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Paul Ryan and the Progressive Psyche

Americans are ambivalent and confused about many aspects of health care but not about preserving Medicare. But the whole country must take this bad idea seriously because the top of the Republican ticket advocates it.
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CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO TO PATRICK KELLEY - In this photo provided by Patrick Kelley, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, center, speaks during a campaign rally in Manassas, Va., Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012. Romney announced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, background left, as his running mate during an event in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/Patrick Kelley)
CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO TO PATRICK KELLEY - In this photo provided by Patrick Kelley, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, center, speaks during a campaign rally in Manassas, Va., Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012. Romney announced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, background left, as his running mate during an event in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/Patrick Kelley)

Mitt Romney has distressed progressives all over again by mainstreaming a far-right ideologue, Rep. Paul Ryan, with the appointment as his vice-presidential candidate. It's clear from the early reviews that there's a confidence gap on the left in the vacuum created by Barack Obama's non-leadership on the relevant issues. The progressives' problem is psychological rather than political, and an effective response to the Romney-Ryan ticket needs to consider these.

It's worth pointing out at the start that the Republicans' winning strategy since 1980 has been not to move the ideologue to the center but to move the center to the ideologue. Romney's "bold" move is "Politics 101" according to Reagan-Atwater-Rove: make fringe ideas common sense through saturation media exposure from the pundit legion of America -- even bad coverage is good because through endless pseudo-pondering it makes silly beliefs seem weighty and important. Hugely unpopular ideas can in this way become hard truths whose acceptance proves the adherent's toughmindedness, rather than, as in their first appearance, his obvious lunacy.

Exhibit A is Paul Ryan's obsessive desire to convert the country's existing public health insurance system -- known as Medicare, limited to senior citizens -- into a voucher system for purchasing private insurance. This is an absurd idea, since it takes a popular, administratively efficient, and humane program and gives it to a distrusted and inefficient private insurance system that delivers the world's most expensive health care at a mediocre level of quality. Americans are ambivalent and confused about many aspects of health care but not about preserving Medicare. But the whole country must take this bad idea seriously because the top of the Republican ticket advocates it.

Progressives generally have two reactions to the way the two-party system and the monopolized MSM legitimate one regressive right-wing talking point after another. They split between anger and depression, which leads, respectively, to denunciation of the right and denunciation of progressives themselves. For the first, here's Joan Walsh's blast at Salon right after the announcement: ""Paul Ryan: Randian Poseur":

Paul Ryan was born into a well-to-do Janesville, Wisc. family, part of the so-called "Irish mafia" that's run the city's construction industry since the 19th century. When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn't go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. He went to Miami University of Ohio, paying twice as much tuition as an Ohio resident would have; the in-state University of Wisconsin system (which I attended) apparently wasn't good enough for Ryan. After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government, where he's spent his entire career, first serving Republican legislators and then in his own Congressional seat, with occasional stints at his family-owned construction business when he needed a job (reportedly he also drove an Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile for a while).

Ironically, Ryan came to national attention trying to dismantle the very program that helped him go to the college of his choice, pushing an even more radical version of President Bush's Social Security privatization plan, which failed. He has since become the scourge of the welfare state, a man wholly supported by government who preaches against the evils of government support. He could be the poster boy for President Obama's supposedly controversial oration about how we all owe our success to some combination of our own hard work, family backing and government support. Let's say it together: You didn't build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.

Glenn Greenwald offered a parallel exposé of Ryan's hypocrisy and generalizes it to the Republican Party:

The American Right seems to have a particular need to inflate their leaders into beacons of courage, self-sufficiency and virtue, even when their lives are completely devoid of those traits. Paul Ryan is a perfect symbol of America's political class. He is directly responsible for the large deficits and debt which America has compiled, and now seeks to exploit what he himself helped create in order to deny to others the very benefits that were responsible for almost every opportunity and success he has had in his life, with the burden falling most harshly on those who need those benefits the most to have any remnant of fair opportunity. That's the crux of the American elite: making massive mistakes and engaging in destructive behavior and then demanding that everyone -- except them -- bear the brunt of the consequences.

