“We’re Winning”: The Ryan Pick, Obama, and the Future of American Democracy

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his VP makes clear what vision he has for the American future:  One Market Under God

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his VP makes clear what vision he has for the American future: One Market Under God. This grand dream is put in stark contrast to the Republicans’ absurd fantasy of Obama’s big government tyranny.  If only we could return the country to the days of unfettered markets and bigger tax cuts for the affluent, all will be well.  As absurd as their economic delusions are, it’s worth reminding ourselves where the last several decades of moving precisely in this direction have landed us.

In The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz outlines what by now is a sadly familiar story about the American economy: it’s a rigged game.  Specifically Stiglitz thoroughly documents how recent income growth has occurred almost entirely in the top 1 percent.  He notes how this has led to growing inequality and how those at the bottom and middle are worse off today than middle class and working class folks were at the beginning of the century.

To make things worse, Stiglitz illustrates how the inequalities in wealth are even greater than those of income.  These inequalities show up not just in people’s pocket books but also in their general standard of living and health. During the last few years, those at the bottom have been most hurt by the recession but the middle class has been hollowed out too.

The consequence of Stiglitz’s list of grim facts is that the United States has more inequality than any other advanced industrialized country in the world and is closing in on joining the ranks of “less advanced” countries. America has very little real economic mobility making the notion that we are more of a “land of opportunity” than other countries an unfounded myth.

After lifting the veil from our eyes and showing us the high cost of inequality, Stiglitz goes on to argue that the only way out of our current trap is to work toward “a better balance between markets and the state.”  This solution is supported, he argues, by “both modern economic theory and by historical evidence.”

We have a choice… between unrivaled inequality and democracy—and you can’t have both if we expect democracy to mean anything

In another recent book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, authors Donald Bartlett and James B. Steele echo Stiglitz’s concerns and note how laissez-faire economic policies have not just ravaged our economy but undermined our democracy.  Like Stiglitz, they go to the historical record and document how unchecked corporate globalization and the shameless rigging of the tax code in favor of the rich and moneyed interests has murdered the middle class.  We have a choice, they argue, between unrivaled inequality and democracy—and you can’t have both if we expect democracy to mean anything.

Of course our present quandary has deep historical roots because, as historians Phillip Dray and Nelson Lichtenstein observe, American corporations developed before a strong centralized government emerged and by the time that progressive politics and the labor movement gained strength “most critical decisions about the direction of American economic development were in private hands.”

Nevertheless, policy victories of the progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society still did much to blunt the hard edges of the market and help raise the standard of living for the average American.  Workers got collective bargaining rights, we ended abuses such as child labor, provided Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, enacted progressive taxation, pushed the cause of civil rights forward, expanded educational opportunities for all Americans, passed the GI bill, fought for environmental protections, and more.

This all changed with the rise of the New Right in American politics and from Reagan on, the overarching goal of the right has been as William Greider once put it, to “roll back the twentieth century.”  Whether it be crushing unions, gutting the public sector, enacting tax cut after tax cut for the wealthy, deregulating the economy from Enron to Wall Street, or standing in the way of every civil rights advance, the right has angrily and relentlessly railed against each progressive victory over the last hundred years.

The logic of the backlash against progressivism was perhaps best crystallized by Samuel Huntington who, in “The Crisis in Democracy,” a report for the Trilateral Commission in 1975, called on the power elite to reign in the “excesses of democracy” that sprang not just from the movements of the 1960s but from the general “reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life.”   The problem was that, “People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents” because “hierarchy, expertise, and wealth” had come “under heavy attack.”

The answer? Huntington calls for “desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.”  Translating this elite opinion into economic terms, Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee to the chairmanship of the Fed, simply declared in 1979 that, “the American standard of living must decline.”  It did.

What the Romney-Ryan ticket represents both in rhetoric and reality is the logical culmination of the right wing assault on the “excesses of democracy.”

Indeed, as the aforementioned scholars note, years of elite-driven policy have gutted the core of the American dream.  And while the central political force behind the murder of equality has been the American right, it must be noted that the Democratic Party has too-frequently played a key role in either accommodating or co-opting the corporatist ideology of the right as both the Clinton and Obama Administrations have done.  And while this has, at times, helped them gain short-term political advantage, the long-term effect on the right has been to encourage them to keep pushing the envelope further and further .

A case in point is the current ridiculous, counter-factual political debate in the United Statesin which even the most benign, reformist uses of government to aid the American public or regulate the obscene excesses of the lords of the global economy are met with rabid cries of “socialism” from the Republican Party USA.  Hence, as long as Republicans have political power, the  “better balance between markets and the state” that Stiglitz prescribes as the cure for our ailing democracy is impossible.

This all brings us to the current moment where the Republicans have nominated Mitt Romney, a very rich man, who is unabashedly campaigning to give himself and others in the top 1% a tax break while raising taxes on everyone else.  He does this while bragging about firing people and picking a VP, Paul Ryan, who comes complete with a copy of Ayn Rand’s collected works in his back pocket.  And Ryan’s central calling card is a plan to dismantle Medicare and privatize Social Security.  So goes their mantra: without the hindrance of government, the magic of the market will make all right in the world.

