Do unto others before they do unto you:
The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump
And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.
“We’ve got what they want, and we aim to keep it.”
Vice President Spiro Agnew
Prelude: A Concern with Unintended Consequences.
My purposes in writing this essay are twofold. First, I will outline what I see as the devolution of conservatism from its starting highpoint in the eighteenth century to its low point as blatant racism, ethnocentrism and mere obstructionism in the present day. I will focus on the historic concern of conservatives with the potential for unintended negative consequences in undertaking social reform, and their claim that negative results invariably overwhelm any positive change. Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, voiced this concern during the eighteenth century as a legitimate question of whether and how we can predict the results of social reform.
What began as a legitimate concern about unintended consequences devolved over the years into an excuse by conservative politicians to oppose any change that might negatively impact their wealthy sponsors. That practice eventually devolved into a justification for opposing any program that might help racial and ethnic minorities, a coded appeal to the racial fears of white people. In the current election cycle, what had been a coded appeal to bigotry has become open fearmongering and hate peddling by Donald Trump. I will argue that the turning point in the devolution of conservatism came with the advent of Social Darwinism at the turn of the twentieth century, and the acceptance of its basic premises by most conservative politicians.
Second, I will argue that the evolution in the early twentieth century of pragmatism as a comprehensive social theory and practice undermined the rationale for conservativism and transformed the rationale for liberalism. Backed by the methods of the then newly emerging social and physical sciences, pragmatism offered a way for social reforms to be subject to experimental methods, ongoing evaluation, and continuous revision. This pragmatic review process could effectively mitigate most legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences of reform, so that conservatism had been rendered obsolete. Politics could safely become a realm of continuous social reform, which is the position represented by President Obama.
Act I. Actions, Reactions, and Reactionaries: The Birth of Liberalism and Conservatism.
“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
“We must all obey the law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.”
Setting the Scene: Let us reason together.
It was the turn of the eighteenth century. Europeans had suffered through almost two centuries of political upheaval and religious wars. The Protestant Reformation had precipitated the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which had led to Protestants and Catholics slaughtering each other, and to both Christian groups killing Muslims and Jews. At the same time, the decline of feudalism had precipitated the economic upheaval of nascent capitalism, with land enclosures creating massive unemployment and unrest.
Europe was, however, about to enter a period that contemporaries called the Enlightenment in which prominent intellectuals and their backers tried to leave behind the superstitions, authoritarianism and violence of previous centuries. And it was a period of relative calm compared to the recent past, despite the imperial rivalry of England and France, who engaged in a series of imperial wars from the 1690’s through the 1810’s. During one of those wars, the French helped a group of North American colonies gain their independence from England, and establish the United States. Calmness and control were watchwords in culture and society during the period. These goals were reflected in the scientific and political theories and practices of the time, which included the rise of liberalism and conservatism as political philosophies.
Isaac Newton’s World: Inertia, Friction and Orderly Change.
The eighteenth century marks the definitive opening act of modern science and politics. By modern, I mean the theories and practices from which we most closely derive our own ideas today. There are many people who can be cited as precursors of modernity, for example Bacon and Galileo in the physical sciences. But their ideas were not given full exposition until the work of Isaac Newton at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Newton established a framework that dominated the physical sciences for some two hundred years. Most notably, in his Three Laws of Motion, Newton reversed scientific theories that dated back to Aristotle, and rejected common sense human experience as well.
In his First Law of Motion, Newton claimed that something in motion would continue moving in a straight line forever unless it was disturbed by some change in circumstances, some force that pushed it out of its inertial course. That law was in direct contradiction to ancient Aristotle’s theory and to our common sense experience that a thing must be continuously pushed by a force in order to continue in motion. In our common experience, things grind to a halt unless they are pushed. That is mainly the result of friction, but since we live in a world of friction, we usually take it for granted, and do not factor it in as a countervailing force in our thinking about things. Since we have little experience of things moving in a vacuum, in which there is no friction, Newton’s First Law is counter-intuitive to most of us.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion describes the change in circumstances, that is, the force, necessary to change the inertial course of something – to start it, stop it, or redirect it. His Third Law emphasizes that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Push and you will be pushed back. This also seems counter-intuitive to most of us, as we do not experience as pushback the inertial resistance of something we are pushing. We merely think of it as the heaviness of the object, not that the object is pushing back at us.
In his Laws of Motion, theories of gravity, and other work, Newton described a mechanical universe of complementary and competing forces, in which things take their customary course ad infinitum, unless they are forced to change by natural or unnatural circumstances. These Laws of Motion were not only counter-intuitive to common sense experience, they also described a more orderly picture of the world than was experienced by most people. Most Europeans were still reeling from the consequences of the religious and political wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the social and economic upheaval of nascent capitalism. Most ordinary people lived precarious lives in circumstances that seemed in constant turmoil. In the religious and political beliefs of most people, the only thing that kept things going and kept them in order was the constant intervention of God, the King and/or some strong outside force.
