Paul Ryan’s Capitalism-Christianity-Conservatism Cocktail

Who cares about the poor? Congressman Paul Ryan says conservatives do.  After taking heat from Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers alike for his 2012 budget plan, Ryan issued a public mea culpa.  Now he says he wants his conservatism to include both capitalism and caring Christianity.  Will it work?

I'm a conservative, and I care.

I’m a conservative, and I care.

You may recall Ryan’s budget plans of 2012.  As a young darling of free-market conservatives, the Catholic Congressman from Janesville, Wisconsin offered a budget plan that would have slashed public spending.  As he moved into the role of the vice-presidential candidate for Mitt Romney, Congressman Ryan defended his vision as an application of the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity.”  The way Ryan used it, that principle meant that charity should begin at the local level, not be imposed from distant Washington bureaucrats.

With the presidential race of 2016 already heating up, Ryan has offered a heartfelt revision, what one journalist calls a “holy war” on poverty.  As Ryan explained, his new budget proposal will take a more caring approach—a more Christian approach—toward America’s least fortunate.  Conservatives, Ryan said,

can do a better job of describing how our founding principles, which are in perfect keeping with Catholic social teaching, can make a difference in everybody’s life — especially the disaffected and the displaced.

Ryan claims to have had a revelation. As he described it, he absorbed some wisdom from the folks at home. In 2012, he had been using the phrase “makers and takers” to describe the roots of America’s economic woes. At a county fair, Ryan was upbraided for his callous rhetoric by a local Democratic activist. As he remembered last month in the Wall Street Journal, the encounter forced Ryan to reexamine his approach.

that day at the fair was the first time I really heard the way the phrase sounded. Later, I thought about that guy from the Democrats’ tent, and eventually I realized: He’s right.

Who was a taker? My mom, who is on Medicare? Me at 18 years old, using the Social Security survivor’s benefits we got after my father’s death to go to college? My buddy who had been unemployed and used job-training benefits to get back on his feet?

The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead—that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not “takers”; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.

Of course, the phrase wasn’t just insensitive; it was also ineffective. The problem I was trying to describe wasn’t about our people; it’s a philosophy of government that erodes the American Idea.

As a result, now Congressman Ryan is offering a new vision of caring conservatism. His new budget plan, he promises, will bring a more effective approach on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty. As Ryan put it,

When you compare liberal progressivism’s promises with the future that conservatism can actually deliver, the choice is clear. The way forward I’m proposing fosters risk-taking, ingenuity and creativity. Instead of growing government, it grows the economy and offers everyone greater opportunity and prosperity. It can unwind the cycle of dependency and finally defeat poverty. And, perhaps most important, it protects our rights while offering a real safety net for those in need—without overpowering the private economy or our private lives.

We’ve seen this before, of course. When George W. Bush wanted to adjust his conservative brand in 2000, he called himself a “compassionate conservative.”  Now Congressman Ryan seems to be trying a similar strategy.

Will it work? Can conservative politicians marry conservative Christianity with free-market principles?  Can a good-looking young Congressman combine conservative desires for a smaller government with conservative traditions of Christianity?

Can You Find the Conservative Education in This Picture?

Gracy Olmstead doesn’t mind tweaking the noses of her fellow conservatives.  She has encouraged them to relax about the dangers of the new(ish) Common Core State Standards, for example.  And now she wants conservatives to embrace Finland’s progressive-education model.

In today’s battles over classroom teaching and school organization, progressives often point to Finland as a guide.  Olmstead wants to claim Finland’s model as one for thinking conservatives.  I’ll admit: I’m stumped.  I can’t find the “conservative” elements Olmstead wants me to see in this picture.

A Conservative Model?

A Conservative Model?

Famously, Finland’s schools shun standardized tests.  Finland’s teachers are an elite cadre of highly trained professionals.  Students in Finland’s schools spend little time cramming or regurgitating information.  Students are encouraged to play, to think, to roam outside the boundaries of classrooms and textbooks.

Most progressives love this model.

Olmstead does too.  She says it embodies the core conservative principle of subsidiarity.  For those of us who haven’t been paying attention to conservative rhetoric for the past couple of years, “subsidiarity” is an old term that has attracted some new conservative devotees lately.  Paul Ryan, for instance, famously invoked the Catholic notion of subsidiarity as the moral justification for his 2012 budget plan.  Though other Catholic intellectuals disputed Ryan’s definition, Ryan used the term as shorthand for Reagan-esque encouragement of localism in government.  The best solutions were those closest to the problems.  Central governments should play only a subsidiary role, tackling issues local folks cannot.

Olmstead finds this principle at the heart of Finland’s school plan.  No centrally imposed curriculum, no dictatorial imposition of one-size-fits-all schooling.  She notes that some conservatives might not like the lack of private options for schooling.  But she does not stress the fact that American conservatives will likely also rebel at the very practices of schooling in Finland.  Olmstead quotes progressive guru Linda Darling-Hammond’s description of Finnish schooling:

In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups.

Now, Olmstead’s enlightened conservatism may find this image appealing.  But many American conservatives (not all!) connect traditional classroom practices with effective schooling.  Indeed, one of the constant themes of conservative educational activism throughout the twentieth century, I argue in my upcoming book, has been this connection between traditionalist classroom practice and traditionalist social morality.

I applaud Olmstead’s open-mindedness.  But I wonder how many other conservatives will join her in her embrace of the Finnish model.

