That’s a big idea fighting to be heard in the cacophony of the 2012 campaign. The debate about the proper role of government in American life is the essential question dividing the two political parties — and has been since the New Deal. Ryan has spent years positioning himself to be the chief litigator on Capitol Hill for his side of that debate.
Not so the man at the top of the ticket. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has effectively sold himself to Republicans as a Mr. Fix-It, a businessman with common sense, and though that approach appeals to pragmatists, it will never stir the passions of the GOP’s base.
Ryan, however, brings fully caffeinated ideology to the Republican ticket. Ryan’s America is one built by individuals. The government for the most part needs to get out of the way.
The most detailed version of this philosophy can probably be found in a January 2010 document called “A Roadmap for America’s Future, Version 2.0.” It’s a budget plan that doubles as a Ryan manifesto.
Ryan argues that government “compassion” (he puts the word in quotes) can be corrosive to “the American character.”
“[D]ependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society. The process suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice and government dependency into a virtue,” he writes.
He spells out the danger ahead: “The Nation becomes a sort of vast Potemkin Village in which the most important elements — its people — are depleted by a government that increasingly ‘takes care’ of them, and makes ever more of their decisions for them.”
This is not a new idea by any stretch. It’s a classic conservative position, a reframing of arguments going back decades, even centuries, and it echoes the thinking of, among others, Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman from New York and Cabinet member who Ryan worked for in the 1990s at the think tank Empower America. Other Ryan influences include Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (whose “The Road to Serfdom” was an early evisceration of communist central planning) and the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand (“Atlas Shrugged”).
The manifesto’s focus on self-reliance can be seen as a natural outgrowth of Ryan’s biography: He had to grow up quickly after discovering, at 16, the body of his father, dead of a heart attack. Ryan, unlike Romney, was not to the manor born and worked his way up on Capitol Hill from lowly staffer to committee chairman. He’s a fitness fanatic, a hard worker, a tireless networker. Now he’s on a national ticket and no one can say he glided into that position.
Ryan’s first stab at a “Roadmap” came in 2008, and he expanded and updated it in 2010 to take into account the changed economic circumstances. Ryan has since produced two more budget plans with less philosophical verbiage (no longer is there a section called “Erosion of American Character,” for example), and the “Roadmap” has been renamed “The Path to Prosperity.”
“It’s more than just numbers. It’s more than just spreadsheets. It’s about the character of our country, and the American idea,” said a veteran Ryan staffer made available by the campaign for a background interview.
Ryan’s views have drawn huzzahs from economic and social conservatives but derision from Democrats and progressives, who say he wants to obliterate government as we know it and utterly shred the safety net for the poor and elderly. Ryan’s critics say his vision of government sapping American vigor is a fantasy.
“I think it’s poppycock,” said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. “His ideas are very, very old, and a very abstract ideology. They’re interesting as an extreme statement of a very harsh worldview.”
She added: “I just don’t think there’s evidence that Americans don’t want to work. Americans are working harder for less pay in real terms.”
William R. Hart, a professor of economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who taught Ryan when he was a student there, vigorously supports the Ryan view: “If you pay people not to work, and if you pay them more money if a woman has an out-of-wedlock baby if the father leaves, that’s the kind of behavior you’re going to get. The incentives in these government programs are all wrong.”
There have been bipartisan efforts to reform welfare programs, most notably in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton signed into law a measure that pushed recipients to find work and put a lifetime limit on benefits. Conservatives in recent years have focused their rhetoric more on “nanny state” regulations and “corporate welfare.”
William Bennett, the former education secretary who co-founded Empower America and developed a friendship there with Ryan, said the young conservative surely heard Kemp quoting Margaret Thatcher around the office: “The nanny state is the state that takes too much from you in order to do too much for you.”
It’s not too late to reverse course, Bennett said. “Ryan’s point is we can still pull this thing back,” he said.
Although the common ground between the opposing views on this topic is microscopic, scholars and thinkers across the ideological spectrum recognize that America is changing dramatically. These changes affect our demographics, our economy, our family structures, our workforce participation, our gender relationships — in essence, the texture of American life.
Middle-class wealth is vanishing in real terms. The country is getting older. Marriage rates are dropping — a study last year showed that only 51 percent of adults are married, down from 72 percent a half-century ago. Men with only a high school education find it much harder to become breadwinners and are remaining unmarried. More and more children of all races are growing up in single-parent households.
Globalization has roiled communities that have seen their manufacturing jobs disappear. Technology has reinvented social life, as people vanish into their homes and children immerse themselves into computer games or Facebook. Participation in civic organizations has declined.
“There has been a deterioration of American civic life. I think that’s pretty widely agreed now. The question is what’s caused that,” says Robert Putnam, a liberal Harvard political science professor and author of the bestseller “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”
“I personally believe that the big change is that our ‘we’ has shriveled to an ‘I’. We’re less concerned about other people than we were,” Putnam said.
Conservatives point to a jump in recent years in the number of people receiving government disability checks; fully 9 percent of workers in West Virginia, for example, are now on disability. The food stamps program (renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008) has seen enrollments grow from 17 million in 2000 to 46 million as of May this year.
Liberals point to an aggregation of wealth at the highest level of income. For most people, the 2000s were a “lost decade” for household wealth, with a dramatic decrease in the wealth of the middle class, according to a report released this week by the Pew Research Center. For Skocpol, America is witnessing the rise of a “winner-take-all” economy.
Ryan’s views echo those of Murray, the AEI scholar who has long described a growing dependency culture in the United States.
“The defining characteristics of Americans in the 19th century were the ways we celebrated self-reliance and would do anything to avoid taking charity. The welfare state is basically a machine for destroying what made America special,” Murray said this week.
Ryan’s 2010 manifesto envisions a radically smaller federal government in relation to the overall economy. The 2010 plan proposed that between 2009 and 2030, the discretionary portion of the budget (including defense spending but not Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or interest on the debt) would shrink from 15.9 percent to 7.4 percent of gross domestic product — and then decline further to 3.6 percent of GDP by 2083.
Putnam says Americans have always mythologized the lone cowboy on his horse, riding tall in the saddle, heading West — a John Wayne character, a rugged individualist.
But, the professor adds, “Actually, the West was settled by wagon trains.”