Newton disagreed. Although he was a deeply religious man, who spent more time and effort in his studies of religion and ethics than he did on science, Newton’s scientific theories delineated a universe that was very different than that portrayed in conventional religious and political theory. Contrary to the conventional view of the world as constantly teetering on turmoil, he portrayed a universe which was essentially stable, and in which ordinary people could choose to keep things the same or change them. He was, thereby, describing the essence of our modern world view.
Newtonian Politics and The Rise of Conventional Political Ideology. Developments in political theory and practice during the eighteenth century followed a course similar to that of physics. Sharing a Newtonian view of the universe, newly evolving political theories described a political world which operated mechanically and predictably, instead of on the edge of chaos, and in which people could choose their governments, being no longer tethered to Divine Right Kings. In this political development, liberalism came first, and conservatism came in reaction.
The liberal and conservative ideologies that emerged during this time dominated political theory and practice in England and America for some two hundred years. They are still influential today. Aspects of these ideologies were developed by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke during the seventeenth century, Hobbes a conservative forerunner, Locke a liberal forerunner. Their ideas were given full exposition during the eighteenth century in the theories and practices of the liberal James Madison and the conservative Edmund Burke.
Liberalism: The Obvious Truth. The term “liberal” began as an ethical concept that denoted generosity. A liberal person was someone, usually a person of station and means, who gave generously to the less fortunate in society. During the eighteenth century, the term was extended to politics. In politics, a liberal was a social reformer and social planner, usually a person of station and with a formal education, whose proposals were designed to make society fairer and more efficient, and were generously intended to help the less fortunate and oppressed in society.
Political liberals, like most devotees of the Enlightenment, believed in the power of Reason (with a capital R). They generally held that one could derive self-evident truths through reasoning, and then develop social policies based thereon. They were planners, who thought that if something was wrong, they could rationally design a fix for it. They were impatient with tradition, as the sepulchral grip of the dead hand of the past choking the present, and insisted on change as the function of reason. Nature was, to them, something to be tamed and made to work for humans. Finely landscaped gardens, neatly plowed and hedged wheat fields, and clearly mapped roads and routes were their ideal of nature. Human nature had similarly to be tamed and bounded, even as social problems were being solved.
Most eighteenth century liberals assumed a social hierarchy in which the People would instinctively defer to their natural leaders, that is, to those in the social and educational elite of society, so long as those leaders fulfilled their natural obligations to rule on behalf of the People. Government was the result of a contract with the People, and they acted as a check on the elite. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of our Founding Fathers exemplified eighteenth century liberal theories. Based on “self-evident truths,” the Declaration outlines a philosophy of “liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness” that is derived from Reason, and that balances the rights and duties of subjects with the powers and duties of their rulers.
The Constitution follows the philosophy of the Declaration in establishing a government of separate powers that were expected to check and balance each other, even as they worked together to “promote the general welfare” and provide other social goods for “We, the People.” The Constitution describes a Newtonian political universe of actions and reactions. Its original provisions even established different mechanisms and constituencies for the selection of members of the different branches of government. The purpose of this complicated process was to ensure that no one group in society would dominate the government, and that the majority could not oppress minority groups. It was also intended to facilitate the selection of members of the elite to most offices.
While the Founders were concerned with restraining politicians from running wild and ruining things, the Constitution also assumes an active government and continuous social reform. It provides the federal government with powers to make changes in almost every area of society, including the government itself. It is a short document short on specifics and, therefore, needs to constantly be interpreted and re-interpreted according to changes in society. It also contains provisions for amending itself and, thereby, assumes that government must be changed as society changes. Liberal social reform is incorporated into the fabric of the Constitution.
Critics of the Enlightenment have frequently contended that liberals of that time foolishly believed in the inevitability of progress. That is not the case. While many Enlightenment liberals, including Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the primary expositor of the Constitution, may have in some ways been fools, they believed only in the possibility, and not the inevitability, of progress. The weakness in their proposals was often in the paucity of evidence on which they were based. Relying heavily on examples from ancient history, especially those of Greece and Rome, and on inevitably biased accounts of recent events, the Founding Fathers often rushed to judgments that proved wrong. Although they relied on the best available evidence, that evidence was often not good enough.
The rationale for American Revolution was, for example, based on an inappropriate comparison of George III with Charles I, and on inaccurate reports from England about the doings and desires of the King. The Revolution may have been a mistake. The Founding Fathers were also seemingly mistaken in their expectations of the outcome of the Revolution, which is why they so quickly abandoned the Articles of Confederation for which they had fought, and established a very different government in the Constitution. Government and politics under the Constitution, in turn, turned out to be very different than they intended and expected. This weakness in the predictive powers of liberal reformers opened the door for a conservative counterattack.
Conservatism: Old Truths are the Best. Edmund Burke is almost universally considered the father of modern conservatism. He was also almost universally considered by contemporaries to be a man of principle. As an example, although Burke opposed the liberal philosophies embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he supported the American revolutionaries in their battle for independence from British rule. A conservative supporting a revolution, and bucking his own political party and party leadership to boot. To most of us today, this seems like odd behavior for the ur-conservative. But that is the difference between what most people think of as conservatism today; the way it is represented by most so-called conservatives of the Social Darwinian school; and what it represented in the past.
