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Politics & Policy

Is Our Political Moment ‘Newtonian’ or ‘Darwinian’?

Yesterday on NPR’s Morning Edition, the historian Jon Meacham was on to talk about the political moment. Meacham had some interesting things to say. But in the course of the conversation he said this:

You know, Woodrow Wilson once said one of the tensions in the United States would be, is the Constitution going to end up being Darwin or Newton? And it’s really well put. Right now, it’s feeling more Darwinian. Trump embodies an idea or a reality that strength is what matters. It’s a struggle for the survival of the fittest in a bizarre, media-driven environment.

Readers may surmise that I don’t have much of a problem with this criticism of the current president. But as a dues-paying member of Woodrow Wilson Haters International, I really can’t let this stand.

Woodrow Wilson did not describe this Darwin versus Newton thing as a “tension.” Rather, he was emphatic that the Constitution was Darwinian and that anyone who thought it was Newtonian was a boob.

Wilson said:

The Constitution was founded on the law of gravitation. The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of “checks and balances.” The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.


Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.

Meacham’s pejorative use of “Darwinian” here is very different from what Wilson had in mind. Meacham is conjuring the survival-of-the-fittest view of Darwin. What Wilson had in mind was almost the complete opposite. Wilson associated Darwinism with all social progress. He believed that all of government, and society, should harmonize and work together as one unit or body politic, to evolve into one organic entity, with no internal division. That’s what he meant by no living thing can have its organs offset against each other.

The Newtonian view, (which is really the Founders’ view, somewhat by way of Locke and Montesquieu) holds that conflict between different branches of government, and between the people and their leaders, are good and healthy and protective of liberty.

So, in a sense one could say Trump is Darwinian insofar as he wants everybody else to get with his program. The press should shut up and fall in line, the Democrats should stop their obstruction, the Senate should get rid of the legislative filibuster, and the whole country should unite around him. But that’s not how Meacham meant it. And, to be fair to Trump, that’s largely how Barack Obama saw things too. Indeed, politicians almost always think the country should be unified — around them.


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