Greenwald and Walsh are excellent critics and writers, but their material inspires while also isolating many progressives who can't imagine it having an impact on the American voter.
This gets us to progressive option #2, which appears in the also excellent commentator James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario. The Right, Kwak wrote in a recent post, has a great rhetorical claim: "Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes." To respond to that the Left has, he says, well, nothing. Democrats need to create "some kind of understanding of what the federal government actually is and does," which they apparently haven't done. Kwak ended the post in muffled despair: "President Obama needs to come up with a vision of what the government is for--one that he hasn't already compromised away. Isn't he supposed to be good at that sort of thing?"

Politics 101 does say that the angry denunciation, whether it's Walsh and Greenwald's columns or Henry Rollins singing "Liar," shocks, alienates, and offends the fence sitters one needs to win over. On the other hand, Politics 101 also says arguments don't change voters minds. Affirming this point, Kwak's best line is a morose denunciation of the dimwit middle:"This election will be just like every other one: it will turn on a handful of independent voters' inchoate, irrational perceptions of which candidate better fits their inchoate, irrational notion of what the president should look like." Depression is anger turned against the self -- the progressive self in Kwak's case -- and within progressive psychological dynamics both responses are doomed: attacking is wrong, arguing is wrong, so the Right wins again.

But Kwak's low esteem for the American decider in fact supports the Greenwald-Walsh method of denunciation, and it is supported by three generations of successful Republican anger politics. It's true, as Kwak says, that most people don't pick the candidate on the basis of "a considered reflection on the proper size of government." They respond instead to drama, story, passion, feeling, critique, and anger in a package that enlightens people while firing them up against a clearly-defined opposition. Greenwald and Walsh are already masters of the genre of linking a threat to a face and name attached to it, which is one of the few things that galvanizes humans in general and Americans in particular.

The goal with Ryan should be to show that he personally adds a new level of delusion about people's lives starting with the voters in his district, that he is a calloused ideologue, that he is a Simple Simon and therefore dishonest, and that his ideas about privatizing Medicare or whatever, because they are his ideas, cannot be trusted. This would include the kind of analysis at which Kwak, Paul Krugman, and others excel, like showing that lower taxes don't produce higher growth or that falling government employment is hurting the recovery. Getting there doesn't mean a smear campaign. It requires impassioned and relentless critique, escalating throughout the campaign. In Ryan's case this started happening years ago (e.g Krugman's "Ludicrous and Cruel" in 2011) -- there's plenty to work with here.

On to Kwak's other point, which is that progressives don't have a message about government. This isn't true, and Greenwald and Walsh, to stick with our two examples, demonstrate two of them.

First, for Greenwald, government needs to be honest. It needs to be honest in the specific sense of treating everyone via the same rules, equally and fairly. In health care, the obvious contrast is between private insurance companies that deny coverage to clients that are likely to be more expensive, and Medicare or Medicaid, which pays for everyone regardless of cost. Ryan fully intends to ration Medicare, and he worships the private sector model of cutting costs via denying coverage and this damages the welfare of millions of people in ways Ryan refuses to admit. Government rejects hypocrisy in the sense of double standards of the kind that, via private insurance, have divided Americans into 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-class citizens in the realm of health care.

Walsh's progressive value is that individual success depends in part on the quality of the public sector. Kwak for some reason thinks this idea sounds "offensive as soon as you say it, even if it's true? But why? It is very true, as proven by endless data about the benefits of easy access to public goods show (roads, hospitals, universities, and universal health care). The "rise" of the "West' out of the depths of generally violent, authoritarian cultures riven with religious fanaticism and planted on top of mediocre physical resources -- Britain, Germany, Sweden, etc. -- hinged on their early discovery that large-scale "improvements" in public infrastructure, coordinated by government but built from the bottom-up, made all the difference in a society's success or failure. Germans, for example, can't believe that Americans only dimly understand the principle of an insurance community whereby only a mandate that pools the premiums of sick and healthy alike allows affordable access for everyone. Sometimes it seems that progressives are the only political faction capable of preparing Americans to be competitive in the 21st century.

Kwak is right that the Democrats' arguments for government are underdeveloped. But these arguments are correct, and the compelling drama is this: Government-funded social development is the difference between plutocracy and democracy. Progressives need to tell the stories so we can address our real problems rather than bat at the demons Romney and Ryan conjure up to get elected.