The term “conservative” began as an ethical concept that denoted caution and frugality. The term was extended to politics during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as part of the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment and against liberal rationalism. It is popularly thought that conservatives have always opposed all social change, and that they have wanted everything to stay the same or even go back to way they were in the past. This is not the case. Conservatives have historically accepted cautious social change. People who oppose any and all progressive social change are more accurately called “right-wingers.” Right-wingers generally represent interest groups that benefit from the status quo, and that fear social reform would entail a loss of power, profit and/or status. And it is so-called “reactionaries,” not Burkean conservatives, who peddle nostalgia for the so-called “good old days” (that usually weren’t so good), and who want things to go back to the way they supposedly were in the past.
In contrast to right-wingers and reactionaries, Burke believed in incremental evolutionary change. He rejected planned change, but accepted adaptive change. He believed that society is strongest when it changes so gradually that the changes are barely noticed from generation to generation, and may only be recognized from a long historical distance. He believed that tradition was the distilled wisdom of the ages. And he believed that human reason was too weak and short-sighted to safely predict the consequences of social planning. Burke insisted that the unintended negative consequences of social reforms were almost inevitably going to be greater than the positive effects. However bad things were now, they would likely be worse if people took action to remedy the situation.
Burke’s insistence on the limits of reason and concern with the unintended consequences of reform comprise the most powerful legacy that Burke left to conservatives. These ideas have historically been conservatives’ strongest argument against social reform. They constitute an almost universal argument that can be used against almost any proposed reform. Burke did not, however, oppose all reform. He would support social reform if the survival of the social system seemed to require it, and if conscience and human decency seemed to demand it.
Burke believed in a hierarchical society controlled by an elite upper class. But Burke’s elite could not merely pursue their own self-interest, even if it was justified with some sort of trickle-down theory of social benefits, as right-wingers proclaim today. Burke’s elite were burdened with the obligation of caring for society, which included the noblesse oblige of the upper class to take care of the masses, a sort of mandatory charitable giving. He was a vehement opponent of democracy, which he warned would lead to the subjugation of society by an ignorant mass. But he also opposed oppression of the masses and persecution of racial and religious minorities by the elite. His insistence on treating people decently was considered a matter of honor among conservatives during the nineteenth century, even if it was a principle that was almost always more honored in the breach. It is a legacy that is all but gone among so-called conservatives today.
It was based on what he considered respect for tradition and the demands of decency that Burke supported the American revolutionaries. He claimed that the King and Parliament had taken advantage of the British victory over the French in America in 1763 to radically change the terms on which the American colonies were being governed, and that tradition was being violated. He thought also that the British government was being too harsh in its treatment of the colonists, and that noblesse oblige was being violated. As a result, he believed the Americans were justified in rebelling against British misrule.
Burke had a deep respect for the facts. The historical facts, the facts of evolutionary social change, and the facts of present-day problems were the foundation of his conservative ideology. He accepted what was, and he did not hanker after what could be or what had been. He challenged both liberals and reactionaries with what he saw as the facts. This respect for facts also made him flexible. He disdained Reason (with a capital R), but attempted to be reasonable. He was the founder of conservative ideology, but he was not a conservative ideologue.
Act II. Dogmatism versus Pragmatism: Ideologues versus Ideology.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”
“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
“The social order is fixed by laws of nature precisely analogous to those of the physical order”
“Millionaires are a product of natural selection…Poverty and misery will exist in society just so long as vice exists in human nature.”
William Graham Sumner.
“Our institutions, though democratic in form, tend to favor in substance privileged plutocracy.”
“Selfishness is the outcome of limited observation and imagination.”
Setting the Scene: Trying to find order in the midst of disorder.
It was the turn of the twentieth century. Change was the order of the day. The nineteenth had been a century of revolution. Europeans and Americans had suffered through the beginnings of the industrial revolution, which had produced enormous wealth for plutocrats but misery for the working classes, huge cities ringed by wealthy suburbs but with slums in their center, an abundance of goods but want among the masses, powerful inventions but large-scale environmental degradation, and miraculous medical advances but widespread disease. There had also been a host of political revolutions, civil wars and other upheavals, as democratic aspirations gradually overcame aristocratic opposition in Europe and America.
The intellectual world was upended by the emergence of the specialized physical and social sciences, with their empirical and statistical methods, replacing the traditional emphasis on the classics and on Reason. A cultural revolution was instigated toward the end of the century by the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The book put the theory of evolution and the consequences of evolution at the center of moral, intellectual and political life, where they remain today.
Charles Darwin’s World: Pragmatism, Relativism, and Probabilities.
The turn of the twentieth century was the age of Darwin. Evolution was both the rage and a source of outrage. Agnostics and atheists saw it as vindication of their beliefs or non-beliefs. Protestant fundamentalists and Biblical literalists, in turn, damned it as sacrilege. Scientists saw it as encouragement to take a more probabilistic and relativistic view of their fields. Philosophical positivists and intellectual absolutists damned that as nihilism. And it led some leading liberals and conservatives to revise their respective political beliefs, much to the chagrin of purists in both camps who damned that as unprincipled and immoral backsliding.
