currency. Spencer, however, was not referring to the process of natural selection – a key principle of evolutionary biology. Instead, his vision of ‘the survival of the fittest’ was one of social conflict where the most successful in any given society were deemed to be the ‘fittest’.
His ideas about social order proved attractive to some American intellectuals. Chief among them was William Graham Sumner, who was the first professor of sociology at Yale University. Sumner, who was an ardent believer in free enterprise, argued with considerable force that any attempt to improve the lot of the poor was both imprudent and undesirable as they had no one to blame for their condition but themselves. Material success, Sumner believed, simply stemmed from innate ability and effort.
The development of sociological analysis of the causes of poverty has long left behind these anachronistic and antediluvian ideas. Nevertheless, these ideas continue to animate American political life and discourse. In recent decades they resurfaced during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan rarely lost an opportunity to rail against “welfare queens” – a coded term that referred to poor African-American women struggling to make ends meet. It was during his term in office that the process of dismantling the already meager provisions of the American welfare state started. Reagan was able to significantly shrink welfare provisions because he managed to deftly tap into a strain of American political culture that accepted some of the basic ideas of social Darwinism.
His preferred method was the adroit use of the telling anecdote which highlighted some real as well as mostly imagined abuse of the country’s welfare provisions. Such dubious evidence may not have met the canons of social science but found much resonance among significant segments of the American public. Not surprisingly, most within the Republican Party and even many Democrats went along with his efforts to dismantle elements of the American system of social welfare.
Ironically, it was a much-revered Democrat, Bill Clinton, who during his term in office vowed to “end welfare as we know it”. Worse still, he had hailed from one of the poorest states of country, Arkansas, where many were dependent on the state for their well-being.
The election of Donald Trump now seems to have brought social Darwinist propensities to the fore. During the presidential campaign, Trump relied on and made extensive use of populist rhetoric. However, as any number of astute commentators had underscored during the campaign, he had been remarkably short when it had come to spelling out specific policies. Now, as he has gone about making critical cabinet appointments, it is increasingly becoming apparent that he sold the working class a completely false bill of goods.
Virtually every appointment that he has made suggests that his promises to ameliorate the genuine problems of the working poor are entirely hollow. A few salient examples will quickly reveal the depth of his callousness, if not outright hostility, toward the concerns of the less fortunate citizenry. His choices clearly suggest that the US’s working class will be expected, under his administration, to simply fend for themselves with little or no assistance or protection from the government, especially in times of need.
Take for example the choice of Andrew Puzder, a wealthy fast-food magnate, as the secretary of labour. It is certainly possible to debate the appropriate level of an hourly minimum wage. However, in Puzder’s view, the very idea of a minimum wage appears to be virtually anathema. More to the point, he has made the utterly dubious claim that the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which seeks to extend health insurance to most Americans, has significantly hurt the fast food industry. His assertion stems from the fact that workers in the organised sector who put in thirty hours or more are now guaranteed access to minimal health care. This provision, in his view, is an intolerable burden on many employers.
The ACA certainly seems to be threatened by Trump’s appointment of Tom Price as the secretary of health and human services. An orthopedic surgeon by training from the state of Georgia and currently serving in the US House of Representatives, Price has been an unrelenting critic of the ACA. Of course, neither he nor those of his ilk have – barring some skeletal details – provided much inkling of what could replace the ACA. If it is actually overturned, most health economists estimate that some 23 million citizens who currently enjoy some form of healthcare would be left out in the cold.
Yet another relevant appointment also raises serious questions about Trump’s putative commitment to the concerns of the vast majority of Americans who rely on the public primary education system. His choice for secretary of education is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan, who has made it a life’s crusade to try and undermine the nation’s commitment to public education. As it is, primary education in the US is vastly uneven because it is mostly dependent on local property taxes. Poorer areas, almost inevitably, have weaker schools owing to their limited tax base. However, federal subsidies to such schools can make a significant difference. With the possible appointment of an individual who is openly hostile toward public schools one can hardly expect any assistance being directed toward those most in need.
Trump’s appointments, of course, still need to pass muster in the senate. Democrats can be reasonably expected to subject them to careful scrutiny. However, given the usual deference that is granted in the end to presidential appointments and a Republican majority, there is a strong likelihood that many if not all of them will be confirmed. Their assumption of such high public offices, given their past records, suggests that the US may soon be facing the high noon of social Darwinism in the second decade of the 21st century.
Sumit Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.