Monday, November 21, 2011

Paul Ryan's "American Idea" in neither very American nor much of an Idea

Last week Rep. Paul Ryan returned to one of his favorite haunts, the Heritage Foundation, to give a speech on "Saving the American Idea." If Ryan's track record is any indication, the speech outlines a new phase in the rhetoric Ryan will be deploying to promote his extreme budget policies.

During the last few years, Ryan has looked to the future and painted a dreary, almost apocalyptic, picture of an imminent "tipping point" just over the horizon, a moment of financial reckoning that will expose the social safety net as an inherently unaffordable enterprise. This undertaking is little more worthwhile than carrying around a sandwich board that reads "The end is nigh!" around Capitol Hill, so it probably should come as no surprise to Ryan that his budget has gotten as much traction as, say, the budget policies of any other doomsday crier wandering the streets. That's not an accident: people are inherently distrustful of those who claim to see the future.

But we absolutely love people who can look into the past.

There comes a point in the promotion of an radical or extremist ideology when the evangelist realizes that audiences are scared of change, but are not so afraid of change to reconsider the past. That's why there's been a concerted effort in the last generation to promote the idea that America was founded as a "Christian nation" according to principles that look remarkably similar to a 21st Century Evangelical fundamentalism that simply did not exist 220+ years ago. This transforms the proposed change from an alteration of a familiar routine into an agent of redemption. Just as fundamentalists insist America was founded on religious precepts, Paul Ryan will likely spend the coming months telling America that it was founded on the kind of extreme economic policies that, just coincidentally, he happens to be promoting. It's an argument from authority riddled with absurdities.

Perhaps nowhere are these absurdities more evident than in the glimmering catch phrase Ryan will no doubt be thumping at all his upcoming speeches to think tanks: the American Idea. It''s not an entirely new phrase, to be sure, but we don't generally speak of America as having an "idea" as we do speak of it having a "dream." (The difference is stark: 3 million Google hits for "idea" versus 16 million hits for "dream," for example.) There is, however, a Wisconsin Idea, which is something that Ryan would be familiar with as a Congressman from that state.

This Wisconsin Idea is antithetical to Ryan's worldview:
The Wisconsin Idea is the political philosophy developed in the American state of Wisconsin that fosters public universities' contributions to the state: "to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities." A second facet of the philosophy is the effort "to ensure well-constructed legislation aimed at benefitting the greatest number of people."
To put it another way: the Wisconsin Idea is the gospel of technocracy: good government works best when it creates policies through the systematic evaluation of data and empirical evidence. Ryan's "American Idea" is that policies should be made according to ideology, namely the radical economic agenda he's become famous for thumping during the last decade. (I encourage you to devote particular attention to the section Ryan hilariously calls "the Brick Wall of Math," where he accuses the President's policies of failing the laws of basic arithmetic when, time after time, Ryan's own proposals seem to defy those very same laws.)

That Ryan should be conflating the Wisconsin Idea for what he claims is the American one is not a rhetorical coincidence. Ryan very clearly wants to replace the Wisconsin Idea for what he calls the American one, which is really nothing but the Paul Ryan Idea (which is actually the Ayn Rand Idea). It's a rather audacious slight of hand.

Ryan's American Idea is, of course, the product of the contemporary Republican concept of American Exceptionalism: 
[T]he principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. These are the principles that define the American Idea, and this mission has never been timelier because these principles are very much under threat from policies here in Washington.

The American Idea belongs to all of us—inherited from our nation’s Founders, preserved by the countless sacrifices of our veterans, and advanced by visionary leaders, past and present. What makes America exceptional—what gives life to the American Idea—is our dedication to the self-evident truth that we are all created equal, giving us equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that means opportunity.
Except this is, at it's very heart, a speech about economics, and no one -- not even the craziest right wing loon -- looks to the Founding Fathers for advice on how to negotiate a 21st globally-integrated economy. Not yet, at least (though one can reasonably assume that the Right's fetishization of the Founders will inevitably lead them in that direction). Ryan's speech is actually just an extended critique of Obama's tax policies and some finger-wagging at the "tone" in Washington and the Congressman is now claiming that his answers are the very solutions the Founding Fathers themselves would have prescribed.

Except this is manifestly not true. In fact, Ryan's extremism would have been rejected by his own party as recently as a decade ago. Here's David Frum reflecting on the rightward lurch the GOP has succumbed to in this week's New York:
It was not so long ago that Texas governor Bush denounced attempts to cut the earned-income tax credit as “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” By 2011, Republican commentators were noisily complaining that the poorer half of society are “lucky duckies” because the EITC offsets their federal tax obligations—or because the recession had left them with such meager incomes that they had no tax to pay in the first place. In 2000, candidate Bush routinely invoked “churches, synagogues, and mosques.” By 2010, prominent Republicans were denouncing the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan as an outrageous insult. In 2003, President Bush and a Republican majority in Congress enacted a new ­prescription-drug program in Medicare. By 2011, all but four Republicans in the House and five in the Senate were voting to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from everybody under age 55. Today, the Fed’s pushing down interest rates in hopes of igniting economic growth is close to treason, according to Governor Rick Perry, coyly seconded by The Wall Street Journal. In 2000, the same policy qualified Alan Greenspan as the “greatest central banker in the history of the world,” according to Perry’s mentor, Senator Phil Gramm. Today, health reform that combines regulation of private insurance, individual mandates, and subsidies for those who need them is considered unconstitutional and an open invitation to “death panels.” A dozen years ago, a very similar reform was the Senate Republican alternative to Hillarycare. Today, stimulative fiscal policy that includes tax cuts for almost every American is “socialism.” In 2001, stimulative fiscal policy that included tax cuts for rather fewer Americans was an economic­-recovery program.
Pretending that Ryanomics has been an immutable truth of the American Experience since 1776 is complete bullshit. It hasn't even part of GOP dogma at the beginning of this century, let alone the 18th. There are good political reasons for leaning on the American Exceptionalism crutch, but no honest intellectual ones. It should call to mind the adage coined by Samuel Johnson that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels." When it comes to crafting policy, which has a nasty habit of ignoring sentiments of nationalist pride, this seems especially true.

Be prepared to start hearing a lot more about this so-called "American Idea." Ryan ran with the "tipping point" theme for what seemed like ages. Ryan's reputation for being a thinker is vastly over-rated. He's a marketer, someone who develops a catchy jingle or a lovely catch phrase and the only "idea" anyone should be ascribing to Ryan is that he is out of them.

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