Pathologizing Politics: Eugenics and Political Discourse in the Modern United States

Pathologizing Politics: Eugenics and Political Discourse in the Modern United States

Carrie Buck was three months shy of her twenty-second birthday when she was forcibly sterilized on October 19, 1927. Buck’s fate was based on the 1924 Virginia eugenic sterilization law, which marked individuals for sterilization based on vague and misleading concepts such as immorality, defectiveness, weak-mindedness, and promiscuity.1 Eugenicists, social hygienists, and lawmakers passed state laws across the country that hinged on a theory of degeneracy that described criminality and poverty, classified under the terms “feebleminded,” “moron,” or “idiot,” as genetic and inheritable and, therefore, preventable.2 Carrie Buck’s case made its way through the state courts and eventually to the Supreme Court of the United States. There, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. recorded the infamous court opinion, “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” defending the right of the state to sterilize an individual against their will for the protection of society.3

Carrie Buck with her mother in 1924. (Courtesy M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives, University at Albany, SUNY)

Buck’s sterilization was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was a pattern of widespread eugenic categorization, institutionalization, and sterilization through the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. This history is always important, but particularly so within the context of our country’s current political discourse, in which politicians pathologize political opponents, or erroneously use terms like “moron” or “idiot” rather than simply calling out injustices, racism, or poor policy choices meant to subjugate portions of society.

For example, in response to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent statement that “No one ever makes a billion dollars,” conservative media figure Mark Levin tweeted that AOC is a “barely literate moron,” a post that President Trump promptly retweeted. Rhetorical tactics like this one exist on all sides of the ideological spectrum. These terms have become part of the common lexicon. Americans enjoy near unity in resorting to eugenic terms for political purposes. Many may even share a common lack of knowledge about the horrific histories of the terms. Put simply, these are not just words, and using them perpetuates disability stigma while sidelining serious political debate.

Deploying terms such as “moron” or “idiot” to describe political opponents is not exactly new. But in the era of the Trump presidency, politicians have used these tactics more frequently. Trump began his presidential campaign by mocking a disabled reporter at a 2015 campaign stop in South Carolina, and throughout his presidency, he has repeatedly stood by claims of his “very high levels of intelligence,” implicitly arguing that intelligence levels are justifiable barriers for political power or inclusion. But even the act of relying on an arbitrary intelligence test for personal or political power emerges from a sea of eugenic thought. In the early 1900s, psychologist Henry Goddard deployed the Binet-Simon intelligence test, which broke down the diagnosis of “feeble-minded” into various levels.4 The test considered the “idiot” the lowest of the feeble-minded, with the intelligence of a child under the age of two. The “imbecile” was equivalent to a child of three to seven years old and required incarceration. Finally, the “moron” had the intelligence of an eight- to ten-year-old. Goddard recommended segregating morons in work colonies and sterilizing them to prevent their reproduction. Morons were particularly dangerous according to eugenicists because they could often pass as “normal” intelligent people.5 So when Trump uses ideas of IQ and intelligence, he is perpetuating discriminatory language and ideas dedicated to the social and institutional control of disabled people.

History also provides a glimpse at how powerful eugenic language can be in shaping policy, society, and the lives of marginalized people. Categories such as “moron” and “idiot” formed the background of immigration policy around the turn of the twentieth century, as officials visually inspected the bodies of men, women, and children so as not to admit anyone who could become a “public charge” to wider society, a highly controversial topic that continues today with Trump’s recent immigration policy restrictions.6 At the same time, cities across the country put in place “ugly laws” to shield deformity from public view.7 Eugenicists equated physical characteristics with moral deficiency, and they recommended seclusion of allegedly dangerous individuals from society. Americans also used the spectrum of feeblemindedness to try to systematically sterilize criminals with the idea that criminality was a hereditary trait.8 They succeeded in institutionalizing girls, women, and African Americans and produced cultural representations that cast disability in a stigmatizing light.9 Reformers, therefore, looked to eugenics to solve social “problems,” from poverty and criminality to promiscuity and physical and cognitive differences. When fascists came to power in Germany in the 1930s and defended their own eugenic sterilization, it is no wonder they pointed out that many American states had similar laws already on the books.10

So when Carrie Buck went under the knife in a Virginia institution, those in power believed that eugenic categories were based on factual science, and that it was important to protect society from a feebleminded person, or “moron,” by limiting their ability to reproduce. Terms such as “moron” and “idiot” therefore have histories that have damaged or prematurely ended the lives of many. The words have contributed to widespread harm to disabled people and other marginalized groups well into the 20th century. And even as recently as the last couple of months, pundits have engaged uncritically with eugenic rhetoric in, for example, the New York Times and on Twitter. It seems, unfortunately, that the legacies of the eugenics movement remain continually present.