Theories of Evolution. Darwin’s was not the first theory of evolution. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Baptist Lamarck had proposed what became a widely popular theory of evolution in which he claimed that creatures could genetically pass on to their progeny characteristics that they had acquired during their lifetimes. Under Lamarck’s theory, for example, it could be said that giraffes acquired their long necks by dint of successive generations of giraffes stretching up to reach leaves at the tops of trees. This theory implied that human families, ethnic groups, and racial groups could improve themselves through personal achievements that they then passed down to their descendants. This seemed to mean that people were ultimately responsible for their own biological and social successes and failures. A moral value could be attached to biological characteristics and to social success or failure. People got what they deserved.
Darwin rejected Lamarck’s theory. His theory was based instead on two key ideas, random variation and natural selection, that generated most of the opposition among religious fundamentalists to this theory. Darwin claimed that new characteristics are not acquired through personal effort but through random genetic variation, essentially through what we would call mutation. We cannot tell how or why these mutations occur. It is pure happenstance to us.
This idea outraged many religious people and was greeted with glee by atheists. It does not, however, necessarily mean that God is out of the evolutionary picture. What is random to us humans could be planned by God. It does not even mean that the creation stories in the Book of Genesis are invalid, if you read the stories metaphorically rather than literally. The Catholic Church and most liberal Protestant groups read the Bible metaphorically and, therefore, have had no problems with Darwin’s theories. But Protestant fundamentalists and Biblical literalists have rejected this view, and have rejected evolutionary theory. They have, in turn, from that time to the present created havoc with the science programs in many American school districts.
Darwin also claimed that species survive and thrive based on their adaptability, which he called natural selection. Natural selection is the ability of a creature either to successfully respond to environmental changes and challenges, or to fail and disappear. Living things survive by trying to fit themselves into the existing environment. They are assimilationists. But they also try to better fit the environment to themselves. They are social and environmental reformers. The impetus for social reform is, thus, built into the structure of life. Without it, we would die out.
Cultural relativism and ethical pragmatism are implicit in Darwin’s theory, and political and religious dogmatists have rejected Darwinian ideas for this reason. According to Darwin the ability of living creatures to survive and thrive is based on the adaptability of their beliefs and practices. If they adopt beliefs that do not work toward survival, they will disappear along with those beliefs. If circumstances change and they are not willing or able to change with them, they will not survive. Humans and other living creatures must take a tentative and probabilistic approach to beliefs and practices, willing and able to change them as circumstances require.
Darwin is popularly known for two main ideas, neither of which were his, but which were the foundation of Social Darwinism. They are the idea of survival of the fittest, and the idea that there are inevitably losers as well as winners in evolution. The latter idea derives from the population theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus claimed that population growth inevitably outpaces resources, and there are not enough resources to satisfy everyone. In Malthus’ view, it is only through war, disease and famine that the human population has been kept under relative control. And he opposed charity for the poor because it would only encourage them to have more children.
Malthus’ ideas are the inspiration for what is today known as the “zero-sum” theory of economics. According to this theory, there is a limited amount of wealth in the world, not enough to make everyone well-off, and if some people get more, others must get less. Darwin was inspired by Malthus’ population growth theory as an explanation for the rise and fall of the population of some species, but he did not use it as a general explanation of evolution. Nor did Darwin think that human evolution was inevitably Malthusian.
Survival of the fittest was a term invented by Herbert Spencer. Spencer had been a devotee of Lamarck’s evolutionary theory, and he believed that fitness was a moral achievement. Social success as well as biological success were personal achievements that made a person fit to survive and thrive. Social failure, according to Spencer, was a sign of genetic unfitness and unfitness to survive. Darwin adopted the phrase “survival of the fittest” in his later works, but without any of the moral overtones that Spencer gave it.
Fitness did not mean for Darwin that one was the strongest, smartest, most powerful, most socially successful, or best in any other way except that one was able to fit oneself to the environment and fit the environment to oneself. Spencer became a well-known supporter of Darwin’s biological theories, but used them to support his own so-called Social Darwinian social and economic theories, that neither Darwin nor Darwin’s theories supported.
The Influence of Evolution on Philosophy and Science. The theory of evolution ushered in a sea change in science from a positivist emphasis on finding absolute natural laws to proposing relativistic and probabilistic theories. Mendel’s genetic principles in biology, Einstein’s theories of relativity in physics, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics were among turn-of-the-twentieth-century scientific advances that promoted a relativistic approach to truth. William James’ radical empiricism and John Dewey’s experimentalism were among the philosophical applications of evolutionary theories. This turn toward relativism on the part of scientists and philosophers generated an emotional reaction against science and philosophy among religious fundamentalists that continues to the present day in the United States.
