Paul Ryan's upside-down establishment vision of political unity
If there's one thing Paul Ryan has honed during his years in Washington, it's Washington-speak.
The Speaker's March 23 address, broadcast from the Ways and Means Committee chamber – where he was surrounded only by press and House interns – is an example of just how adept he's become at it.
Whose Unity Are We Talking About, Anyway?
With soaring rhetoric, Ryan appealed for unity – unity in Congress, unity among the public, unity as a nation. We should test theories and ideas, he asserted, rather than impugning motives. The cost of political division is high, he noted; it undermines people's faith in their representatives, their faith in government. The system works, he explained, only if we have mutual respect for one another.
The problem is that Washington's elite class, of which Paul Ryan has become a top-ranking member, hasn't had any respect for the rest of us for a very long time. Consequently, yes, we have lost faith in our representatives and in our government. It's not just a bunch of us out here, frustrated over nothing. Most of the reasons for our dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and anger either reside in our nation's capital or are the brain-children of those who do.
Quite frankly, the whole of Ryan's speech comes down to this: a Washington blue-blood reminds us uncooperative plebeians that we should smile and hold hands and trust our leaders so that they can continue to inspire us with their spectacular and never-ending betrayals – betrayals such as Paul Ryan's ongoing embrace of massive spending, lopsided trade agreements, and troubling immigration policies. In fact, in light of this week's fresh attacks by radical Islamists in Brussels, Belgium, Ryan's already unpopular stance on immigration is likely growing more so by the minute.
One section of Ryan's speech, in particular, gets things absolutely backward:
All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of “our base” and “their base,” we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.
We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.
To be immediately clear, I'm all for finding common ground on issues. In fact, I actually believe there's plenty of it. The problem is, it's almost never where Ryan and his Washington buddies seek or attempt to fabricate it, frequently by means of deception. So, a cynical read on Ryan's words, above, ends up being the only prudent one.
The ABCs of Political Sales: Always Be Conning – er, Closing
Paul Ryan's speech is a masterful Glengarry Glen Ross of political-speak.
Let's start with leaders holding themselves "to the highest standards of integrity and decency."
The very core of our current mess is that establishment-class politicians don't hold themselves to much of any standard or principle at all – with the sole exception of the principle of self-advancement, which they have thoroughly mastered.
As has become all too obvious, us holding politicians accountable to high standards of integrity and decency is the only way our system of government works.
But read the rest of the quote closely, too. It's subtle yet telling. The people who are supposed to be running the show – that's you and me – are made passive subjects in every single sentence Paul Ryan utters. We are not the actors in his vision; we are the acted upon. Washington, he indicates, simply need to do a better job of looking believable and delivering the appropriate sales pitch.
"We can appeal to your aspirations," Ryan says.
Isn't Washington leadership already doing so on a regular basis, in order to manipulate us and our representatives alike?
"Instead of playing the identity politics of 'our base' and 'their base,' we unite people around ideas and principles," Ryan says.
It's not the politicians who are supposed to unite us. It's not even leadership's job to unite our representatives. Generally speaking, elected officials should unite around the existing will of the people – their own constituents. It's called representation. This brief video, points to research conducted at Princeton University and paints a clear picture of how little representation we now actually get. On budgets, spending, taxes, immigration, trade, surveillance, and a host of other issues, Paul Ryan has already demonstrated he's out of touch with his own Wisconsin district, let alone the American people.
"Instead of being timid, we go bold," says Ryan.
Hard to know whether to laugh or wince over this one. The things we want them to do, Ryan and his friends in Washington can never seem to find the stomach or the backbone to do. Yet they clearly have the political courage to plunge neck-deep into the things we've literally begged them to avoid. Oh, the Ryan establishment is going bold, all right. Boldly off track. Boldly amok. Boldly wrong.
"We don’t resort to scaring you; we dare to inspire you," Ryan says.
The D.C. establishment has two basic communication strategies. They either ignore us or leverage our fears against us – tactics similarly employed against uncooperative legislators. Ryan's personal M.O. may be more generally to ignore. But how is that choice better? Should it bother us less?
The Founders never intended to make political leadership a focus of the people's admiration. Congressional representatives were never meant to be on a pedestal or become an elite class. They are sent to Washington not to figure everything out "for us" and then do a convincing sell job in order to rally "enthusiasm" for their perspectives, wishes, or agendas. They're not supposed to "win a mandate to protect the American idea." They were always to remain public servants, with a sworn duty to fulfill a constitutional mandate. That mandate is one that we gave them: to safeguard our rights. It's not something that required manufacture in the bowels of some highly paid D.C. public relations firm.
Ryan's words utterly expose how he and the rest of the establishment class view their role and responsibilities: sell the ideas and agendas that are politically expedient and personally lucrative.
Lest there be any confusion, that is what Paul Ryan really means when he speaks of ideas. It's not the American idea. It's not even American ideas more generally. It's Washington ideas, and Ryan is ensuring that you swallow them whole when required.
Ryan and his friends would prefer it if we didn't understand this reality too well. They need us to stay convinced that they want the same things we do – that they have our best interests at heart.
However, Paul Ryan and the establishment camp have become all too transparent. The veil is off, and the American public seems increasingly less willing to let bygones be bygones – particularly since the bygones are never really gone.