Unfit and Facing Extinction: The Consequences of 3 Decades of Social Darwinism
I recently saw an old 1960’s clip of Republican U.S. Senator who, in response to a question about poverty said, “The persistence of poverty is a failure on our part as a society, one that we must remedy”. I don’t think I can even name a Senator today of either party who would utter such a sentence. Maybe there are a few of the most progressive House Democrats in really safe districts who would. Instead, the dominant narrative today about poverty is one of the undeserving poor: they are either too uneducated and lacking in the “right skills” or more likely just plain lazy. Either way, their poverty is their own fault and mostly their problem!
I was born in 1955. I grew up poor. When my father lost his dairy farm it broke him and he checked out. My mother grew up in rural poverty, had an eighth grade education and worked primarily as a domestic servant. But most of my uncles and the fathers of classmates followed a path from high school to the factory where they earned enough to buy a house, buy a new car every 3 years, take an annual family vacation, raise a family, send kids to college and retire. It was called the American Dream and there was wide agreement that it was a good thing to spread the wealth widely within society. Gains in worker productivity were closely matched by gains in wages and benefits. Rising tides did not lift all boats equally, but increases in the wealth of the nation benefitted most and much more equally than today.
This was the era of the New Deal and it was dominated by a New Deal ethic and narrative that framed conversation and deliberation about public policy, whether the issue was unemployment, poverty, public budgets or the environment. One had at least to make a case for how one’s position led to the common good, not primarily its effects on Wall Street and the financial markets. Of course, just like our nation’s founding when all those great constitutional rights and liberties were essentially limited to white land-owning males, it was flawed. It was the time of Jim Crow segregation, blatant discrimination against minorities and women and the infancy of the national security state. But because of a basic underlying ethic about how we act and a narrative about who we are as a people, this era actually provided an opening for the civil rights and women’s movements in a way that has simply not been present for the past 3 decades. When Michael Harrington wrote the book The Other America documenting poverty in America, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and members of Congress were compelled to pass the Great Society programs.
Elements of the New Deal era included a sense of solidarity: a moral responsibility for one another. Basic ideas of justice and fairness and equality of opportunity were appealed to regularly in public discourse. There was some acknowledgment that society not only should be organized in a way that maximized opportunity for all, but that things could get out of whack, there could be set backs or obstacles that required remediation, special intervention, a hand up, a safety net, a second chance. People disliked paying taxes, but there was no question that there was a place for government, where “we the people” pitched in to do things collectively none of us could do completely on our own. Massive deregulation and privatization of the functions of pubic welfare were widely seen as a case of the fox guarding the hen house and would not be tolerated. The idea that someone was buying an election would bring a huge and warranted public backlash. While many of these notions were contradicted and undermined in practice these were either done in secret, or required a justification based on those very principles, not simply on the idea that if you were losing, you were a loser and everyone deserved exactly what they got.
During the past 30 years, those ideas have become the proverbial third rail of politics. One might understand an initial backlash against “big government” especially in light of 60’s and early 70’s culture wars and liberation struggles that in many ways threatened the worldview, privilege and prejudices of many. But it certainly did not call for a wholesale abandonment of those values or that narrative by the liberal elite, which has become increasingly controlled by fundraisers, pollsters and consultants whose main strategy has become to win this specific election now, fighting on the enemies terrain, using their terms and accepting their conditions without regard to what we are really “winning”.
What is especially troubling is the so called “religious” right’s acceptance of this values system that has been shaped by the ideas of Ayn Rand rather than the Gospel. This is the ethic of Social Darwinism. If you are rich it is because you deserve to be. You are smarter and harder working and society should entrust you with its well being, as the wealth you create will trickle down to benefit the rest of us. The market determines all social value and every good in society should be distributed by the market, as a commodity for profit. Any intervention into that sacred space of buying and selling, winning and losing, whether its progressive taxation, regulation of our food supply, or providing Social Security and Medicare to the aged completely undermines the natural and rightful order of things.
Of course, this narrative is a sham, propaganda for the wealthy elite who benefit from it. Rising inequality of wealth only means the wealthy increase their power to use government, our taxes, and our organized society to benefit themselves at our expense and further erode equality and democracy.
But one must wonder how within one generation, we flipped from one dominant set of values (equality, solidarity, shared responsibility, fairness, second chances) to another much crueler one, (radical individualism, survival of the fittest, greed, one strike and you’re out) when a solid majority of us still believe in the former?
We could look at a lot of the mechanics of how that happened: consolidation and control of the media, the increase of money in politics both before and after Citizens United, voter suppression and the like. But l prefer to focus on how we progressives have failed in the war of values and more importantly, what we can do to create a winning strategy.
First, it goes without saying that the winner of this or any war is always won by the side that has organized the most power. But the right built power because they organized a movement around a coherent (though mostly dishonest and self contradictory) worldview that they maintain and fight for in the midst of victory or defeat, one in which they frame every issue fight and electoral campaign. They were a joke in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was crushed by LBJ. By 1980, there narrative began to rule and does so to this day. Until recently they have tailored this narrative to a majority, even as it truly only serves a small minority. And until recently, they have largely remained united.