It is a reaction that is based on misunderstanding. Relativism does not mean that anything goes, or that there are no standards. Relativism is not nihilism. In saying that something is relative, one must always be willing to respond to the question “Relative to what?”, and be able to delineate some stable benchmark that provides a standard for evaluating the relativity of the thing. In evolutionary theory, for example, survival is the standard by which things are evaluated. In pragmatist philosophy, whether something works as an answer to a question is the standard.
The Evolution of Evolutionary Politics: Pragmatist Action, Dogmatist Reaction. During most of the nineteenth century, liberals and conservatives shared many basic ideas, and their programs often overlapped. Both liberal and conservative movements were broad-based, with a wide range of beliefs within each movement, and with the left-wing of conservatism shading into liberalism and the left-wing of liberalism shading into socialism. Both groups had to adapt to the democratic trends of the time, and both hoped to bring order to democracy through the leadership of a meritocratic elite, albeit they had different types of elite in mind.
Conservatives generally looked to the rich to lead society. Thomas Carlyle, among others, eulogized capitalists as “captains of industry” who ought to take command of society. Liberals generally focused on education as the primary criteria for leadership, as they for the most part still do today. John Stuart Mill, the leading liberal of the nineteenth century, advocated that those with more formal education should get more votes than those with less education, and Karl Marx, the leading socialist, promoted leadership by political theoreticians such as himself.
Both liberals and conservatives sought to promote industrialization, but with different emphases on how wealth should be distributed, and what sort of role government should play in the economy. Both groups believed that government should encourage growth, and discourage corruption and crass exploitation. Conservatives generally favored government intervention in the economy only if a problem was so severe that it threatened the social system. Liberals generally supported government action to deal with a wide range of social ills. Conservatives did, however support reform on humanitarian grounds. It was English conservatives in the early nineteenth century who first proposed labor laws to protect working women and children. And Abraham Lincoln, the ur-Republican, was a corporate lawyer who also supported labor rights as well as an end to slavery.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, economic and political events challenged the ideologies of both liberals and conservatives in the United States. Economic depressions, violent labor disputes, rampant infectious diseases, overcrowded cities, rising crime rates, and other crises upset the orderly ideas of both groups. Darwinian ideas of evolution came along at a time when both liberals and conservatives were looking for explanations of what was going on.
Avant garde intellectuals and activists among both liberals and conservatives seized on evolutionary ideas, but with very different applications and very different results. The application of Darwin’s ideas to politics produced major splits within the ranks of liberals and conservatives, with the old guard in both groups fighting rear-guard actions to the present day. An ever-widening split also developed between the Darwinian liberals and Darwinian conservatives who increasingly came to dominate the Democratic and Republican parties.
Social Darwinism: Every Man for Himself. Social Darwinism was adopted by many erstwhile conservatives at the turn of the twentieth century as a rationale for control of society by the wealthy, and as a strategy for convincing the masses to support rule by the rich. Historians have debated exactly how many people used the term Social Darwinism to describe themselves. It is clear, however, that the ideas and the strategy represented by the term became increasingly influential among conservatives starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing to the present, even as conservatives increasingly rejected Darwinian theories of evolution.
These ideas can be summed up in two phrases, Malthusian catastrophe and survival of the fittest. The strategy can be summed up in one word, fear. A Malthusian catastrophe is when the downtrodden masses rise up and use up all the resources that the rest of us need to thrive, so that we all go down to a hellish existence together. Malthusianism is the prediction of dystopia unless the masses are kept strictly in check. It is an idea that gained currency when the closing of the American frontier in the 1890’s seemed to presage the closing down of opportunity, and has gained traction in the present day, when globalization seems to have a similar import.
Survival of the fittest means the cultivation of wealth and a cult of the wealthy. According to this theory, laissez-faire capitalism is the competitive law of nature translated into an economic system, and it is ostensibly the single greatest vehicle for human evolution. The winners in cutthroat capitalism are the best specimens of humanity, and having won the economic race are the ones who should lead the human race. The losers in the race should be left behind, lest they become a drag on the rest of us. This winner-takes-most theory is sometimes rationalized as what has come to be called “trickle-down” economics and culture. The claim is that when the rich get more of something, some collateral benefits will trickle down to the rest of society.
Fear-mongering was the strategy to implement this theory. It was a means of convincing those people who have little to support the reign of those people who have a lot in order to protect themselves against those people who have nothing. Social Darwinism was an ideology and a strategy that allowed conservatives to eschew concern for the welfare of the masses that Burke had considered a matter of honor. The poor get what they deserve, which is nothing, as do the rich, which is a lot. Those who have a little bit are frightened into aligning with the rich.
In this theory, the last shall stay last because they chose their own fate. This view of the poor gave conservatives an even more powerful argument against social reforms than Burke’s concern with unintended consequences. According to this theory, giving to the poor only wastes precious resources and threatens catastrophe for the rest of us. As Vice President Spiro Agnew once opined, the downtrodden want what we’ve got, and we’ve got to make sure they don’t get it. Fear trumps decency, and we have to do unto them before they do unto us, meaning the masses have to be tricked into compliance when possible, repressed into compliance when necessary.
From Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner and Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the twentieth century, to William Buckley, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and Spiro Agnew in the mid-twentieth century, to George Will, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Trump in the twenty-first century, the proponents of Social Darwinian ideas and strategies have gained increasing prominence among so-called conservatives, and especially within the Republican Party. Some conservative followers of Ayn Rand, such as Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, have taken to calling themselves libertarians, but they are still Social Darwinians. All of them should really be called right-wingers or reactionaries, not conservatives in the Burkean sense.
Whatever they call themselves, their ideology is based on the twin principles of zero-sum and laissez-faire economics, and on a strategy of fear. The strategy promotes nativism, since only those like us can be trusted, and racism, since those unlike us must be feared, especially those who look different. And Social Darwinian right-wingers are constantly looking for an enemy to fear. Although Burke and his conservative descendants were by no means loathe to use extreme force and fierce repression against those they considered dangers to the social order, they did not work overtime to invent dangers in order to justify their rule, as have generations of Republicans in the United States.
From the swarthy tramps, immigrants and anarchists at the turn of the twentieth century, to the blacks and bearded Communists in the mid-twentieth century, to the blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Muslims, and olive-skinned immigrants in the early twenty-first century, fear-mongering has increasingly been the primary strategy of Republicans. The Other is the danger, and repression is the answer.
With the decline and fall in the late twentieth century of the Soviet Union and Communists as threats, conservatives were hard put to find an enemy with which to scare the public. George H.W. Bush was so desperate that he invaded Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega, a former CIA operative and well-known drug trafficker, who had somehow become a grave danger to America. Noriega is still in jail today, and drug trafficking is more widespread than ever. The desperation implicit in this type of scaremongering demonstrates the depth of the worry among right-wing politicians that without a dangerous Other to fear, the public might no longer support their retrograde policies. In the same vein, George W. Bush invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction that were not there, with disastrous consequences that continue to the present.
The history of the Republican Party during the twentieth century has been the gradual decline, and now almost complete fall, of Burkean conservatives within the party. This is a development which is popularly characterized as the disappearance of so-called moderate Republicans. From Teddy Roosevelt, to Wendell Willkie, to Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican Party had for much of the twentieth century a progressive wing that curtailed the extremism of Republican right-wingers, and was willing to work with moderate Democrats toward bipartisan policies.
But with the rise Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990’s, who shut down the federal government rather than cooperate with President Bill Clinton, and with the advent of the current Speaker Paul Ryan along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have stonewalled every proposal of President Obama for the last seven and one-half years, right-wing Social Darwinians have taken over the Republican Party. The recent nomination of Donald Trump for President only confirms what has been obvious for some time.
Darwinian Pragmatism and Progressivism. The term Social Darwinism was a misnomer twice over. It was not a social but an anti-social doctrine, a doctrine of selfish, self-centered individualism. And it was not a Darwinian but an anti-Darwinian doctrine, that ran contrary to Darwin’s conclusion that humans have thrived because of their pro-social tendencies. The pro-social implication of Darwinism was one of the reasons that conservatives increasingly came to reject Darwin’s actual theories of evolution over the course of the twentieth century, even as they increasingly embraced Social Darwinian ideas and strategies.
Darwin contended that socialization rather than individualism was the key to human success. It was because of our cooperativeness, not our competitiveness, that we humans have done as well as we have. And, Darwin complained, it is largely a result of competitiveness and our sometime selfish individualism that we have frequently done so poorly. The pro-social implications of Darwinism were first given extensive treatment in 1883 in Lester Frank Ward’s book Dynamic Sociology. In one of the first texts of the emerging field of sociology, Ward outlined a pragmatically socialist Darwinism as the genuine evolutionary theory.
Pragmatism was one of the outcomes of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, seemingly an unintended consequence, but one that was quite influential and helpful. Pragmatism is a philosophy that describes the world as a succession of circumstances, actions and consequences, with the consequences of an action becoming the circumstances that lead to the next round of actions. Pragmatism is a philosophy of action. Pragmatists focus on the convergence of theory and practice into action, or what is sometimes called praxis, and they explain the world as a confluence of interconnected actions. Pragmatism is a preeminently pro-social philosophy and it is an approach that can be applied to almost all human activities and fields of study.
Pragmatism developed from humble beginnings to become a comprehensive philosophy. The term pragmatism was first proposed in the late nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Peirce as a contribution to lexicology, that is, a theory about the meaning of words. Peirce claimed that the meaning of a word was our reaction to it and the action which it implies. That is, what the word does to us and what we do as a result of the word. A word, according to Peirce, is a call to action. Others took his concept of pragmatism as a call to action in a widening circle of fields.
William James took up Pierce’s ideas and applied them first to psychology. His was a psychology of action, interaction and reaction. Portraying the mind as “a stream of consciousness,” in which thoughts flow from one to the next in a constant interaction with each other and with the world, James claimed that the mind is neither a passive recipient of knowledge from the outer world nor an organ of logical conjugation. Thinking is a dynamic activity in which the mind reaches out to the world, and interacts with it. Thinking is a process of action and interaction.
