Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jonathan Chait: War on the Weak

War on the Weak: How the GOP came to view the poor as parasites—and the rich as our rightful rulers.
by Jonathan Chait

Last week the Republican Party sounded two distinct voices. First we heard the angry demands of the Tea Party, speaking through its hardline conservative allies in the House, pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown. But then emerged the soothing tones of Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, who fashions himself the intellectual leader of the party, unveiling a budget manifesto he calls the “Path to Prosperity.”

Ryan portrays his goals in reassuringly pecuniary terms—he’s just the friendly neighborhood accountant here to help balance your checkbook. “I have a knack for numbers,” he chirps. ABC News compared him to a character in Dave, the corny 1993 movie about an average Joe who mistakenly assumes the presidency and calls in his CPA buddy—that would be Ryan—to scour the federal budget and bring it into balance. If he has any flaw, he just cares too much about rescuing the country from debt, gosh darn it!

In fact, the two streams—the furious Tea Party rebels and Ryan the earnest budget geek—both spring from the same source. And it is to that source that you must look if you want to understand what Ryan is really after, and what makes these activists so angry.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration’s subsidizing the “losers’ mortgages.” Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt—in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but “at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rander.”

Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

In 2009 Rand began popping up all over the Tea Party movement. Sales of her books skyrocketed, and signs quoting her ideas appeared constantly at rallies. Conservatives asserted that the events of the Obama administration eerily paralleled the plot of Atlas Shrugged, in which a liberal government precipitates economic collapse.

One conservative making that point was Ryan. His citation of Rand was not casual. He’s a Rand nut. In the days before his star turn as America’s Accountant, Ryan once appeared at a gathering to honor her philosophy, where he announced, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” He continues to view Rand as a lodestar, requiring his staffers to digest her creepy tracts.

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