In sum, the Republican plan to win the White House is to sell the country every single policy that brought about the economic collapse and intensified the costs of American inequality as the solution to the problems caused by said policies.  Moreover, they’d like us to double down and make them even richer than they already are at our expense.  Their campaign is an insult to our collective intelligence.

All this would all be funny if the cartoon that is the Romney-Ryan campaign was not funded by untold millions of dollars, a treasure chest that gives them the potential to magnify big lies until they are confused with fact in the Fox-addled hinterlands.

Much to their credit, team Obama has seized on the naked privilege that fuels the Republican ticket and are running a solid progressive campaign assailing Romney’s Bain Capital background, arguing for higher taxes on the rich, and generally defending the legacy of the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement.

Indeed, rhetorically, the contrast is stark.  For the Democrats to win, this election needs to be a battle royal between the pure products of the last thirty years of right-wing backlash and the president’s defense of the value of government as a guardian of the rights of ordinary Americans. What the Romney-Ryan ticket represents both in rhetoric and reality is the logical culmination of the right wing assault on the “excesses of democracy.”

Old white people in Florida and Ohio
may not always dig Obama,
but they like their Social Security and Medicare

And, if Obama plays his cards right, he’ll kick some rich boy ass.  Old white people in Florida and Ohio may not always dig Obama, but they like their Social Security and Medicare.  Thus, it seems clear that the right has overreached with the Ryan pick.

Consequently, some in progressive circles are positively giddy.  As a recent Daily Kos piece on the anxiety and despair of professional GOP operatives over the Ryan pick put it:

We were winning, and now we’re winning even more thanks to Ryan. It’s no big secret. Everyone knows it. Only, it used to be just Romney who was doomed. Now, the House is in play and the Senate isn’t going anywhere near Mitch McConnell’s grasp.

Get ready to have the most fun since 2008. There’s nothing like Republicans in disarray to spice things up. And best of all? When they go down in defeat in November, the internal GOP battle over who lost the election—the squishy liberal Romney or the firebrand conservative ideologue Ryan—will keep things spicy for a long, long time.

But don’t make plans for the party quite yet.  The only hope we have of rolling back the tide of inequality and its terrible consequences on our lives and our democracy lies in defeating the Republicans not just in the Presidential race but also in enough Congressional contests to take back the House.  Without a majority in the House, the Republicans will keep fighting their rearguard action and stop any real progress from happening.

And even if “we” get the House back, we’ll need to be sure that we don’t confuse the Democratic Party of campaign rhetoric with the Democratic Party in government. To get them to live up to their populist rhetoric and actually do something genuinely progressive will take a little “excess of democracy.”  As Mark Bittman recently put it in his New York Times column, “until President Obama is pushed more strongly by the left, the coming presidential election represents a choice between a full-fledged attack on government services and a continuing slide into the gloomy and depressing world of austerity economics. That’s a real choice, but it’s not a happy one.”

Others, like Thomas Frank of Harper’s, are even less sanguine.  Frank delivers a devastating, spot-on critique of how Obama was elected riding a wave of “progressive fantasy” but has delivered a “desert of centrism.”  Failing to deliver on regulatory or trade reform, abandoning labor, he has worked hard to save a “bankrupt elite.”  Thus “the people who told us that ‘the new economy’ changed all the rules, that we didn’t really need a strong supervisory state—those people are still riding high, still making their pronouncements from the heights of the op-ed page and the executive branch.”  Rather than channeling his “inner FDR,” Frank muses, Obama might have been more interested in preventing a second New Deal.

Obama losing means rolling back the twentieth century

But it is writer and activist Bill Fletcher who, in the most recent issue of The Progressive, best diagnoses our current dilemma.  There he advises those on the left to support Obama, the “corporate liberal,” rather than the Greens because an Obama presidency is essential if we want to have any “space” in which to work.  To vote for Obama is to “hold off the hordes of irrationalism, as represented by the Republican candidates.”  It is also a vote against their “crusade against the changing demographics of the USA and against any program that advances the slightest bit of redistributionism.”  So this election is really more about defeating “white revanchism” and “misogyny” and leaving the door open for the opportunity to press the President to address economic inequality in a deeper and far more profound fashion than he has done his first term.  Obama losing means rolling back the twentieth century.


Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.


  1. avatar says

    Given Romney’s Mormonism, Ryan’s Catholicism & the South’s evangelical Protestantism, doesn’t this ticket represent a deliberate departure from the Republican Southern Strategy that came out the 1960’s? If so, where are the voters they’re courting? What’s replacing the Southern Strategy? I’ll be watching the upcoming Republican Convention very closely for clues.

  2. avatar says

    Nice review of Past and Present.
    I appreciate your noting the Democrats’ willing participation in the dismantling of our once-democratic society — Carter’s anti-government “outsider” stance; Clinton’s devastating NAFTA, “third way” accommodations, repeal of Glass-Steagall regulation of banks, FCC give-aways .(And this guy is being asked to speak at the Convention?) Obama has often disappointed, but he still is the first African-American President, is extricating us from imperial wars on the other side of the world and has developed a health-care plan that will serve all the people. Let’s give him credit.

    For November I entirely agree that we need to get out and vote. Vote for Obama/Biden and turn a deaf ear to any other siren-song candidates or parties. Discipline and solidarity are watchwords that will enable us to hold the Senate and take back the House. We will get the representation we deserve.