The great irony of this belief culture is that the popular rejection of Darwinism is supplanted by a very palpable embracing of Social Darwinism. Americans believe deeply in the rugged individual, the power of the free market (that glorious invisible hand) along with the cleansing effect of competition, and the foundational principle of choice.
At the center of this belief culture, in fact, appears to be an unwavering faith in choice, a faith so powerful that it blinds most Americans to their repeated claims of also believing in a need for greater economic equity. Krishna Savani of Columbia Business School and Aneeta Rattan of Stanford University, in a study published for Psychological Science, have confronted these "contradictory opinions on wealth" beneath the trust in choice:
They surmised that one factor -- the concept of choice -- might be particularly influential in discussions about wealth. "Choice is a pervasive and highly valued concept in the U.S.," say the authors. If we assume that people make free choices, they theorized, while at the same time we acknowledge that some people are rich and others are poor, we may be more likely to believe that inequality in life outcomes is justified and reasonable because it must be the result of individual choice.After quoting from Savani and Rattan's study, Todd Essig states succinctly in Forbes: "The irony is profound, and scary. The more a politician talks about choice, the less rational choice we apparently have. Talking about choice diminishes choice!"
And into this belief culture has stepped Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's choice for running mate in the upcoming presidential elections.
The Ryan Moment for the U.S.
On October 26, 2011, Paul Ryan spoke to The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC; consider these excerpts from that speech:
Instead of working with us on these common-sense reforms, the President is barnstorming swing states, pushing a divisive message that pits one group of Americans against another on the basis of class.Ryan hits hard the many enduring ideals driving the American belief culture and paints a picture of two Americas: one that embraces "equality of opportunity," and another that "insist[s] on equality of outcome." The implication, of course, is that we have a choice, but this is the exact sort of choice that is exposed by Savani and Rattan because it is no choice at all.
This just won’t work in America. Class is not a fixed designation in this country. We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of movement between income groups....
Instead, Americans would work, compete, and co-operate in an open market, climb the ladder of opportunity, and keep the fruits of their efforts.
Self-government and the rule of law would secure our equal, God-given rights. Our political and economic systems – rooted in freedom and responsibility – would reward, and thus cultivate, traditional virtues....
This has the potential to be just as damaging as his misguided policies. Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger. Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country – corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.
Ironically, equality of outcome is a form of inequality – one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism....
These actions starkly highlight the difference between the two parties that lies at the heart of the matter: Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome.
The "open market" dynamics praised by Ryan can be found in the TV commercials buoying our infotainment obsession. Honda argues that we must choose an Accord, and then Toyota argues we must choose a Camry. Michelob Ultra is damned certain we must be drinking their low calorie beer and living and playing at a non-stop pace.
The choice that comes from the "open market" never steps back, however, to remind us of other choices: not buying any car, not drinking any beer, not living and playing at a frantic pace. These choices, you see, do not feed the consumer culture that calls for a certain type of choice, those made by consumers, not humans.
The choice refrain is an emotional appeal that circumvents human rationality as well as human compassion.
The same American public that calls for greater economic equity and claims to be a Christian nation primarily acts an agents of Social Darwinism. "Choice" and "personal responsibility" help the economic and political elite maintain a status quo that benefits their positions.
While I find Ryan's dichotomy dishonest and manipulative, I suggest a better way to divide how Americans view the world is between those who believe we already have a meritocracy and those who are dedicated to social justice initiatives needed to achieve a meritocracy. This second group recognizes that women gaining the right to vote and the Civil Rights movement were tremendous moves in the right direction—but work is left to be done.
The U.S. is not only "The United States of Inequality," but also becoming more inequitable while Americans are growing less and less likely to achieve social mobility—regardless of the baseless claims made by Ryan and other libertarian leaning politicians on the Right.
Yet, here the great irony of choice comes back to haunt those of us seeking a meritocracy: evidence doesn't matter in a belief culture.
So I want to end with a video since (moving) pictures are worth more than words. This is the America of Social Darwinism Paul Ryan and his ilk are offering. Watch carefully:
In Ryan's America, we praise the Lioness, we want to be the Lioness, and we chastise the wildebeest calf (the meek) to run faster in order to inherit the Earth.
And, yes, the choice is ours.