The GOP Prosperity Gospel: Social Darwinism Is Alive and Well

The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.

-William James, September 11, 1906 letter to H.G. Wells


In the long month after the November 6 election, Republicans have of course reflected on their loss and formed the usual circular firing squads. But the Wall Street Journal has rhetorically shored up the edifice and rallied the troops by falling back on the eternal GOP verities: economic growth over collective well being, equity  and cultural ideals;  and removing all obstacles to “free market” growth.

Rhetorically, these intertwining memes–the economic gospel of what William James called “the bitch- goddess success”–comprise what Bellah, et. al described in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) as “the first language of American individualism”:

For most of us, it is easier to think about how to get what we want than to know exactly what we should want…our subjects…are confused about how to define for themselves such things as the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice.

This gospel is well-expressed in two telling, stand-your-ground salvos from recent Journal editorials:

In this era when envy trumps growth, the government is raising taxes on thrift, investment and risk-taking in the name of fairness and to finance more government spending. (Nov. 30)

American prosperity is best served by letting business exploit as many opportunities as possible, for the U.S. market or for export.(December 6)

In the first, “growth” (presumably economic growth) and “risk-taking”  are the be-all and end-all, and inimical to “fairness” or “government”.  Government can never be seen as taking risks or as fostering moral or social growth, the general welfare.

In the second, exploitation is indeed at heart of the proposition: “prosperity”, narrowly-defined, can only truly thrive in the absence of workers’ rights and safety, environmental and financial regulation, and affirmative action.

The GOP Gospel has no vision of a collective future based on political equality and participatory democracy. As Bellah, et. al put it, “the freedom to be left alone is a freedom that implies being alone”.

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