A Eugenics Society poster (1930s) from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archive. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

But to be clear, Trump is not the only person invoking eugenic language in modern politics. Liberals and other critics of Trump—including some within his own administration—have been some of the worst perpetrators. Toward the end of 2017, for example, reports gained widespread attention that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly called his boss a moron. Trump’s own aides also reportedly described the president as an “idiot” and “moron” in 2018. In the midst of the 2020 election, Democrats have not held back, including Paul Krugman, who referred to Donald Trump and his “team of morons.” Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have used or enabled their own version of this kind of political discourse. Harris, for example, came under scrutiny for laughing when a supporter called Trump “retarded.” After receiving criticism in Iowa for his age, Joe Biden challenged the person to an IQ test. And politicians on all sides of the ideological divide have regularly dismissed the causes of gun violence by defining shooters as deranged, rather than calling out the underlying causes of toxic masculinity, white nationalism, and the widespread availability of guns.

Trump’s critics usually have not called out eugenic language or created more inclusive social spaces through political rhetoric. Instead, politicians and their supporters have latched onto the same rhetoric in order to further humiliate an already humiliating presidency. Such tactics situate people with disabilities as apolitical or incapable of holding political power. They threaten to marginalize the very people who are among the most politically active in modern politics, such as the activists at ADAPT, who have fought against conservative efforts to destroy health care. Not to mention that to build any coalition that includes the working class requires the inclusion of disabled workers, many of whom have been fighting to eliminate the sub-minimum wage still present in much of the country.

The disability rights community has been an important coalition in the 2020 election cycle as well. For example, in January, activists held a Twitter town hall to ask questions and connect with Elizabeth Warren’s campaign using the hashtag #CripTheVote. And there is much to be optimistic about regarding progressive Democratic candidates’ disability rights platforms. For example, Warren’s plan has many highlights,such as strengthening health care and Social Security, and explicitly acknowledging the need to protect civil liberties of disabled people of color and LGBTQ+ people with disabilities. It makes disability a part of foreign policy by specifically positioning disability rights as international human rights. Bernie Sanders has long considered disability policy within his many other proposals. And his official disability rights platform, released at the end of January, has made waves throughout the Twitterverse for its level of ambition, clarity, and comprehensiveness. One can, therefore, be hopeful that the ways candidates such as Warren and Sanders have addressed disability rights may drown out the noise of problematic and unhelpful political terminology.

But full inclusion requires a transformation of political culture that includes the ways we address one another. When politicians use terms such as “moron” or “idiot” to denigrate their opponents, or when they place so much emphasis on IQ or overt physical strength, they do so—mindfully or not—carrying the heavy history of how policymakers in the past used the same terms to quite literally destroy people’s lives. We must stop resorting to what may seem like familiar or comfortable rhetoric because it does not hold those in power accountable for their decisions. Call out racism or sexism as it is. Call out poor policy choices as they are. Call out classism and the decisions those in power make to further weaken workers and the poor. And call out ableism as it is. To move forward and build an inclusive, equitable movement and society we must alter our language. Language, after all, is power.


  1. Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 61. Return to text.
  2. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles, x. Return to text.
  3. Lombardo, 287. Return to text.
  4. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), 77. Return to text.
  5. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles, 41. Return to text.
  6. Douglas C. Baynton, Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 8. Return to text.
  7. Susan M. Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 2. Return to text.
  8. Victoria F. Nourse, In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008). Return to text.
  9. See: Karin L. Zipf, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016); James W. Trent, Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Martin S. Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner, Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Return to text.
  10. Nourse, In Reckless Hands, 36–37. Return to text.

Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.