Even as the coalition built around this narrative is falling apart and driving itself over the cliff, the narrative itself still dominates. If you don’t believe me, why is a completely democratic General Assembly and Governor in Springfield mercilessly cutting Medicare while chastising those of us who point out hundred of billions of dollars in corporate tax loopholes? In the midst of a cataclysmic decline in taxes for corporations and the rich, why did President Obama form a “deficit” commission rather than a “revenue” commission? Why when we know the planet is melting do we still give oil companies subisides?
Here are some of the specific ways we have not matched the right in organizing our power into a coherent movement:
- Parochial organizing that remains focused on our isolated neighborhoods, cities and towns, even as all the decision makers creating our problems are far outside those borders.
- Identity politics and single issue organizing that cannot put together winning majorities but continues to act as if they can, or hope that majorities will respond to them out of long dead New Deal era instincts.
- Beltway politics of the possible, completely devoted to taking what “can be won”, without any regard for what needs to be won. What we can win now has shrunk over the past 3 decades to almost nothing worth fighting for.
- Electoral politics which insists—each and every election cycle –that we have to hold our noses and elect the lesser of two evils which has led us to a place in which our “lesser evils” are often far worse than our worst imaginable evils of a couple of decades ago.
Here are the some of the elements that IIRON believes is necessary to win the war of values:
- Power: If we do not start with the clarity that organized people and organized money constitutes power in the pubic arena and become intentional and diligent about building it, we will never win no matter how righteous our hearts, brilliant our policies or creative our strategies and tactics.
- Engage in the fight. It is a fight against powerful vested interests. Policy papers, conferences, prayer services, marches alone will not be sufficient. We need direct action, articulated demands, defined targets and public consequences.
- Organize people at the grassroots level, in their congregations and communities around their immediate concerns. Face to face organizing is required to build accountability and solidarity and to confront national decision makers at home where it matters most.
- Train and agitate ordinary people to build a public life, engage in the political arena and become leaders who can organize others. Signing on line petitions are fine but does not a movement build. Relying on experts or grass-top leaders has failed us miserably.
- Provide training in an analysis of how corporate power works and on the workings of the political economy. Without this, people cannot withstand the barrage of corporate media propaganda that has them focused on the irrelevant or worse yet, blaming other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or immigrant status.
- Link local issues to national issues. For instance, IIRON’s work to agitate Attorney General Lisa Madigan to take more leadership on the bank fraud investigation and mortgage principal reduction applies our local power and organizing to an important national figure and issue, as part of a broader coalition and strategy.
- Link local issues to national campaigns and power bases. Our communities need resources for schools services, infrastructure and job creation. The money is not there locally. We cannot fight alone locally for revenue solutions such as ending the Bush tax cuts, passing a financial transaction tax or passing the Buffet rule. But moving our local targets around our local needs for resources makes sense when connected to National Peoples Action, New Bottom Line coalition and other national efforts. IIRON’s local affiliates fight for individual homeowners mortgage modifications or “Give it Back” campaigns to recover foreclosed properties would fall flat without the national pressure and power of national Move Your Money, Shareholders and other bank accountability and legislative campaigns.
- Link Organizing and Movement. We must link discreet win-able demands to broader goals and values. Current politics and deficit budgets at every level has shrunk the politically possible to fewer and smaller available victories. We can no longer afford to just win what is possible now. Without a movement to create a new, different and much better “politically possible” we are truly letting our people and communities short.
- Boldly and unapologetically call for a new set of values and principles to guide our economy. Elected officials and political insiders will call you names like radical, naïve or nuts. Screw them! Supply side trickle down economics has been tried for 3 decades and it has utterly failed. It crashed the entire global economy. Wealth did not trickle down. We are poorer, deeper in debt and disparities have grown off the chart. Our infrastructure is crumbling, the middle class is shrinking, poverty is growing, our environment is being destroyed and our democracy is threatened by money. There is no longer any reason to accept our elected officials’ continued excuses based on this tired, failed and immoral paradigm. IIRON has created a values based Covenant for Economic Justice thatch be found on the Take Action tab on this website. We ask that you sign and circulate this document.
- Get off the sidelines and get involved. If you are already involved, become intentional about bringing others with you. Join an organization that is doing these things. IIRON is a great place to start and welcomes you to our corner of the movement.
We may not be able to return to the era of the New Deal. But we do need to return to a set of values that honors the fact that we are all sisters and brothers and we share a collective responsibility for a just and sustainable world. Survival of the fittest is an inadequate ethic for the human race.
A dear pastor friend pastor often quoted the Bible, saying “Without a vision, the people perish”, but would always follow that statement by saying “and without the people the vision will perish”. Lets be the people who organize the people and the vision.