What kind of society, exactly, do modern
Republicans want? I've been listening to Republican candidates in an
effort to discern an overall philosophy, a broadly-shared vision, an
ideal picture of America.
They say they want a smaller government but that can't be it. Most
seek a larger national defense and more muscular homeland security.
Almost all want to widen the government's powers of search and
surveillance inside the United States -- eradicating possible terrorists,
expunging undocumented immigrants, "securing" the nation's borders.
They want stiffer criminal sentences, including broader application of
the death penalty. Many also want government to intrude on the most
intimate aspects of private life.
They call themselves conservatives but that's not it, either. They
don't want to conserve what we now have. They'd rather take the country
backwards -- before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection
Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for
Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, laws
against child labor, and official recognition of trade unions; even
before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust
laws, and Federal Reserve.
They're not conservatives. They're regressives. And the America they
seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free
enterprise, but few Americans actually enjoyed much freedom. Robber
barons like the financier Jay Gould, the railroad magnate Cornelius
Vanderbilt, and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, controlled much of
American industry; the gap between rich and poor had turned into a
chasm; urban slums festered; children worked long hours in factories;
women couldn't vote and black Americans were subject to Jim Crow; and
the lackeys of rich literally deposited sacks of money on desks of
Most tellingly, it was a time when the ideas of William Graham
Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, dominated
American social thought. Sumner brought Charles Darwin to America and
twisted him into a theory to fit the times.
Few Americans living today have read any of Sumner's writings but
they had an electrifying effect on America during the last three decades
of the 19th century.
To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which
only the fittest could survive -- and through this struggle societies
became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that
government should do little or nothing to help those in need because
that would interfere with natural selection.
Listen to today's Republican debates and you hear a continuous
regurgitation of Sumner. "Civilization has a simple choice," Sumner
wrote in the 1880s. It's either "liberty, inequality, survival of the
fittest," or "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."
Newt Gingrich not only echoes Sumner's thoughts but mimics Sumner's
reputed arrogance. Gingrich says we must reward "entrepreneurs" (by
which he means anyone who has made a pile of money) and warns us not to
"coddle" people in need. He calls laws against child labor "truly
stupid," and says poor kids should serve as janitors in their schools.
He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says, "I'm
opposed to giving people money for doing nothing."
Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed "negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent."
Mitt Romney doesn't want the government to do much of anything about
unemployment. And he's dead set against raising taxes on millionaires,
relying on the standard Republican rationale that millionaires create jobs.
Here's Sumner, more than a century ago:
"Millionaires are the product
of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those
who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done ... It is because
they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands -- both
their own and that intrusted to them ... They may fairly be regarded as
the naturally selected agents of society." Although they live in luxury,
"the bargain is a good one for society."
Other Republican hopefuls also fit Sumner's mold. Ron Paul, who
favors repeal of Obama's healthcare plan, was asked at a Republican
debate in September what medical response he'd recommend if a young man
who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma.
Paul's response: "That's what freedom is all about: taking your own
risks." The Republican crowd cheered.
In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.