Easy Chair — From the November 2012 issue

All the Rage

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.

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October 2019