Over a year ago I wrote a post on Mitt Romney’s new vice-presidential pick and the novels of Ayn Rand. (You can also read a post from 2010 when I first began noticing Rand’s resurgence.) The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate shows that Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have moved to the center of today’s Republican Party.
Over the weekend, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer posted on all the ways that Ryan has been guided by Rand. Mayer joked that there is a woman on the ticket after all. She acknowledges that Ryan has had to steer clear of Rand’s contempt for Christianity (Rand followed Netzsche, who derided Christianity as a “slave religion” that celebrates the meek), but he continues to talk in Randian terms about “takers and makers.” Republicans, in his framing, are makers while Democrats are takers.
In choosing Ryan, Romney appears to be attempting to change the narrative of his election bid. No longer is this election to be just a referendum on Obama’s performance. Now it is a clash of world visions, between heroic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps captains-of-industry (or at least of finance) capitalism and (in Maurine Dowd’s characterization of Randian attacks) “warmed over, mommy party, it-takes-a-village piffle.” Forget about helping those who are unemployed or experiencing difficulties. They must learn, the hard way, to help themselves, even if it means going hungry.
It’s a break from the establishment GOP who, as Jonathan Chait notes, have long made their peace with FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan wants to undo those programs and go back to the 1920s or, for that matter, to the Gilded Age and the robber barons. As Chait sees it, the selection of Ryan represents the final triumph of movement conservatives in the Republican Party:
What makes Ryan so extraordinary is that he is not just a handsome slickster skilled at conveying sincerity with a winsome heartland affect. Pols like that come along every year. He is also (as Rich Yeselson put it) the chief party theoretician. Far more than even Ronald Reagan, he is deeply grounded is the ideological precepts of the conservative movement – a longtime Ayn Rand devotee who imbibed deeply from the lunatic supply-side tracts of Jude Wanniski and George Gilder. He has not merely formed an alliance with the movement, he is a product of it.
In this sense, Ryan’s nomination represents an important historical marker and the completion of a fifty year struggle. Starting in the early 1960s, conservative activists set out to seize control of the Republican Party. At the time the party was firmly in the hands of establishmentarians who had made their peace with the New Deal, but the activists regarded the entire development of the modern regulatory and welfare states as a horrific assault on freedom bound to lead to imminent societal collapse. In fits and starts, the conservatives slowly advanced – nominating Goldwater, retreating under Nixon, nominating Reagan, retreating as Reagan sought to govern, and on and on through Gingrich, Bush and his successors.
In my post from two years ago, I talked about the mediocrity of Rand’s novels as novels. Nevertheless, I don’t think that her ideas would pack the same punch if they had not been given dramatic enactment. Certainly fewer people would work their way through the hundreds of pages, which include lectures/sermons, if they were not imagining themselves as titanic figures like Howard Roark or John Galt.
In Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells us how novels (he’s talking about good novels) “comprehend the world as a question.” Rand’s novels, by contrast, have “an answer for everything”:
“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.”
As one who lived and wrote in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, Kundera understands how ideology works, and he could add Rand’s Objectivism to Marx and Islam. The fact that Rand enthusiasts have seized the GOP is disturbing. We must continue struggling for a world where good novels have a place.
Added note: Here’s Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic this morning on how William Buckley fought Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and how his brand of conservatism has been rejected by today’s GOP:
Consider Ryan in view of the legacy of William F. Buckley, who is generally considered the founder of the modern conservative movement. Buckley felt that perhaps his greatest achievement was to have repulsed the two principal extremist threats to the movement in the 1960s: the John Birch Society and the “Objectivists” centered around the writer Ayn Rand. As various commentators have pointed out, the Tea Party has revived and re-popularized the Birch Society’s outlandish views, and no Republican leader has attempted to refute them. Now that the party’s vice-presidential candidate is the most prominent Rand-influenced politician in the land—Ryan said in 2005 that Rand was “the reason I got involved in public service”—the other half of Buckley’s achievement has come undone.
It’s true that in the past few years, Ryan has distanced himself from Rand’s philosophy and particularly her atheism, which was Buckley’s principal objection to Objectivism. But Buckley also criticized the materialism, elitism, and scorn for altruism that were essential components of Rand’s philosophy. Rand’s belief that self-interest is the paramount aspect of capitalism, according to Buckley, risked “giving capitalism that bad name its enemies have done so well in giving it.” Ryan, on the other hand, said as recently as 2009 that “Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.”
Another note: And here’s Slate’s Dave Weigel noting how, in the 2005 speech to the Rand revivalist Atlas Society, Ryan cited the importance of a character in Atlas Shrugged, copper mining magnate Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian, in shaping his own vision of the Federal Reserve. Weigel notes that the Fed has a dual purpose—to fight inflation and unemployment–and Ryan wants it to stop using monetary policy to fight unemployment. The first paragraph is from Ryan’s speech at the Rand convention, the second Anconia’s speech:
Ryan: I always go back to, you know, Francisco d’Anconia’s speech, at Bill Taggart’s wedding, on money when I think about monetary policy. Then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises.
D’Anconia: The problem, says d’Anconia, is that statists — looters and moochers — see dollar signs and think they can, must redistribute them. “Whenever destroyers appear among men,” he says, “they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it becomes, marked: ‘Account overdrawn.’”