How did Social Darwinism affect the social, economic and political landscape of the United States after the Civil War?
According to Social Darwinian thinkers, human existence was conceived as a pitiless struggle in which the strong prevailed and the weak were cast aside. This discourse could be applied to racial struggles, as it often was, as well as to predatory business practices.
Titans of industry such as Andrew Carnegie, who nearly monopolized steel production, ruthlessly crushed their competitors through vertical and horizontal methods. Carnegie systematically gained control of the supply chain for steel producers in the Northeast, then used his power to drive out competitors by underpricing. Additionally, Carnegie used brutal force to crush an attempt to unionize his largest and most profitable steel mill, at Homestead in Pennsylvania. While he also endowed universities and libraries with millions as part of his conviction that the wealthy had an obligation to society, his understanding of business as a death struggle was typical of not only economic theorists but social scientists of his time.
Others applied Social Darwinism to what they saw as a continuous struggle for racial domination. Perceiving that whites were victorious in this struggle, they believed that miscegenation, or race mixing, would lead to a weakening of the white race. They thus sought to, in the South, formalize Jim Crow laws, implementing "one drop rules" to define blackness in many Southern states. Congress acted, in 1884, to eliminate competition from Chinese immigrants in the West through the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with the Japanese government similarly limited Japanese immigration.
By the 1920s, whites feared the influx of radical politics, which they associated with eastern Europeans. Accepting some of the conclusions of eugenicists, Social Darwinists, and other racists, they even began to imagine eastern Europeans as a different, inferior race, that had to be eliminated. They thus placed quotas in 1921 and 1924 that limited the influx of eastern and southern Europeans.
We see the attributes of Social Darwinism in the current debate about the role of government in creating a fair, just, and compassionate society. Although the term “Social Darwinism” is seldom actually used in this context, it is really about the debate over the “survival of the fittest,” and in the view of some, providing social welfare violates this principle.
The idea is that if some folks cannot make it on their own, then they shouldn’t be provided for by other means. People who espouse this view believe that helping provide for the underprivileged or the weak just creates more weakness. Darwin’s theories would indicate that the weak should be allowed to fail (this is not something Darwin wanted for human beings, by the way).
We should note, however, that social Darwinism is NOT the prevailing attitude in most societies, including the United States. There are many agencies that aid the weak, underprivileged, and poor. Almost all of these have been established in the last eighty or ninety years, after the Great Depression. Although they may not bring an end to poverty and inequality, they do provide some measure of relief to people who need it.
We see this debate play out during every presidential election and Congressional budget fight. How should funding for social programs be determined? The left would say we need more of it. The right would say we need less of it. The social Darwinists have not won the debate, but neither are they without power and influence, otherwise we would probably be headed toward a more egalitarian (equality for all in every way) society--and that is definitely not happening.
Social Darwinism, which applied the idea of "survival of the fittest" to human society, was influential in many spheres. Economically, it justified the growth of monopolies and of unfettered capitalism, which led to great gaps between the rich and poor. It was thought that the rich deserved to be rich, while the poor deserved to be poor. In actuality, however, many rich "robber barons" had started off with a great deal of money, so it was not an even playing field for the rich and poor.
Socially, the idea that the rich deserved their riches led to displays of great wealth and lavish extremes during the so-called "Gilded Age." The wealthy engaged in "conspicuous consumption," or broadcasting their wealth through extravagant houses, clothing, entertainment, and other goods and activities. The rich were able to accumulate great sums in part because politically, the government took a laissez-faire approach to regulating the economy. The political climate was affected by the idea of Social Darwinism, and the government felt that the market could regulate itself without a great deal of intervention to make it more egalitarian.