Ryan vs Ryan: A man divided against himself

Paul Ryan spent decades as "a man internally divided against himself", apparently without even realising it.

    Ryan vs Ryan: A man divided against himself
    Paul Ryan's religious conservatism is in "step with some of the most extreme recent tendencies", opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest [EPA]

    Paul Ryan is a man divided against himself on the most basic matters of macro-economic reality. One Paul Ryan is a ranting right-wing demagogue, just the sort of person that other Paul Ryan has warned against. We now know this with blinding clarity because MSNBC's Chris Hayes recently aired clips of both Ryans back-to-back. 

    First, and most familiarly, no one makes the case against stimulus spending more clearly than Paul Ryan in 2010: 

    Too many are searching for answers in the discredited economic playbook of borrow and spend Keynesian policies. I reject the false premise that only forceful and sustained government intervention in the economy can secure this country's renewed prosperity. Adherence to this premise has given us a damaging policy mixture that has sparked [a] government spending spree and borrowing binge with no end in sight. Workers, taxpayers and families across this country have been guinea pigs in this neo-Keynesian experiment long enough. The results are in. Washington's economic experiment has failed. 

    But then again, no one makes the case for stimulus spending more clearly than Paul Ryan: 

    What we're trying to accomplish today with the passage of this third stimulus package is to create jobs and help the unemployed... 

    What we're trying to accomplish here is to pass the kinds of legislation that when they've passed in the past have grown the economy and gotten people back to work. We want to make it easier for employers to keep people employed. We want to make it easier for employers to invest in their business, to invest in their employees and to hire people back to work. And on top of that, for people who have lost their jobs, we want to help them with their unemployment insurance and with health insurance... 

    What we're trying to accomplish here is the recognition of the fact that in recessions, unemployment lags on well after a recovery has taken place.   

    He also said: 

    We've got to get the engine of economic growth growing again, because we now know, because of the recession,  we don't have the revenues we wanted to, we don't have the revenues we need to fix Medicare, to fix Social Security, to fix these issues, we've got to get Americas back to work. Then the surpluses come back, then the jobs come back, that is the constructive answer we’re trying to accomplish here, on yes, a bipartisan basis. I urge members to drop the demagoguery, and to pass this bill to help us work together to get the American people back to work. 

    That's Ryan in 2002, supporting a third round of stimulus spending under George W Bush. 

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    So, to summarise: Paul Ryan 2010: Keynesian economic policies are "discredited". Paul Ryan 2002: Keynesian policies "time-tested, proven, bipartisan solutions" - and those opposing them should "drop the demagoguery".  

    Not only that, Ryan in 2002 hit all the main points: Keynesian government stimulus is vital for economic recovery;  it's not just a matter of [partisan/ideological] theory, it's "time-tested, proven, bipartisan"; it needs to be a sustained effort over time, with additional rounds of spending as needed; it's needed even after early signs of recovery, to ensure that recovery doesn't falter; and perhaps most important of all, Keynesian spending during a recession is key to restoring economic health in order to ensure a healthy long-term federal budget.

    A failed rationalisation 

    So how did Paul Ryan turn from someone who thoroughly understands and supports "time-tested" Keynesian economic policy to someone who denounces them as "discredited"? 

    One might argue, perhaps, that there's a rational, fact-based, non-political reason: the 2009 stimulus package failed, and that failure is responsible for Ryan's change of heart. There are just three problems with that: First, Ryan opposed Obama's stimulus even before it was passed - while at the same time voting for a Republican stimulus package that was almost as big - $715bn. (As Time's Michael Grunwald recently wrote, "Republicans never explained how $715 billion worth of tax cuts and spending could be good public policy while $787 billion worth of tax cuts and spending was freedom-crushing socialism.")  