James claimed, in turn, that our personal identities are defined by how we act toward people and things, and how they react to us. We are our actions and interactions. Contrary to Descartes’ claim that personal identity results from the reflection that “I think, therefore I am,” James proffered the explanation that “I think, therefore we are.” That is, the only way I can know that I am, and who I am – the only way I can say “I” and be referring to my singular self — is through comparing and contrasting myself with others. And the only way I can know who others are is by doing things with them. Action, interaction and reaction are all we can know of ourselves.
James later extended these ideas to epistemology, that is, into a theory of knowledge. Rejecting the Enlightenment idea of Reason (with a capital R) that ostensibly produced self-evident truths, he insisted that we know about things only from interacting with them. We learn through doing, through action and reaction, precipitated by problems that we need to resolve. Without the prod of problems, we would function solely on the basis of habit, and never think about anything in any significant way. When problems arise that interfere with our habitual existence, we ask questions of the world, seek answers to those questions by looking for relevant evidence, and then either find answers or not. Knowledge is a product of problem-solving, and expanding the realm of knowledge is a product of asking bigger questions and making wider and deeper connections among things.
John Dewey took James’ idea of learning through doing and made it the cornerstone of his pedagogical theories. It is a fact of life, he said, that we learn through what we do. For example, a student who passively sits and takes notes about a subject in class is going to mainly learn how to sit still and take notes. He or she is not going to learn very much about the subject. It is only by actively engaging with the subject, and doing something with it, that the student will learn much of lasting value. In formulating his educational theories, Dewey did something that pragmatists have frequently tried. He took a fact of life and derived a proposed reform from it, in this case, a successful educational practice.
Dewey also extended the idea of learning through doing into an ethical theory which essentially embodies the Golden Rule that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In formulating his educational ideas, Dewey took a fact of life and made it into an admonition. In his ethical theories, he took an admonition and claimed it was a fact of life. Dewey claimed that we do, in fact, love our neighbors in the way that we love ourselves. The problem is that many of us do not think much of ourselves and, as a result, think the same of others. People who think well of themselves will think well of others, Dewey concluded, and people who think well of others will think well of themselves.
Dewey claimed, in turn, that we do, in fact, treat others as we think they will treat us. The problem is that many of us are afraid that other people will treat us badly, so we treat them that way first. Too many people operate under the Social Darwinian principle of “Do unto others before they do unto you” with the meaning that you should get your goods first before others get them. Dewey would reinterpret that mantra and have us do well to others before they do anything to us. People who treat others well will likely be treated well by others, he claims. He proposes this tactic as a means of establishing a virtuous cycle of people treating each other well, as opposed to the Social Darwinian vicious cycle of people treating each other badly.
Pragmatism was a theory and practice that underlay the emergence of the physical and social sciences at the turn of the twentieth century. Through most of the nineteenth century, most of what we today call the physical sciences were studied and taught under the umbrella of natural philosophy, and most of the social sciences were studied and taught as moral philosophy. There was, however, an explosion in the number of academic fields toward the end of the century, with the rise of the multitude of specializations in the physical and social sciences that have produced most of the scientific advances of the twentieth century. These scientific advances were powered by newly developed experimental and statistical methods, and pragmatism was a driving force in these developments.
Pragmatism was, in turn, a driving force behind the emergence of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Progressivism was a broad-based and multi-various social movement, encompassing politics, culture, education, and virtually every aspect of modern life, from fashion to the arts to social policy. It was a movement, not merely a party or a faction, and, as such, it included many different tendencies, and even some conservatives who bowed to its popularity. In the midst of the swirling trends, Dewey and other pragmatist scholars, journalists and politicians developed a progressive social theory that ran directly counter to the Social Darwinism that was gaining strength among conservatives.
They took as a main theme Hegel’s claim that the self-development of each person is dependent on the self-development of others, and Marx’s formulation of this as “the self-development of each is dependent on the self-development of all,” and vice versa. That is, a person can only make something worthwhile of him/herself while working with others, so that each of them and the society as a whole prospers. Social Darwinians claimed that we live in a top-down zero-sum world, and relied on fear to rally support among the masses. Progressives countered that we live in a cooperative world in which all boats rise together. They promoted hope as their means to gain popular support. Theories based on cooperation and strategies based on hope underlay almost all of the progressive social, political, educational, and cultural developments during the twentieth century, and are the gist of pragmatic liberalism to the present.
Act III. The Obsolescence of Conservatism and the Birth of Fascism?
“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
“In republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Where do we go from here?
Fast forward a hundred years from the turn of the twentieth century to the turn of the twenty-first. Pragmatic liberalism has become the predominant philosophy of the Democratic Party. The Progressive Era reforms under Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, and the healthcare reforms of Barack Obama have all been a product of that philosophy. The fact of the matter is that pragmatic methods, backed by the tools of the social and physical sciences, can make social reform safe and successful.
