American Bromance: Paul Ryan, the Tea Party and the Recent History of Political Conservatism

August 13, 2012, 12:15 pm

Romney and Ryan: “I’ve got the money, honey, but you’ve got the brains.”

I felt so lucky to have read Ronald Formisano’s The Tea Party: A Brief History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), since those of us who receive smartphone pushes from woke up Saturday to a GOP conservative bromance of epic proportions. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, had at last decided on a running mate: it’s the cute little brother with a big mind, Paul Ryan.

As Yale political scientist Chris Lebron said on Facebook, “The most striking thing about Romney’s VP pick (and indeed Romney’s own candidacy) is not the nature of Ryan’s politics but the fact that it illustrates the GOP’s continued faith in, reliance upon, and commitment to the authority of white men. It’s 2012: we’ve had a black president, a woman presidential candidate, a highly influential woman VP candidate in Palin (for better or worse, but none can deny her impact on contemporary politics) and we’re back to two middle-aged white men.”

That nails it for me. After all of the talk about a big tent in the GOP, it seems like there isn’t even such a thing as a conservative big tent.  The GOP can’t seem to put a credible woman or a person of color on a national ticket, even though there are lots of social and economic conservatives who are women and people of color. (Interested in what Black conservatism looked like before the far right turn? Go to historian Leah M. Wright’s web page and check out a couple of her recent articles.)

Since the rise of Tea Party activism, a phenomenon that Formisano’s short book puts in rich historical and contemporary context, the GOP — in the absence of an agenda other than arming all of us, starving the federal government, and letting corporations run the country — has learned to say no to lots of credible ideas and credible people.  The Ryan nomination was preceded by many no’s to credible candidate. No! to Tim Pawlenty, (perhaps because, for mysterious reasons, he refers to himself as T-Paw?) No! to the baby-faced Marco Rubio, who turned out to be a little squishy on immigration and has about one year of government experience! No to the ever-hot Nikki Haley, who has some icky sex and money stuff in her background that would not survive a national campaign. No! to Bobby Jindal who was unlikely to bring white southern voters along with him and would probably like to plan a real political career!

Not that Paul Ryan is not credible — although all followers of Ayn Rand seem a little screwy to me.  It’s just that this is not a pick that can produce a winning ticket. The specificity of the Ryan Budget plan was a gift to the Obama administration since, differently from spouting homilies about the values that should shape a federal budget as the GOP leadership does, it is possible to accurately predict the economic disaster that would result from the Ryan plan.  For Paul Ryan’s education policy, go here.

Honestly, I also thought that Paul Ryan had better things to do than spend the next few months on a losing presidential campaign. But it looks like the radically conservative chair of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, is going to take one for the team and – simultaneously — put Janesville, Wisconsin, on the map. (Prior to this, Janesville has been most famous as the headquarters of the Flexible Flyer sled, the birthplace of Senator Russ Feingold, and the site of a 1992 Ku Klux Klan rally. For those of you who are saying “What about Joe McCarthy?” his home town was Grand Chute, a good two hours drive north.)

Ryan is not strictly a Tea Party candidate, as Formisano, William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky and a scholar of American populism would be the first to point out. But Ryan is a politician who has benefitted enormously by the ways that Tea Party activism has redefined politics. Like much of the far-rights economic intelligentsia, his brand of fiscal and social conservatism derives from the “philosophy” of Ayn Rand, but it resonates with the anti-tax, small government, anti-regulatory and libertarian Tea Party agendas.  In addition, the uncompromising, take-no-prisoners style that has come to be the hallmark of the conservative political establishment since the election of Barack Obama seems to come naturally to Ryan, and he will be a real crowd pleaser for the far right.

Unlike other members of the GOP establishment – Orrin Hatch, John Boehner, Mitt Romney – who have trimmed their sails even further rightward to evade being “primaried” by a Tea Party candidate, Ryan is the real conservative deal. However, he would have remained utterly marginal within the GOP but for the demands that radically right wing Tea Party views have made on the party establishment in the last three years.

Other right wingnuts that serve as Tea Party poster children — Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Sean Duffy and Rand Paul — are utterly outclassed by Paul Ryan, who is perceived as an intellectual of sorts. He is pleasant, well spoken, and sincere. Thanks to Social Security (which he would now like to convert to a 401(k) plan), he raised himself up by his bootstraps after his father’s untimely death when Ryan was 16. At Miami University in Ohio, he sought out conservative mentors and studied the works of right wing intellectuals like Milton Friedman. Although the Ryan Budget, the alternative he proposed to the Obama administration’s budget plan, was not in the least economically sound, he got some credit all around for proposing anything at all rather than just putting on the sour face for the news cameras and kibitzing like everyone else in his party does.

For more on Paul Ryan, his radically conservative budget plan, and why Ryan’s elevation to the ticket makes him a perfect foil for the Obama campaign go to this New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza (August 6 2012). For more on the Tea Party, and the political atmosphere reshaped by conservative populism that his candidacy will speak to, you should read Ronald Formisano’s “brief” history of the Tea Party — which is really brief, making it even more of a go-to volume at this busy time.

