|The Age of Reason, Cruikshank (1819)|
....what the Republicans want on economics is the century before last, the 19th, when Social Darwinism flourished. And what they want on social issues is the 17th, when theocracy was the order of the day.
I'm not so sure. Is not enlightenment widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the concept of free will and the self-made man, through reason arriving as the sole controller of his own fate? Within an environment of limited government that confines itself to the rule of law and leaves markets alone, the classical liberal interpretation sees the enlightened man as achieving his greatest potential.
I've heard more than one conservative praise the notion of Social Darwinism. I highly doubt these folks had spent much time considering the term. But the instinct to embrace a concept is telling. Some may quietly embrace a cryptic racialism, or a sense that successful people have better genes. But embrace of meritocracy is also widely valued. And it trades in similar assumptions. The more generous conservative avoids biological explanations. He instead embraces an immaterial, unexplainable - almost magical - notion of "initiative", that arises not from prior structural development (either genetic or social), but rather believing such a thing to be entirely the product of the universal capacity for enlightened man to create his own destiny, available to him at any second were he only to "choose" it.
The fact is that there is zero evidence for any such capacity in man; all evidence points to initiative being the sole product of structural development, and thus forces apart from one's control. However, due to this fact being both uncomfortable and seemingly counter-intuitive, we tend to cling to the notion of ourselves as free agents. Nowhere more so than in the current republican slogan, "We Built It". While purposely taken out of context, as a response to a Democratic president's emphasis on structural development as opposed to personal initiative, the slogan powerfully illustrates underlying intuitions about popular conception of agency, and the ramifications for social and economic justice.
While most Democrats likely also embrace the myth of personal initiative, they intuitively understand how important a role larger determinative factors are in its development. In many ways, the Republican and Democratic parties represent the interests of the haves vs. the interests of the have-nots, respectively. Whether by race, gender, ethnicity, family education, wealth, or sexual identity, one party emphasizes the import of structural egalitarianism. The other denies that structure (genes or socialization) have much to do with one's agency; failure and success are the result of a personal initiative located apart from any constraints. To the extent that the Republican party views initiative as constrained by social institutions, the constraint is merely due to there being a sub-optimal choice on offer that crowds out that which is correct. At no point, however, is the correct choice not on offer. In the end, the individual could *always* have avoided the sub-optimal choice. Again, this assumption rests on the notion of an immaterial, unexplainable source of agency for which there is zero evidence, as opposed to the endless supply of evidence for agency as solely determined by structural sources.