Social reform in Burke’s time was a blunt instrument. Social reformers conceived of a reform, and then tried it. They had little ability to predict the consequences of a reform, or to monitor and reform the reform as it was being implemented. If it worked, that was fine. If it didn’t, that was too bad, and people had to live with the negative consequences. With the specialization of the social and physical sciences that emerged in the late nineteenth century, social reform was revolutionized, and a pragmatic approach to social reform became possible. Since that time, we have developed statistical methods, social and economic models, testing regimes of all sorts, and a myriad of ways we can evaluate whether or not a proposed social change is working. The development of computers has enormously enhanced our abilities in this regard. We can monitor the progress of a reform, see whether it is producing unintended negative consequences, and make adjustments accordingly. We can protect ourselves against most of the unintended negative consequences that might arise from a reform.
The means and methods of pragmatic liberalism have absorbed and resolved the concerns of conservatives and the rationale for conservatism. The flexibility that the new techniques and technologies bring to the process of social reform has undermined the core concern of conservatives about unintended consequences. Conservatism has essentially become obsolete, and pragmatic social reform should be the order of the day. Social reform can and should become the conventional wisdom of our society. But only if the politics of our society will permit it.
Most of the problems that have developed in social programs over the last century have, in fact, been political problems, the result of either liberal proponents overselling their proposals or right-wing opponents obstructing the programs. The present-day problems with Obamacare are only the latest example. Burkean conservatives should have no big problem with Obamacare. It is a market-based system that is motivated by common decency. But Republican right-wingers have been determined to wreck the program, regardless of its successes, and irrespective of harm to individuals and society. The program has, as a result, suffered from right-wing political obstruction, and reformers have been severely hampered in their efforts to revise and reform the program.
The Republican Party has, unfortunately, turned aggressively against the Progressive Republicanism that was promoted by Theodore Roosevelt and Bob La Follette in the early twentieth century, and the moderate policies of the so-called Rockefeller Republicans of mid-century. The Party has turned, instead, towards a radical Social Darwinism that is today epitomized by Donald Trump. Over the last six years, the right-wing Republicans who control Congress have stonewalled every pragmatic proposal from President Obama, while obstructing his work at every turn. Meanwhile, Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, is flirting with fascism as his theory and practice. We are a long way from the days of Newton, Madison and Burke, but their actions and their words still speak loudly, and they don’t speak well of Trump or the Republican Party.
Not the End of Ideology but the Beginning of Politics: Pragmatic not Technocratic.
In 1960, the sociologist Daniel Bell published a book called The End of Ideology in which he claimed that ideological conflicts were coming to an end, and were being superseded by the technocratic administration of things. He claimed that the future society would be a managed capitalism, in which technocratic elites would administer things that needed coordinating, and in which conflicts would take place only among experts around the technical edges of things. The grand battles over ideas and utopias that had previously occupied history were obsolete and over.
In this prediction, Bell, a one-time Marxist, had turned on its head one of Marx’s utopian hopes, that once capitalism was overthrown and a communist regime fully implemented, government would wither away, leaving only a minimal non-coercive administration of things that needed coordinating. Bell, still a social democrat but no longer a radical, applied the idea to capitalism.
The possibility of a capitalist system managed by a technocratic elite was not a new idea in 1960. Le Comte de St. Simon and August Comte had proclaimed similar things during the nineteenth century. Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means had predicted the evolution of competitive capitalism into managerial capitalism during the twentieth century. Francis Fukuyama has predicted similar things in more recent years. I don’t agree, and I think pragmatic politics should not be confounded with technocratic administration.
The gist of my argument in this essay is that the knee-jerk conservative objection to social reform, that we cannot sufficiently predict the unintended consequences of a reform, has lost its legitimacy. We can sufficiently monitor most social reforms to make sure they are working as they should, and adjust them if they wander off course. But that does not mean we will be ruled over by apolitical technical experts.
Our ability to plan and monitor social reforms does not mean the end of ideology or politics. To the contrary, there will always be differences among people as to values and goals. These will almost inevitably take the form of ideologies, and lead to political debates and struggles. Rather than ending ideology and politics, the new pragmatic liberalism opens the door to ideologies and politics that are not bogged down by the knee-jerk nay-ism of conventional conservatism. We should all be pragmatic liberals of one sort or another, but the differences will still be significant.
 On the Enlightenment, see Peter Gay. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: Vintage Books, 1968.
 On Isaac Newton, see James Gleick. Isaac Newton. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
 On James Madison, see Garry Wills. James Madison. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.
On Edmund Burke, see Conor Cruise O’Brien. The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
 On the coming of the Revolution and the making of the Constitution, see Gordon Wood. The Making of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. I have written extensively on whether and how the Revolution and the Constitution may have been based on mistaken analyses and expectations in several posts on this blog and in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013.
 On Charles Darwin, see Loren Eiseley. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979.
 For the influence of Darwin on philosophy in general and pragmatism in particular, see John Dewey. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1910.
 On Social Darwinism, see Richard Hofstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
 On Charles Sanders Peirce and the origins of Pragmatism, see Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
 On William James, see Robert Richardson. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
 On John Dewey, see Robert Westbrook. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.