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Social Darwinism and the Current Conservative Ethos

In a post I wrote on May 10, 2007, entitled, The Pathology of the Gay Conservative, I began with the following statement:

“To “conserve” in the political sense, means to adhere to traditions of fiscal responsibility and seek to minimizie the government's intrusion or encroachment on individual rights!”

As I discussed in that post, the definition of “conservative” has in relatively recent years undergone a tremendous change in its being currently identified with traditional conservatism's exact opposite: the increasing encroachment of government into individual private lives; the incurring of tremendous, record-breaking fiscal deficits; the lack of hesitation in invading another country without any provocation whatsoever; the loss of individual civil rights and civil liberties under the guise of “the war on terror,” and other assorted assaults on our individual freedoms and on our collective rights as citizens of the United States.

The irony of this dramatic divergence from traditional “conservatism” is part and parcel of what made conservatism so popular in this country in the first place. We can probably best trace the popularity of “conservatism,” regardless of the form it takes, to the 19th Century Sociologist William Graham Sumner.

Sumner took the English Sociologist Herbert Spencer's views that competition, conflict, and survival of the fittest were necessary for inherently progressive evolution of societies to occur, and evolve toward ever increasing perfection. They argued that if societies were to “make the mistake” of providing for the poor, have assorted social legislation to help the “weak,” allow government to interfere with the liberties of business, evolution would not be progressive, and the future of such a society would be bleak, as it would contain inferior, weak, people who would be of little or no benefit to that society; such social legislation could and probably would well doom a society.

To Spencer, and to the American Sociologist Sumner who made Spencer's views popular in America to the point that it's in America that Spencer's ideas tenaciously took root, and it is Sumner's influence that has allowed this situation to prevail even in 2008, that can be seen to largely account for the fact that we are the only developed country in the world that doesn't have universal health care.

Spencer and Sumner felt that evolution was inherently progressive as long as that evolution was not interfered with by government helping the poor and the dispossessed, and was not in any way influenced by the expansion of government which, they maintained (and which was embraced by many people in the U.S. largely thanks to Sumner), would inhibit, if not prevent, the increasing perfection of American society.

In other words, if the poor and the unhealthy had to die, so be it, as America would thereby become ever stronger due to the inherently progressive nature of naturally occurring evolution devoid of any human or governmental interference.

Here was born the ideas of the benefits of competition, conflict, survival of the fittest, capitalism unfettered by any limitations placed upon it by government, and rugged individualism. It is out of this milieu, this mind-set, that grew the acceptance of the ideology that embodies these characteristics that have largely overtaken our society, and that are consciously and/or unconsciously accepted by most every one; embraced by those who know full well (and those who falsely believe) that their best, usually economic, interests are best served by maintaining the status quo.

The appeal to the legitimacy and desirability of the status quo is expressed in terms of appealing to “tradition,” a tradition that really never existed for most of the American people and from which very few have ever profited.

So, in the race for the Presidency of the U.S., even in 2008, each candidate, be he/she Democrat or Republican, to one degree or another, has to placate that “conservative” Social Darwinist streak that runs throughout this country, even among those who do not profit from that conservatism, that Social Darwinism, and from what it represents.

This reality is what Marx called “false consciousness,” where people truly believed in a constructed reality by the elites of that society that only profited and profits those elites, but since “the ruling class has the ruling ideas,” the average person comes to believe that he/she is profiting from a political economy that is costing him/her dearly, and yet he/she still tenaciously holds on to the fiction that that “tradition,” that “economic organization,” that “individualistic ethic” is both desirable and is profitable to him/her.

That embracing of the status quo by those who clearly don't profit from it is called “false consciousness,” and that consciousness characterizes all too many people in this country.

To deal with this “false consciousness,” this disconnect of one's embracing what is in reality only profiting the “ruling class” and is hurting him or her, is frequently managed by creating an “other,” a constructed “enemy,” against which to discriminate, so as to enable that “other” to serve as a target whereby there can be an outlet, a “safety valve” for the thwarted ambitions, hopes, and the frustrations inherent in believing a lie; in believing in an ideology and way of life that is clearly damaging to one's psyche and economic life.  Hence, the “value” of LGBT people (and all sorts of other constructed “enemies”) serving as targets of hatred and discrimination.

So, when a Bush, a Cheney, a Huckabee, a Clinton, an Obama, a McCain, and the rest who are also inexplicably considered worthy for the office of the President engage in political rhetoric, they correctly feel that they must pay homage to the great strain of “exclusionary conservatism” that runs through the political economy, the social structure, and the psyches of most of the American people.

And if anyone wants to win that election, he/she knows that full and equal rights for LGBT people can't be expressed (any more than could advocating integration in the 1940's South), and to one degree or another must be fought; the manufactured “external threat,” be it in the name of the “war on terror” or in the name of “family values” and “tradition,” must be made palpable to the electorate, so that the Social Darwinism that infects this society can still be reinforced, still be justified, still be encouraged, still be made believable, and still be deified so that the false consciousness that exists, and upon which the ruling class and the politicians count, can be kept in place, as can the people who are falsely conscious be kept “in their place.”

In this way, the “ruling class” as represented by the economic and political elites, and for which virtually all politicians, along with much of the “religious” establishment, are more than willing spokespeople, can continue to profit from the status quo; fooling the falsely conscious into believing in the legitimacy of their rhetoric and its underpinnings of Social Darwinism, and all the while laugh their way to the bank, to the halls of Congress, and to the office of President.

[Also posted on A Christian Voice For Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, And Transgender Rights.]

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Jerry Maneker

Jerry Maneker