Mitt Romney’s decision to pick a budget-slashing bad bay zealot from Wisconsin as a running mate didn’t surprise me. That’s the Romney brand: technocracy and a focus on the bottom line. Romney’s gamble is that we will trust him to manage the economy much like he was trusted in his life as a private management consultant: Study the problem, kick some ass, move on.
I am so fed us with partisan bickering that Romeny almost looked like a hold-your-nose alternative to more blundering. Obama promised change, and did not deliver. We’re fractured, divided and seemingly adrift. Politics has become blood sport. The rules of the game reflect a race to the bottom.
But Paul Ryan?
He is everything that Romney was running against.
At 42, Ryan’s made a life out of politics, first winning a seat in Congress at age 28. So much for the outsider’s perspective.
He’s one of the so-called "Young Guns" who’ve made their life’s work proof of the proposition that government doesn’t work. Yet the strategy employed to demonstrate the truth of their belief is to get elected to public office and then obstruct anything that looks like compromise. It was a strategy first conceived gy Newt Gingrich, but then adopted with the bloodless commitment of a vampire by young Republicans determined to make sure that the 2008 economic crash was turned to political advantage in 2012. Here’s how it works: If the Democrats say "white," quickly counter by asserting "black." Filibuster, obstruct, delay, and if it crashed the economy and results in downgrading of the government’s bond rating, well that’s just fine. The incumbent will get tarred with the results, right. Attack Obama. Hell, he wasn’t even born here, right?
That is the clothe from which Paul Ryan is cut.
Don’t take my word for it. Read It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (Basic Books, 2012). I picked the book up looking for enlightenment on what’s going on in the courts. The book provided scant guidance on conflicting legal doctrines; it is really about electoral politics and the difficulty governing in a two party system increasingly captivated by extremists.
Mann and Ornstein target the predicable villains: The fracturing of the mainstream media into thousands of networks has destroyed the sense of a common narrative binding us all. We can pick our own individual poisons and then overdose on them at will. Want to screech at the "left"? Well, then Fox News is all for you. Not shrill enough? Then find a columnist or author to fill you with the shrill of it all. We’re not so much talking with one another as we are screaming at one another. If you’ve checked out because politics is noise, you’ve been listening.
Private money funds think tanks catering to the prejudices of their paymasters. I will never read another item published by the Cato Institute without whiffing for the fetid scent of the Koch brothers and their insidious and silent form of fascism. (It matters not how many agonized emails I get from folks on the payroll of Cato. There is lipstick on Cato’s collar. If you want to be perceived as independent, then be independent.) Just how the Supreme Court concluded that corporations, a business form intended to limit liability for investors, was a person within the meaning of the First Amendment remains one of the law’s deeper, and more repulsive mysteries. Why do the courts only embrace legal fictions when they serve big government and big business? Answer: because big money calls the shots.
Mann and Ornstein are political scientists who have an inchoate faith that things can be righted. God bless them. Their book’s weakness is a focus on institutions as workable entities whose performance can be tweaked and made to work better. That’s all fine on paper, I suppose. But what if the institutions express a fractured social reality? Perhaps politics have become shrill because people are angry and have lost hope. Perhaps the American Dream ended awhile ago and the politicians have been too stupid to notice. The global economy has changed, leaving the American Century a thing of the past. A presidential campaign that promises a "comeback", as does the Romney/Ryan ticket, might be dabbling in illusion: Ozzie and Harriet won’t be setting the table for supper anytime soon in most homes.
Paul Ryan is a gift to the Democrats. He will energize the folks who already hated Obama causing them to double down on their rage. But that gets the Republicans what, exactly? Want to shut up a goofy outsider? Given him power.
The most intriguing suggestion in Mann’s and Ornstein’s book was requiring that all Americans vote. It works in Australia, where a modest and progressive fine on those who refuse to vote yielded a turnout rate of 97 percent in recent election. The authors contend that when politicians know everyone is pulling the lever, they are more mindful of pitching their case to the middle. Extremism is a vice when everyone votes. Want to get people to the polls? Give folks a lottery ticket for casting a ballot. We built community and common vision by fostering a participatory ethos.
I was surprised to be persuaded by this line of reasoning. I have sat out far more elections than not. Now when I vote, I cast a ballot for the candidate most likely to appoint decent judges. I write in the name of Clarence Darrow for my congressional seat. I am rethinking that just now. If the Republicans are going to offer a ticket composed of a Zombie and Zealot, then maybe it’s time to start paying more attention. Either than or just wait for the Apocalypse; surely it cannot be long in coming at the rate things are now going.