The announcement that Paul Ryan would be Mitt Romney's running mate in the upcoming presidential election created ripples of joy among Democrats and Republicans. Democrats felt that President Obama's chances of winning the election had significantly improved because the majority of Americans will oppose the severe budget cuts that Paul Ryan has proposed in the past. Republicans were thrilled that they could energize their conservative base and reactivate the Tea Party enthusiasm that was so pervasive and successful in 2010.
Only time will tell who should be celebrating the choice of Paul Ryan. What we do know is that this choice represents a big victory for democracy. The purpose of an election is to choose between candidates who present their distinct political goals and visions. For independent voters (who cast the deciding votes in American elections) the differences between Mitt Romney and President Obama may not have been that obvious. After all, Mitt Romney himself instituted a health care system as governor of Massachusetts that is quite similar to the one envisioned by President Obama. This has now changed with the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate. He can now offer something that Romney never could: A clear vision.
What does Paul Ryan's vision consist of? In the past, he has articulated how strongly he has been influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy. However, he then faced harsh criticism and push-back from American Catholics, who were not too enthusiastic about the atheism, pro-choice stance and laissez-faire capitalism that Ayn Rand stood for. An example of this criticism is this public letter, which was sent to Paul Ryan by members of the Georgetown University faculty:
"In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
Paul Ryan responded to such criticism by down-playing his admiration for Ayn Rand and even suggesting that he rejects Ayn Rand's philosophy. However, his proposals to aggressively cut government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, as well as curtail welfare spending constitute the centerpiece of his political views. These proposed cuts have propelled his rise to stardom in the Republican Party and they are quite consistent with Ayn Rand's philosophy. Reneging on his goals to severely curtail government spending would diminish his credibility with the fiscal conservatives that see him as their champion. On the other hand, reducing government spending on the poor and the elderly appears antithetical to the Christian principles of compassion. This has created a dilemma for him, and forces him to find other ways to placate Catholics or other Christian voters who feel that the proposed severe budget cuts are incompatible with Christian values. This may explain why Paul Ryan is emphasizing his religious conservatism by suggesting that he is anti-choice in matters of abortion and opposes same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples. His positions on matters of abortion or gay marriage are quite inconsistent with the individualism of Ayn Rand and may thus help him distance himself from her views.
It therefore appears that Paul Ryan is generating a new hybrid philosophy: A reactionary vision for America that combines radical fiscal conservatism with selected "Christian values." Paul Ryan intends to roll back the progress made in the arena of providing affordable health care for the elderly and poor and diminish the social safety nets created over the past decades. The November ballot will tell whether American Christians will accept this hollowed version of Christianity, which has been stripped of its compassionate core. In this context, Paul Ryan's reactionary vision a blessing for American democracy.
In recent years, the "everyone fend for themselves" philosophy of Ayn Rand has been taking hold in American culture and politics, gradually pushing the United States toward an "Ayn Rand Nation." This gradual process has been driven by selected activist groups such as the Tea Party, but there has been a much broader tacit approval. There has been lukewarm support for the Affordable Care Act, which will provide health care of millions of uninsured Americans, even among those who would benefit from it. There is a growing American perception that European welfare programs should be blamed for the flailing European economies. These are all indicators that Ayn Rand's philosophy has been creeping into and taking hold of mainstream American culture. Discussion about how this creeping laissez-faire capitalism and unhinged individualism is antithetical to Christian values has been rather scarce, which is surprising since the majority of Americans see themselves as Christians.
The November election will now force Americans to carefully think about their vision and their ideals. Do Americans really want an Ayn Rand Nation with a few cherry-picked "Christian values" as epitomized by Paul Ryan? This is the question that Americans will be asking themselves in the next months. Instead of just giving their tacit approval, Americans will have to actively vote on this question in November. This will require much soul-searching, but it is this type of soul-searching that makes a democracy vibrant.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Fragments of Truth Blog.