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Paul Ryan and the Role of “Ideology”

One year in college, I had a roommate who liked to talk about the implications of the idea of the “multiverse”—the existence of multiple universes—and the often accompanying theory of trans-world identity, which holds that probability suggests that these different universes likely contain identical objects. My roommate would explain that there was probably another planet out there with identical people in it, but they could be expected to react to the same events and stimuli in ways wholly different from us—a sort of bizarro Earth.

I couldn’t help thinking of that roommate’s expositions when I read the New York Times’s explanation of why Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate and how that changes the election. The Times writes:

In the midst of an election in which few voters have not already taken sides, he is now running a campaign more focused on energizing an anti-Obama coalition than on trying to expand the universe of Romney voters with an argument that he is the most qualified economic steward….

Persuasion, especially on the Republican side, has given way to partisan stimulation. A sharp focus on the economy is giving way to ideology and personality.

Ryan is just about the most knowledgeable and charismatic advocate for his party’s policy proposals, and persuading the undecided voters—not, as the Times has it, the base–tops the list of his priorities. The base doesn’t need to be persuaded to vote against President Obama, and the base doesn’t need to be persuaded of the importance of reducing the federal debt, easing the tax burden on small businesses, or reforming entitlements.

I think the key to understanding the Times’s analysis, though, is the use of the word “ideology.” It’s deployed here because Ryan is a conservative. It might be a better label for the GOP ticket if Ryan hadn’t been selected as Romney’s running mate, however, because in such a case it would have been more likely that the campaign would have relied on sloganeering more than concrete policy proposals. But Ryan authored a budget, and that budget passed the House of Representatives. By choosing Ryan, Romney has made the race less about vague ideological principles and more about putting solutions in writing. You can call those solutions “conservative” if you want, but once you put legislation out there, its ideological genesis becomes more abstract and less relevant.

In Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés, ideology is the first such cliché dealt with. Goldberg begins the first chapter with a quote from then-president-elect Obama before his inauguration, in which Obama called for “a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.” It’s a telling categorization, Goldberg notes, to include ideology with other clearly negative traits.

Obama does this, Goldberg points out, because he doesn’t associate himself with ideology—a common leftist pretension. According to the left, conservatives are the dogmatic ones, while liberals just follow what works. The fact that the liberal experiment in governing is failing spectacularly all around us, and that Paul Ryan has dedicated his career and now this campaign to enacting specific plans to fix those failures, has left some political reporters at a loss for how to describe this campaign in a way that flatters not just President Obama but their own liberal self-regard.

It turns out that’s a pretty tall order. Somewhere in the multiverse, the president stood above cheap insults and partisan closed-mindedness and the Republicans nominated a flamethrowing ideologue. And the New York Times coverage got it exactly right.