[Easy Chair] All the Rage | Harper's Magazine
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In the political contest now entering its final few weeks, there are numerous issues great and small being debated by the candidates. But there is only one Issue before the public, one grand recognition that defines our time—the sense, drummed into our heads during the big bipartisan bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009, that the fix is in. Regardless of which party holds the majority, we now know, Washington is in the hands of the oligarchy. It responds to their directives, not to ours; it does nothing to relieve our economic plight, but has no difficulty dipping into the public treasury to ensure that their bonuses get paid on schedule.

Arguments over this Issue are well-nigh everywhere on the nation’s streets and in the pages of its magazines and newspapers. There are versions of it that come from the left, and versions that have emerged from the right. The Occupy Wall Street protesters were consumed by it; so were Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. When Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren told the Democratic National Convention that the “system is rigged,” she hit the bull’s-eye. When the right screamed “Out with the ruling class!” while making its assault on the nation’s state legislatures, it was doing the same.

In general, however, the men at the top of the tickets do not go there. They might hint that they get it, but by and large the Issue is a forbidden subject for them. Perhaps they think it’s beneath the dignity of the office they seek, or (more likely) they are spooked by the accusations of class warfare that would surely follow.

Only one of the national candidates is willing to acknowledge what’s on the public’s mind, and this is what makes Republican vice-presidential contender Paul Ryan so interesting. In his speech at the Republican National Convention in August, he sailed right into the Issue, using the Obama 2009 stimulus as his point of entry (rather than the more obvious bank bailouts, perhaps because Ryan himself had voted for them). The stimulus was, Ryan announced, “a case of political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”

Ryan often says that he’s interested in reality, not partisan demagoguery. He seems far more engaged—at least as of this writing—with dry economic concerns than with the juicy culture-war battles that have gripped the right’s imagination for so many years. He doesn’t salute the NASCAR fandom of “real Americans,” and he doesn’t dismiss everyone else as squishy cheese-eaters who drive Volts or Volvos. He wants to have a real argument, he says.

He also happens to be an apostle of some of the most vicious social philosophers to come down the pike in the past century. Ryan habitually votes for “free-trade” deals even though those same deals have smashed the lives of working people in his factory-heavy congressional district. He has persuaded his fellow Republicans to sign on to a budget that would raze just about every federal program besides Social Security and Medicare, and ultimately damage those two as well. He has brought Glenn Beck to a full swoon (“I love you!” declared the radio crazyman as Ryan aired his distaste for liberal trickery). But none of this sticks to him. Ryan is thoughtful and polite. He doesn’t talk like Sarah Palin, or like Todd Akin, or even like his great heroine, Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan doesn’t raise our hackles. He penetrates our defenses without triggering a single alarm.

A telling incident in the life of Ryan: back in April, the New York Times reported that he was a fan of the Nineties alt-rock band Rage Against the Machine. The members of the band, however, are well known for their association with leftist causes, and in August their guitarist, Tom Morello, declared that Ryan “is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

This exchange represents, I think, something more than an amusing culture clash: it is a metaphor for Paul Ryan’s career. His meteoric rise over the past four years is partly due to his appropriation of symbols and rhetoric and, indeed, rage that used to belong to the left. Raging against power is how the machine—which is to say, the conservative movement itself—gets its business done.

Ryan speaks frequently of the travails of growing up conservative in Wisconsin, the cradle of the Progressive movement. He has described Progressivism as an alien affectation, a product of what he calls “these German intellectuals” at the University of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he seems confident that his own pet Teutons—“the Austrians,” meaning free-market economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—are more closely attuned to the “whole idea of this country.”1

At the same time, Paul Ryan has clearly absorbed more than a little of the old Progressive magic. His votes in Congress may identify him as a stalwart friend of the banker, but in public Ryan appears to be a ferocious critic of organized power. He first came to my attention in 2009, when he wrote an article for the Forbes website called “Down with Big Business,” in which he denounced the bank bailouts in piquant terms of the sort that Washington Democrats no longer employ. This Ryan lives to lambaste a system that, according to an article he published in 2011, allows a privileged “class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists to . . . call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.”

