What Ryan and Obama Share


When Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, progressive groups immediately began to message their networks.  They said Romney had committed “political suicide,” and openly asked, “Did Romney just give away the election,” to quote some of the hyperbole from MoveOn.org.  I disagree.  I think Romney made the smartest choice he could have made.

Let’s cover the basics first.  Ryan comes from Wisconsin, a swing state with 11 electoral votes.  Wisconsin went for President Obama in 2008, but recently refused to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker after Walker pushed through a measure to crush public sector unions.  Romney has just made an important play for Wisconsin.

Ryan also excites the conservative base, but isn’t a moron like Sarah Palin, John McCain’s infamous pick.  This avoids alienating older, long time Republican voters who are not idiots and who vote their economic interests.

Ryan is an acolyte of notorious libertarian and market celebrant Ayn Rand.  This could appeal to the youngest voter demographic – those who have grown up with the Internet and cell phones. These college-aged students, or those in their early 20s, get excited by the libertarianism of Ron Paul.  These  Net-libertarians have grown up in a historical period without meaningful ideological opposition to neoliberalism, which means they cannot tell the difference between a pyramid scheme and Social Security.

They have also experienced a generation of attacks on government, of cuts to government programs and agencies, and of Republicans who tell them not to trust government.  They have experienced Republicans who tell them that government screws up anything it tries to do, and then once elected, these Republicans prove their point by actively trying to screw up government. Not trusting government, these Net-libertarians gravitate to the Internet, that is to say, the market.

Of course, problems predictably occur. Government’s regulatory bodies (and public schools) have been systematically incapacitated, so their failures are preordained by policies designed so that they will “fail.” Market actors behave exactly as micro-economics predicts – in a self-interested, profit maximizing way. This means that people who are not profitable to insure will not receive healthcare.  This means that environmental damage is an “externality” and an attractive place to have the costs associated with certain businesses “socialized” rather than born by the corporation itself so the corporation can keep up with its competition (which is doing the exact same thing).  For market actors, the public interest or the common good is simply not the rule according to which one makes one’s decisions.  But when weakened public institutions and profit seeking behavior on the part of market actors produce their predictable, socially damaging consequences, Net-libertarians blame government for “failures” that are not “failures” from the perspective of market actors, while cynically shrugging off self interested behavior that leads to socially disastrous consequences: after all, they seem to reason, I would act in a self interested manner if I were in that position too.  If there is a reform they can get on board with, it is more “consumer choice,” that is to say, more of the same that neoliberalism – Ryan’s market libertarianism – has to offer.

Does Romney’s choosing the market libertarian Ryan as a running mate exploit a vulnerability of Obama’s or does it play to his strengths?  At this point, it is hard to say.  There are three issues to consider.

First, Obama was very popular with the youngest voter demographic in 2008 – that is, the Net libertarians.  But the 20-something Net libertarians clicked ‘like” on “hope” and “change,” but our political, economic, and social welfare problems remain.  In other words, the 20-something Net libertarians like the pseudo-inclusivity of consumer choice more than doing the hard work (and the resulting divisiveness) of exerting political force.  This means that the political force necessary to re-shaping the economic and social welfare aspects of our lives continues to be lacking, and so these problems persist four years later, hanging over us like a dark cloud auguring another economic calamity on the horizon.  As Obama’s campaign has found it necessary to air “negative” or critical ads of Romney, Obama now appears to this generation like just another politician, even though he is fluent in their language of Net-libertarianism and its pseudo-inclusivity.  In this scenario, Obama and Romney-Ryan split the 20-something Net-libertarian vote, which is a loss for the Obama camp and a victory for the Republican ticket that needs to overcome a “geriatric,” or “my crank grandfather,” image.

