I wrote a book that came out in early 2009 called, The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be, that talked about the history of the American political debate. One of my fundamental arguments was that conservatives are using the same arguments against modern day progress that their ideological ancestors used against the progress we made throughout history. What I underestimated, though, is how fiercely and broadly the modern conservative movement is trying not only to block advances in progress, but to actually roll back the gains of our history. Things that had seemed long settled only a few years back when I wrote that book are now being fought over anew, and not by trivial people on the fringes of our politics but by most of the leaders in the Republican Party.
Over the last couple of years, we have seen the Supreme Court overturn 100 years of precedent in dramatically expanding corporate political power, and have seen Supreme Court Justices imply in oral arguments that Medicaid might be unconstitutional; we have seen leading Republican presidential candidates openly calling for the repeal of child labor laws, argue for letting the states ban contraception, and say that Social Security is unconstitutional and a Ponzi scheme; there was a Republican governor and presidential candidate, Rick Perry, who opened the door to his state seceding from the union; there is a Republican senator who called for a repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (although he later pulled back from that under intense pressure); and the Paul Ryan budget, passed twice by the Republican House and unreservedly endorsed by their presumptive, ends Medicare and Medicaid as we know them, and calls for a 95 percent cut in domestic spending over the next four decades.
This was the stuff of the extremist fringe -- the John Birch Society, the militia types, the neo-Confederacy fan boys in the South, the Ayn Rand apostles, the Christian Dominionists -- until fairly recently. But this group of outside-the-mainstream ghouls has become the twisted heart and soul of the 2012 Republican Party.
President Obama's speech this week went after the extremists who control the Republican Party hard, and he nailed it. As a history buff, and someone who wrote at length about the original Social Darwinists in my book, I was glad to see him explicitly tie Ryan and Romney to their Social Darwinist ancestors:
This congressional Republican budget is something different altogether. It is a Trojan Horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it; a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last -- education and training, research and development, our infrastructure -- it is a prescription for decline.
Just to give you a flavor of the original Social Darwinists, their intellectual founder was British writer Herbert Spencer, who happily applauded the divine right of Kings and "anyone who can get uppermost". He attacked democratic forms of government, as well as trial by jury, where "12 people of average ignorance" would dare to sit in judgment of great corporations or wealthy people. In the U.S., the leading Social Darwinist was a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner, who said that every society had a choice between only two alternatives: "liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest" or "un-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest."
It is ironic that the modern Republican Party is a place where most of its adherents reject Charles Darwin's ideas on science yet have embraced them fully on economics. Here's the problem, though: Darwin was a scientist, not an economist. His ideas have been accepted, and have thoroughly stood the test of time, in the realm of science. But when applied to economic policy in the U.S. in the 1880-90s, the 1920s, and the Bush era at the turn of this century, they have caused economic depressions and the massive destruction of the middle class every time.
President Obama's messaging on this is right where it needs to be. This paragraph is beautiful:
In this country, broad-based prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few. It has always come from the success of a strong and growing middle class. That's how a generation who went to college on the G.I. Bill, including my grandfather, helped build the most prosperous economy the world has ever known. That's why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so they could buy the cars that they made. That's why research has shown that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
This is an election where it is very clear that people are going into the voting booth unhappy with the economy and with both parties. For the most part, they aren't going to have faith in anyone on the ballot, and they aren't going to be feeling optimistic about winning the future. They are going to need to see a clear contrast. On the one hand, they need to understand just what the Republicans are offering: a Social Darwinist, Ayn Randish future where all the benefits go to the wealthiest, who got that way because they are the "fittest" -- where only the wealthy "job producers" get any benefits at all from government. On the other, they need to see Democratic candidates from the presidential level on down who they believe will fight without pause or fear for the middle class and those trying to climb the ladder up into it. From the looks of the president's speech Tuesday, that is exactly what we will get.