In Young Guns, the ballistically boring magnum opus he authored with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy in 2010, Ryan even implied that his zeal for deregulation was intended to strike a blow at the fat cats. “Businesses,” he wrote, “want regulations to make life easier for themselves and more difficult for their competitors.” Oppose regulations, it follows, and you oppose cronyism, privilege, and society’s ruling class.

Reasoning like this may have had a germ of meaning back in the Sixties and Seventies, but as a description of our own disastrous time, it is so detached from actual events that it makes you wonder about Ryan’s grasp on reality. Go down the long, mournful list of deregulatory decisions leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, and ask yourself how many of them were made in order to spite or confound the power of the moneymen. When Congress (including Paul Ryan) voted for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, complete with its famous Enron loophole, were they doing it to make life difficult for Enron? When the Bush Administration turned the Office of Thrift Supervision into a supremely lax and bank-friendly agency, were they doing it to get tough with the banks?

Back in 2010, Ryan took umbrage when I criticized the antibusiness rhetoric of his Forbes article, which ultimately instructed the world to observe the commandments of the almighty market with greater piety. Later that year, however, he himself professed annoyance at the idea of a political group swiping the phraseology of its opponents—but only when it is liberals taking up the language of the right. Democrats were selling “an agenda that was completely the opposite of its rhetoric,” he complained in Young Guns. “And people started to realize that they were trying to transform the country using the rhetoric of the Right to push through the substance of the Left.”

It seems appropriate that Paul Ryan’s view of the world has been largely derived from a work of fiction—specifically, from Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 Ayn Rand novel that Ryan has praised in the most emphatic terms. (More recently, he has sought to distance himself from his earlier enthusiasm, having discovered that his favorite novelist was not only the free-market Tolstoy but also a fierce atheist.) Ryan is not alone in his appreciation of Rand, of course. Atlas Shrugged has countless devotees, not only among the rheumy-eyed old believers who hustled us down freedom’s freeway to disaster a few years ago but also among the clear-eyed young believers who think more deregulation is the obvious answer to all that ails us.

I have argued elsewhere that Rand’s novel has an obvious resonance for our times. It tells the story of a Great Depression–like slump unfolding in an alternate universe where tyrannical government meddling is the cause of the downturn—exactly as conservatives have always wanted to believe it was. And as President Obama pushed through his stimulus package and began working on universal health care, it was the disaster fantasy of Atlas Shrugged that lit up the mind of the right. In a 2009 video posted on Facebook, Paul Ryan even told his followers, “It’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now.”

Indeed, despite his reputation for being the G.O.P.’s man with the facts and figures, Ryan seems to reach with alarming frequency for Rand-style political fantasies. Obama’s health-care plan, for example, strikes him as a diabolical plot to traduce our freedoms, cooked up by “a group of men and women exploiting a crisis and seizing their moment to redefine the relationship between Americans and their government.”

Maybe Ryan should write an economic end-times novel of his own. He does dedicate an entire chapter of Young Gunsto a homegrown theory of impending doom that he characterizes (none too originally) as the “tipping point.” By this he means the moment when such a large part of the population depends so utterly on government that welfare-state socialism becomes a permanent political fact, while entrepreneurship and initiative eventually disappear from the land of the free.2

In the process of laying all this out, Ryan harrumphs: “It’s time politicians in Washington stopped patronizing the American people as if they were children.” Which is an odd thing to say, since that is essentially what Ryan himself is doing. When people vote Ryan’s way, they are expressing themselves as competent, thinking adults, judiciously weighing the issues and making their choices as citizens. When they opt for government handouts and send us hurtling past the tipping point, however, reason and adulthood are gone forever.