    Second, Ryan above is arguing for a third Bush stimulus bill - presumably after the first two had "failed", if that's the language he wants to use today. Third, the stimulus didn't fail - it just wasn't big enough. The Congressional Budget Office estimated it created up to 3.3 million jobs

    What's more, a graph of economic recovery under Obama vs Bush through last June shows that private sector employment under Obama is now back to the level it was at when he took office - compared to still being down 1.7 per cent under Bush at the same point in time. It's on the public sector side where Obama's job figures are still down, almost 3 per cent, while Bush's were up, almost 4 per cent. Tell me again who the "socialists" are?  

    The big difference between these two records is three-fold - and none of it makes Republicans look good - either under Bush or today. First, Bush inherited a much healthier economy than Obama did. He only had to clean up his own jobs mess, not one left over by the previous president. Second, Bush got Democratic help passing multiple stimulus bills, to support a sustained recovery. Third, under Bush a bipartisan consensus added government jobs during his first recession, thus preventing things from getting much, much worse. 

    So, the cover story is blown: There is no factual reason for Ryan's 180 degree about face. So what's really going on?  

    The GOP's grand policy failure

    For Ryan personally, psychologically, various conjectures might be plausible, but for the GOP as a whole, and Ryan's recent ascendency within it, the answer is surprisingly simple: The GOP has moved sharply to the right in the wake of losing the 2008 election - and it's a move shot through with paranoia and wildly self-contradictory impulses and ideas. 

    Fundamentally, Republicans want it all - total control of America's future - but they just had a taste of such power under Bush, and everything they touched turned to ashes. (Even leaving aside 9/11 and the wildly misguided response to it, Bush presided over the worst decade in modern history for the middle class, with the trajectory for this failure already in place in 2007, before Bush's second recession hit.)  

    At a bare minimum, Republicans want Obama to fail. They've said so on numerous occasions. But that's only the beginning: they want to destroy the world the Democrats made in the 20th century and replace it with a "free market" world of their own making - despite the fact that that world already failed, repeatedly during the panic- and depression-plagued 19th century and finally, spectacularly, back in 1929. 

    For 80 years now, they've lived in the shadow of their ignominious responsibility for the Great Recession. The rules of the road for never going through that again were written by their political enemies - Democrats, liberals, labour unions, etc - but those rules worked. In 2002, Ryan admitted as much. Heck, he didn't just admit that they worked, he darned near shouted it from the rooftops. Still, those rules were hated, when hatred was a luxury that could be afforded. 

     Paul Ryan's speech at Norfolk, Virginia

    Now that conservatism has failed spectacularly once again, that hatred has erupted with volcanic force, whether it can be afforded or not. Rather than realistically confront their failures and rethink their assumptions, conservative have chosen to embrace their anger and have gone into deep denial - with a healthy dose of other ego defence mechanisms thrown in for good measure, as I discussed in my previous column, "How the Republican brain plays defence". To properly situate the two Paul Ryans, we need to take closer look at how some of those defence mechanisms function in today's GOP.

    Defence mechanisms at play 

    As I said last time, projection and displacement are relatively well-known defence mechanisms, which can be seen at work in the GOP. Among other things, projection (attributing unwanted thoughts, feelings, attitudes or characteristics to others) is really the only way to make sense of Republicans running up enormous deficits - first under Reagan/Bush, then under Bush II - and then turning around and blaming Democrats for the lack of a balanced budget. And displacement (redirecting negative emotions, ideas, actions, etc to a less threatening substitute target) is almost a working definition of conservatism. 

    As Corey Robin argues in The Reactionay Mind: Conservatism from Edmuind Burke to Sarah Palin, conservatism has always been a defence of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, so this sort of blame-shifting is exactly what one should expect from conservatives. Blaming homeowners - especially minorities - who went bankrupt for the financial crisis, while excusing the financial industry that made trillions of dollars off of them is a perfect example of conservative displacement in action.  

    But two other defence mechanisms have come to the fore since the financial crisis and the emergence of Barack Obama. It's not that they're new to Conservatives, only that their importance has significantly increased in the last few years. The first of these is delusional projection, defined [here] as "grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature", though there's an aspect of fantasy as well, defined as "escaping reality in order to resolve inner and outer conflict".  

