Sensing that if he did not shake up his campaign he would lose to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney anointed Paul Ryan as his running mate. Thereby, Romney assumed all of Ryan's baggage, including the infamous Ryan budget, and the Wisconsin Congressman's support for Ayn Rand's "Objectivism."
As is true with many hardcore conservatives, Paul Ryan is a devotee of reactionary novelist Ayn Rand. In a recent New Yorker article, staff writer Ryan Lizza noted that Congressman Ryan often mentions Rand: "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... The fight we are in here... is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." In 2009, Ryan said, "what's unique about what's happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it's as if we're living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism, and that morality of capitalism is under assault."
Ayn Rand first came to national prominence in 1943 with the publication of The Fountainhead. In 1957 she published Atlas Shrugged, which promoted her philosophy, Objectivism: "The concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Rand promoted laissez-faire capitalism as the only moral social system, because it fostered individualism. She denounced all others as "Statism" or collectivism.
Objectivism is more extreme than Reaganomics, the ideology that has guided Republicans for three decades. Although Ronald Reagan decried government, he focused on lowering taxes and eliminating governmental oversight of capitalism. Ayn Rand believed the only role for government is the military, police, and judiciary. Therefore her Republican disciples want to eliminate the social safety net. The Paul Ryan budget attacks the core components of the safety net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and affordable Health Care.
By tapping Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has adopted the Ryan Budget and Objectivism. As a result, Romney turned the political conversation away from the stagnant U.S. economy to political philosophy: the proper role of government -- Objectivism/Individualism versus Collectivism/Community Action. Romney and Obama will debate what it means to be an American.
Since the founding of the United States, we've treasured two American myths. One about individualism, "the triumphant individual," and the other about community action, "the benevolent community." Robert Reich wrote that these myths are woven into the fabric of America. "The Triumphant Individual... is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor." It's the story of Abe Lincoln and more recently, Steve Jobs. "The Benevolent Community... is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good." It's what happens when neighbors get together to hunt for a missing child, fight a flood or fire, or care for the needy.
By adopting Objectivism, Romney and Ryan decry community action and disparage the notion of the benevolent community. Republicans argue that if you are disadvantaged -- poor, sick, elderly, or just down on your luck -- you should suck it up because it only takes willpower to become triumphant.
Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan fit the profile of the triumphant individual. Both come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege. (Except for a brief sojourn as "marketing consultant" in the family business, Ryan has been a politician all his life.) The person who best meets the profile of the triumphant individual is Barack Obama. But you don't hear Obama touting Objectivism or arguing that community action is passé.
To the contrary, in this year's State-of-the-Union address, Obama eloquently invoked community action:
"Americans... know that this generation's success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility."
Obama defends individualism and community action. He sees them as essential elements of "the American promise." In his State-of-the-Union address the president explained:
"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive... We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has not only accepted the Wisconsin conservative's baggage, but also refocused the political conversation and exposed himself as a champion of unfettered individualism.
What does it mean to be an American in 2012? Are we rugged individuals living in a benevolent community? Or are we a nation of narcissists, doggedly pursuing our own self-interest? Stay tuned.