Second, Obama’s center of gravity may have more in common with Ryan’s than Democrats, liberals, and leftists like to admit.  As Ron Suskind has described in Confidence Men, Obama was the candidate in 2008 who seemed to grasp most astutely the financial calamity as it was happening.  But the economic advisors who helped candidate Obama understand and criticize the wreaking ball of Wall Street on the nation’s wellbeing, like Paul Volcker, were marginalized in the Obama administration.  Meanwhile, those who had inspired and overseen the disastrous financial policies that caused the nation so much devastation, like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, received key appointments to oversee economic policy in the Obama administration.

In terms of Obama’s policies, we can see how much Obama shares with Ryan’s market libertarianism.  When Medicare was established, Democrats hoped that it would provide the foundation for a future system of universal health care.  Rather than building on this foundation, Obama abandoned it in favor of Romney’s model for health care that he had established in Massachusetts while governor (which had, in turn, been a policy model proposed by right wing think tank The Heritage Foundation in 1993): require everyone to purchase health insurance.  That is, instead of doubling down on the principle of universal health care and strengthening Medicare (by bringing younger, healthier people into its “pool” in addition to the elderly who require a lot of healthcare), Obama played into the hands of market libertarianism by forcing everyone to be a consumer of health insurance.

But nowhere do we see a shared gravitational pull between Obama and Ryan more than in Obama’s proposals during the debt ceiling negotiations of summer, 2011.  As reported by the Washington Post, in negotiations with Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Obama proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security.  (Mercifully, the senators known as the “Gang of Six” were moving to a compromise that, almost incomprehensibly, was more progressive, and this torpedoed the unfortunate efforts underway between the Obama administration and the Republican House leaders.)  If Obama were committed to the principles of Social Security as a universal program of social solidarity, then it wouldn’t be a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.  The difference, then, between Ryan’s well-known proposals to privatize Social Security while ending Medicare by substituting for it a policy of vouchers for consumers, is less a qualitative, principled distinction, and more a matter of marketized degree.  In this scenario, Ryan’s forthright advocacy of market libertarianism seems more honest, and therefore more appealing, than Obama’s furtive efforts to have Boehner return his phone calls during the summer of 2011 while simultaneously trying to persuade the public that he really still has our wellbeing at heart.  Who wants to be conned that way and taken for a fool?

There remains a third possibility.  A principled attack on the premises of twentieth century domestic policy and its attempts to make good — or at least make better — on the promise of “justice” and the promotion of the “general welfare” might force Obama to make the contrary case.  To do so, he would have to re-learn how to articulate why supporting programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the ever-evanescent aspiration of universal healthcare – to say nothing of improving the working and non-working lives of those who earn their livings from labor rather than from capital gains — is the right thing to do.  Democrats are rusty at making those arguments, though, so it won’t come easy.  But addressing Ryan’s market libertarianism head on could refocus public discourse on the class war that the one percent has made on the rest of us in a way that we have not seen since Occupy Wall Street a year ago.  What are the prospects for this scenario?  They are not bright.

On the one had, Romney is trying to walk back from Ryan’s aggressive advocacy of market libertarianism in order not to alienate the Eisenhower/ Rockefeller Republicans still among us. Romney’s position seems to be that Ryan is on the right track, but perhaps he is overly enthusiastic and goes too far.  On the other, Obama is banking on existing deep public support for Medicare and merely reminds us that Ryan would destroy it.  But the voter is left with the nagging question, after having witnessed the Obama administration in action: does Obama think Ryan is on the right track as well, but just “goes too far”?  If so, we will all be stuck in the same neoliberal, market libertarian place regardless, whether Romney or Obama wins.  If this is the case, voters may elect to go with the market libertarian who admits as much –what Ryan adds to the Romney ticket – over the guy we can’t be too sure about after the last four years.

Paul A. Passavant teaches Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  He is the author of No Escape: Freedom of Speech and the Paradox of Rights (New York University Press, 2002), and the editor (with Jodi Dean) of Empire’s New Clothes: Reading Hardt and Negri (Routledge, 2004).  His current work addresses neoliberalism, the policing of protest, and urban transformation.


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