    Regarding delusion, as Wikipedia explains, the eminent philosopher and psycho-analyst Karl Jaspers, first set out three basic criteria for a delusional belief in his 1913 book General Psychopathology. These are: "[1] certainty (held with absolute conviction) [2] incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counter-argument or proof to the contrary) [and 3] impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)." 

    Among today's conservatives and Republicans, fanatical promoters of various delusional fantasies arguably tend more toward delusional projection, while casual consumers more likely approach these alternate realities primarily as a form of escape. 

    The election of America's first blank President clearly created deep conflicts for many Republicans. The birther fantasy - that Obama was secretly foreign born and hence ineligible to be President - was a text-book example of this sort of delusional fantasy. But it was hardly alone. A PPP poll in November 2009 found that even more Republicans - 52 per cent at the time - believed that Obama had not actually been elected President, but that the election had been stolen... by ACORN. 

    Considering that Obama won with a margin of 7 per cent, that would mean almost 10 million fraudulent votes... and no one in the Bush Department of Justice noticed! The stubborn, widespread persistence of such beliefs clearly meets all three of Jasper's criteria. Opposition to Obama's initiatives on health and global warming have both been couched in terms of delusional fantasies as well, with imaginary "death panels" in the first case and a manufactured global conspiracy of climate scientists in the second one. 

    Ryan's self-contradictory stances on Keynesian stimulus are an example of a second newly-prominent defence mechanism in conservative circles - compartmentalisation (building walls to separate thoughts that will conflict with one another). A classic example of this was the chorus of Republican lawmakers claiming that government never created a single job - all of whom were holding government jobs. 

    Some other recent examples of GOP compartmentalisation are just more extreme versions of all-too-familiar past behaviour. This certainly applies to the condemning of the stimulus on the one hand, combined with grubbily grasping for stimulus funds on the other - and then claiming credit for the money secured, while intentionally divorcing it from its origins in the hated stimulus bill. And then there's Romney's embrace and passage of the Heritage Foundation healthcare reform plan while governor of Massachusetts, contrasted with his condemnation and pledge to repeal the Heritage Foundation healthcare reform plan passed by Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. 

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    Focusing on Romney as a "flip-flopper" may have been easy for his Republican primary opponents, but that actually obscures the much larger pattern of conservative compartmentalisation, which covers a much wider range of contradictory positions.  

    Jesus and the psycho-killer 

    I'm speaking of the clash between Ryan's professed Catholicism and his profound involvement with the anti-religious libertarian extremist, Ayn Rand, about whom he said, in a 2005 speech at a "Celebration of Ayn Rand" event: 

    I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. 

    And, in 2009, Ryan said, "We are living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking" and "Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most." 

    The profound disconnect between social (and particularly religious) conservatism on the one hand and libertarian conservatism on the other is anything but new. Ryan, however, represents an intensification of both sides of this long-standing division - while at the same time trying to embrace them both. 

    On the one hand, his religious conservatism is in step with some of the most extreme recent tendencies, opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest, for example. On the other hand, while old-fashioned libertarians based their philosophy in John Locke (via questionable readings, to be sure), Randians base their philosophy on a fiction writer whose first real world model for her fictional heroes was a convicted psycho-killer 

    What's more, Rand was notoriously anti-religious, anti-Christian and anti-altruistic, saying things like "I am against God. I don't approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness ... I regard it as evil." It has only been within the past few months that progressive religious activists have managed to push this fact out into the public sphere, causing Ryan and others to rewrite their histories, denying the importance of Rand in their lives and their political philosophies. 

    But however much he might try to muddy the waters today, it's clear that Ryan spent decades as a man internally divided against himself, apparently without even realising it.  

    That is the very essence of dissociation. And while it might make Ryan's pro-stimulus/anti-stimulus compartmentalisation seem rather tame in comparison, it could also help explain why Ryan never even seemed to notice that fundamental contradiction at all. 

    Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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