A common failing among political activists is the inability to see political decisions and situations from the point of view of those they may disagree with. Activists are by their nature ideological rather than pragmatic and frequently the decisions made by political leaders who have moved beyond their activist roots are made based on considerations which are purely practical and are based on only a very loose understanding of what will really satisfy the activists who make up the various grassroots constituencies they are trying to appeal to.
So if you’re a highly motivated Liberty Republican, a Ron Paul supporter or an ideological libertarian working within the Republican party, I’m going to ask you to try to think outside the box for a little while here while looking at the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate.
From our liberty activist perspective Paul Ryan is pretty much just another establishment Republican hack. With 7 terms under his belt he’s been in office too long. His voting record is utterly uninspiring and shows no real sign of acting on fiscally conservative principles. He’s a big military supporter and never saw a domestic security clampdown or foreign military adventure he didn’t like. Plus he’s about as hardcore a religious conservative as you can find in office. Despite all these indisputable facts, I’m going to suggest that Paul Ryan is still a major concession to the liberty movement within the Republican Party.
Remember that the party establishment is not ideological. All they care about is getting things done, particularly getting their party in power and being able to satisfy the constituencies which keep them in office year after year. They are not inherenly hostile to the best interests of the country or to ideological principles, but they are more loyal to those who provide the enormous amounts of money it takes to get elected or who can provide them with blocks of reliable votes in their home districts. They are made very nervous by any politician who seems too ideological and whose decisions are likely to be unpredictable and deviate from the general strategy of maintaining power and avoiding change.
Now try to get into their heads. From their perspective politicians like Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn and Jeff Flake and even Paul Ryan are radical firebrands because they occasionally come up with an innovative idea or stand firm on an issue for reasons of principle. Not very often, but just enough to make the leadership nervous while still largely satisfying their desire for people to stick with the program. From this perspective politicians like Rand Paul or Justin Amash are positively terrifying because they will consistently challenge the system and operate on an alternative agenda which the establishment is constitutionally incapable of understanding.
The establishment of the Republican party has a general idea that the grassroots are not happy with them. They have encountered the Tea Party and it scared them. They have heard about the liberty movement and dismissed it as so far outside of their worldview as to be irrelevant. They cannot deal with the more ideological elements of the grassroots because operating on ideology is so far outside their experience that they have no tools to deal with it. There’s no way to fit it into their strategy except as a force to somehow be placated with the right rhetoric and symbolic gestures, but most of them don’t have enough contact with the party base to really know what it is asking for. They got huge numbers of phonecalls and emails for Audit the Fed, so they voted for it to throw us a bone, not really understanding that it is merely the tip of the spear of legislative reform which many are demanding, and figuring that somehow that one vote protects and legitimizes them. They stepped outside their box to support that issue and from their perspective that is a huge concession to popular demands.
They have established a norm for the party and varying even slightly from that norm is viewed as dangerously radical. Here’s where Paul Ryan comes in. Paul Ryan came up with a budget plan which included actual Medicare reform and budget cuts. From our perspective the plan is kind of pathetic and inadequate, a mostly symbolic gesture in the right direction which produces mediocre results. But from an establishment perspective it’s absolutely revolutionary because doing anything except voting for more spending and more pandering is absolutely radical.
From that viewpoint, selecting Ryan as the vice presidential candidate is an enormously bold move and a major concession to what their very limited worldview tells them are the concerns of the grassroots. Ryan is more fiscally conservative than they are comfortable with. He is more of an initiator and policymaker than they feel safe with. He’s effective enough that they find him somewhat threatening. From an establishment’s myopic perspective Paul Ryan is an absolute flame breathing radical. He may not seem that way in comparison to Ron Paul, but most of them are not even capable of mentally accepting the ideological views which drive Ron Paul. They don’t take his views or the views of those who support him into consideration at all, because they dismiss them as aberrant and outside of the political mainstream.
The idea of compromising with Ron Paul or making a concession to Liberty Republicans is absolutely inconceivable. It would be like pandering to cows or chickens. Only the most perspective among the party leaders have even noticed that the liberty movement can raise money and turn out votes, and even they have no idea how to court that constituency. In that position of uncomprehending ignorance the selection of Ryan represents what the establishment sees as an enormous concession. They can’t imagine selecting someone more radical than Ryan and they assume that Ryan is such a strong libertarian (OMG, he reads Ayn Rand!) that he will make everyone happy, bring the Paul supporters on board, fire up the tea party and win over libertarian-leaning independents.
In reality the response in the grassroots has been fairly tepid. Some of the more sold-out tea party groups which have been taken over by the religious right are genuinely excited. But the more ideological groups and those who are real Liberty Republicans have reacted with anything from boredom to outrage. From the perspective of real radical activists Ryan is so close to the establishment norm as to be indistinguishable, just as from the establishment perspective he’s far enough out of the norm to appear like a real concession to the radicals.
The problem with these two conflicting worldviews is that ideological voters are not likely to be terribly forgiving or understanding of an establishment they view more and more as a major part of the problem in our political system. We don’t see what a huge concession Ryan is from the perspective of those in power, we just see how far he is from our ideals and feel disappointed. It’s possible that this is not the right reaction. In analyzing any action the intent behind that action is enormously important. Yes, Ryan isn’t what we wanted, but acting within their limitations, the selection of Ryan shows a clear intent from the establishment to offer a concession to the more radical pro-liberty elements within the party.
That said, it’s possible that we ought to be scoring the Ryan selection as a major victory for liberty because it is a sign of the establishment stepping outside of their comfort zone and offering us something they think is significant. It’s like when your senile grandmother gives you a pair of used socks for Christmas. You don’t like the socks and you don’t want the socks, but you have to appreciate her intent to do what she thought was something nice, even if the result was horribly disappointing. You welcome the old socks with enthusiasm and don’t express your inner dismay, either because you respect her and feel sorry for her, or at the very least because you hope she’ll leave you some money in her will.
Ultimately, if we object to Ryan, if we raise the roof with outrage, they’re sufficiently out of touch that they won’t understand and will just get confused and offended. If we accept their lame gift with a winning smile that makes them think they did the right thing, that makes them feel good about us and next time the gifts may be more generous and they’ll write us into the will and we will eventually inherit it all.