No matter. None of it is meant seriously, I suspect; it is merely that every national politician these days has to have his own apocalypse to promote. After suffering through the economic near-death experience known as the Great Recession, Americans seem to have developed a bottomless appetite for accounts of other, less plausible endgames. We wring our hands over the hyperinflation that everyone believes is coming. We stay awake at night worrying about the out-of-control federal debt. We accuse public employees of scheming to control the nation. In fact, we beat our breasts over almost everything except the machinations of the financial sector that almost did us in.

One of the themes to which Paul Ryan frequently returns is the march of generations. He talks about small-business owners too, and the Constitution and the Founders—but he always seems to make his way back to the subject of generations. It is natural for a politician like him, a word that calls attention to his youth. But it is also a claim (which the media largely concedes to him) to speak for Americans of his age group, the famous Generation X. This is the cohort on whose behalf Ryan will wield the power of state, tame the dragon of crony capitalism, and even “reform” Social Security.

Ryan’s Gen-X act is fairly convincing, as Gen-X acts go. His aforementioned affinity for Rage Against the Machine is part of it, as is his humorous suggestion, in his big speech to the Republicans assembled in Tampa, that Mitt Romney’s musical preferences are as muzak to a hard-core metalhead like himself. His discovery of Ayn Rand in high school is also a fairly typical generational marker. Even Ryan’s exercise regimen, the P90X program, echoes the Gen-X marketing schemes of the Nineties—the X is for “extreme,” dude.

And then there’s the fact that Generation X, ever since its discovery by the media in the early 1990s, has served as a lint trap for bad ideas that would otherwise have no demographic home. The suggestion that Social Security be privatized in whole or in part, for example, has been a longtime favorite of those claiming to speak on behalf of Ryan’s peers. This was not because the “twentysomethings,” as Time magazine called them way back then, were deeply worried about their days as seventysomethings. It was because countless political entrepreneurs saw in Generation X a vehicle for an idea—“entitlement reform”—which just happened to be a favorite of investment bankers and Chamber of Commerce types.

The problem for Social Security’s foes has always been the absence of powerful advocacy groups to take their side of the dispute: no AFL-CIO, no AARP, no deficit-hating version of the SDS. Enter Generation X, steam escaping from under the backward baseball caps of their self-proclaimed leaders as they loudly protested the secure retirement of their undeserving parents. How dare we run a deficit for decades and then expect the nation’s struggling youth to pay it off? I know of at least two well-funded pressure groups and an impressive spate of non-fiction authors that sprang up in the Nineties claiming, on the shakiest of evidence, to speak for the mysterious Generation X in its demand that social-insurance programs be privatized or otherwise slashed.3

I myself thought the various stock-market disasters of ten years ago would put paid to this farce of a generational movement, just as I thought the free-market disasters of 2008 would kill off the deregulatory philosophy itself. But now comes Paul Ryan, the latest in this long train of bogus Gen-X leaders, the hard-rocking toast of small-business groups everywhere. With his awesome iPod playlists and his idealistic vision of perfect markets, the man personifies the confusion of our times. Is he liberator or conquistador? Rebel or royalist?

Until the day Democrats remember how to speak meaningfully about the Issue—the flagrantly rigged casino of American economic life—plenty of voters will continue to buy what Paul Ryan is selling. And in the meantime, those Democrats will face Ryan after Ryan, pilfering their language and telling us how he understands our fury—how he, too, rages against the machine. Does it matter, as he strides down the ruined streets of a deindustrialized Midwestern wasteland, shaking his fist at the powerful, that he has trouble keeping his facts straight? Or that he is a reliable tool of the One Percent?

Hardly. Paul Ryan is the bad conscience of the Democrats, refusing to let them roll over and resume their happy, hopey snooze. Whether he wins or loses on November 6, he and his cohort will be with us for decades. Until the day Democrats remember how they once appealed to the people of Janesville, Wisconsin, there will be more Paul Ryans to haunt their sleep. He is what is coming.

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