Imagine having to try to explain our current political atmosphere to students in a country where, if you don’t like the idea of taxes, you just don’t pay them – but you certainly wouldn’t build a political movement around it or spend your adolescence obsessively reading bad novels by a Russian émigré.  Formisano spent a semester teaching about the Tea Party movement in Italy and has done us the favor of re-presenting these lectures as one of  the most orderly presentation of this recent history I have read.

Formisano gets a few critical facts straight, for which we should all be grateful, and which tell us something about what a Ryan candidacy brings to the GOP ticket. Money and media credibility are at the top of the list. Unlike the older populist movements which he invokes as precedents and comparative examples, Tea Party activism has been bankrolled by a tremendous influx of corporate cash and organized by PACS. It has also been shaped and promoted through persistent and deliberate corporate media campaigns. Fox news analysts, for example, do not just make conservative arguments on the air and promote conservative attacks on the Obama administration, they give money to Republican political candidates ($2.5 million in 2010 from employees of Fox and another $2 million from NewsCorp itself). The network also employs political candidates (Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum) as commentators.  (Formisano, 34-35)

At the same time, Formisano has not allowed this focus on the corporate Tea Party to obscure the importance of bottom-up conservative critiques that mobilize real voters to act on their convictions and complaints.

Here, I think is where the book really shines.  If the chapters on the “astroturf” politics of corporate Tea Party politics helped me understand the extent, but also the limits, of corporate political strategies, the material organized around the notion of “libertarianism with benefits” even more compelling and relevant to a Ryan candidacy that is sure to focus on shrinking government “waste” and returning tax money to “the people.”

“Libertarianism with benefits,” Formisano writes, is an endemic contradiction for the Tea Party movement at all levels. From the grassroots to corporate backers like the Koch brothers, Tea Partiers want to eliminate funding that supports what Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven would call “the undeserving poor” (1993) while keeping the federal benefits that have accrued to economically successful and/or influential citizens. “The term points out that in many instances the professed desire to be free of government has its limits, especially with regard to one’s personal well-being,” Formisano writes in explaining this contradiction. (Formisano, 87) The Tea Party documents in unsensational ways the extent to which corporate backers of politicians like Paul Ryan apply for and receive millions of dollars in government benefits that support their own private businesses. The political class of Tea Partiers has a similar record. Physician and Senator Rand Paul, who believes that Medicare and Medicaid are unconstitutional, has nevertheless cashed millions of dollars in government checks (Formisano, 88); only one Tea Party congressman has opted out of his socialist government health plan; three of the five most conservative states benefit the most from agricultural subsidies; and congress people who campaigned against earmarks happily attach them to bills that bring federal dollars home to their districts.

And what of “the people” who are clamoring for an end to entitlements? As it turns out, over 70% of Tea Party activists who want government out of their lives also want to keep receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits – which makes Paul Ryan’s bold statement last spring the these items are no longer the “third rail of politics” somewhat dubious. Can we expect Paul Ryan — as an act of faith in his own principles — to reimburse the federal government for his education? Probably not.

So what does the Ryan nomination mean as we move forward into the fall campaign? Here are the Radical projections:

  • Romney is very, very worried about voter turnout: he is not perceived as a Christian by many activist Christians, nor does he have a good conservative track record: these are two of the three electoral legs he needs. Being white (leg number three) will not save him.
  •  Romney has no ideas. Worse, he has hired a staff that has failed to produce a set of concrete ideas with which they can go into a national campaign against a sitting president who has done a lot of stuff.
  • The Romney campaign is trying to activate the Dan Quayle effect. In other words, like George H.W. Bush, who had to clean up after Ronald Reagan’s gender gap,  paper over the mess that the GOP has created this year with women’s rights by putting a handsome dude out there that white women are supposed to get flippy over (yes, male politicians still believe that the wimmies, as Ernest Hemingway would say, will vote for d00dz because they are boyishly handsome) but won’t get sexts from.
  • Romney has ended his faint-hearted gestures toward activating a portion of the Hispanic vote that is as potentially fiscally conservative, Christian and socially conservative (on some issues) as any group of traditionally conservative white voters. All he would have to do is take a stand against deporting family members, but of course, he can’t do that because he is pandering to the Tea Party.
  • Because the polling news from evangelical Christians is mediocre to bad, the campaign has decided to nail down Tea Party activists, a group of voters famous for their capacity to turn out their constituents in primaries. In a general election? Maybe not so much.

Paradoxically, the Ryan nomination may reveal the complete lack of ideas within the Romney campaign, an absence that money and image making has only partially obscured until now. His pro-business, anti-federal stance will draw the greatest possible funding for his campaign from the billionaires who fund the Tea Party and who find it much easier to buy their way around state and local regulations than federal ones.

Many of us will enter the classroom in a few weeks and will doubtless face students who want explanations for a political phenomenon that has evolved swiftly and through a diverse set of organizations that have reshaped the political and electoral climate. It says everything – and nothing – to comment that Tea Party activism is a mass of contradictions but, as Ronald Formisano emphasizes, it has strong affective, emotional and historical connections to dominant themes in American political history. As you are getting ready for the semester, take a few hours in the waning days of summer to read The Tea Party: A Brief History so that you can explain to your students why the Paul Ryan candidacy is history in the making.

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