 

Can Atheists Be Conservatives? Can Conservatives Be Atheists?

Sorry, Charlie.

That was what the Conservative Political Action Conference told the American Atheists recently when CPAC rescinded the atheists’ invitation to have a booth at the upcoming CPAC meeting.

The conservative planners apparently took offense to American Atheist leader David Silverman’s plans to shake up the meanings of American conservatism.  As Silverman told CNN,

Conservative isn’t a synonym for religious. . . .  I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.

Threatened or not, conservative Christian leaders objected to the atheists’ presence at the meeting, a gathering that plans to attract 10,000 conservative activists to Maryland next week.  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council crowed, if the atheists are welcomed, “they will have to pack up and put away the ‘C’ in CPAC!”

Other conservatives disagreed.  As the proudly atheist conservative Charles C. W. Cooke opined in the pages of National Review,

given the troubled waters into which American religious liberty has of late been pushed, it strikes me that conservatives ought to be courting atheists — not shunning them. I will happily take to the barricades for religious conscience rights, not least because my own security as a heretic is bound up with that of those who differ from me, and because a truly free country seeks to leave alone as many people as possible — however eccentric I might find their views or they might find mine. In my experience at least, it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.

From an historic point of view, Cooke seems to have the better of this argument.  As Jennifer Burns has argued, the atheism of Ayn Rand has played a crucial formative role in post-war American conservatism.  Though some contemporaries such as William F. Buckley rejected Rand precisely because of her atheism and her aggressive moral embrace of capitalism, later conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan proudly claimed Rand’s influence.

But even when Ryan did so, he explicitly rejected the atheism at the heart of Rand’s thinking.  David Silverman is asking CPAC to do something much more difficult: welcome conservative atheists as atheists, not in spite of their atheism.

Boo!

Boo!

Broun and the Budget

US Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) garnered a lot of attention last year, including a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by yours truly, for his claim that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were lies from the pit of hell.

Today Broun took to the pages of the New York Times to call for more drastic budget cuts.  Broun calls Representative Paul Ryan’s budget cuts too mild.  Instead, Broun insists, we need to cut the federal government drastically, including eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy.

Broun writes,

Constitutionally speaking, the federal government should not have a role in K-12 public education anyway. Overpaid Washington bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding how to provide for teachers and students, whose own state and local governments are better equipped to understand their needs. A Heritage Foundation study showed that in 2010, the average salary of an Education Department employee reached $103,000 — nearly double the average public-school teacher’s salary. Let’s phase out a large portion of the department’s roughly $70 billion budget. We can transfer the remaining dollars directly to the states, where they will be used more wisely.

Broun’s missive demonstrates the tight connections between various strains of conservative educational ideology.  Does Broun want less evolution taught in public schools?  Yes.  Does he also want a smaller, leaner, more local government?  Yes.

In Broun’s conservative thinking, these are not utterly separate ideas, but facets of the same good ideas.  If education decisions were made closer to home, Broun argues, they would be made “more wisely.”  Local governments, Broun writes, are “better equipped to understand [teachers’ and students’] needs.”  In short, not only would an elimination the Education Department make good fiscal sense, Broun insists, but it would allow schools to respect the religious views of local creationist parents.

 

In the News: The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the “Educrats”

As several commentators have pointed out, the Chicago teachers’ strike puts Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in an awkward position politically. He has been gleefully endorsed by conservative Republicans such as VP nominee Paul Ryan.  Emanuel’s fight with the teachers’ union puts him on the side of union-busting GOP governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. 

In cultural politics, too, fighting with a teachers’ union puts Mayor Emmanuel in the company of decades, even generations, of conservative educational activists and intellectuals. As I discussed in an article in Teachers College Record a few months back, teachers’ unions have often been the primary villain in conservative versions of American educational history.

Free-market pioneer Milton Friedman, for example, blamed America’s educational woes on the increasing power of teachers’ unions. In Free to Choose (1990) the Friedmans explained that even well-meaning teachers and school administrators always want “greater centralization and bureaucratization” at the cost of worse schooling (pg. 157). Since the 1950s, Milton Friedman had argued that teachers’ unions invariably degraded education, since most teachers are “dull and mediocre and uninspiring” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2002 edition, pg. 96). Union control of school, Friedman believed, protected less talented teachers and led to less efficient, less effective schooling.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty argued that the choking tendrils of unions and educational bureaucracy had almost killed real education. “Education evolved,” Rafferty argued in 1964, “from a sparkling, beckoning opportunity into a more humdrum, sober-sided obligation. It became hedged about with legal requirements and equalization formulas, credentialing criteria and personnel-pupil ratios.” (What Are They Doing to Your Children, 1964, pg. 109).

In the 1980s, conservative educational thinker Sam Blumenfeld called the National Education Association “the Trojan Horse in American Education.” Educational experts, Blumenfeld noted—what he called “remote educational commissions in far-off universities” (Is Public Education Necessary, 1981, pg. 4), had long planned to discredit traditional values in the eyes of American schoolchildren.

For these conservative educational thinkers, teachers’ organizations epitomized all that was wrongheaded about American public education. For free-marketeers like Friedman, unions selfishly choked out all alternate ideas about schooling. For traditionalists like Rafferty, union bureaucracy forced a pernicious pablum down the intellectual gullet of America’s schoolchildren. For more extreme conspiratorial thinkers such as Blumenfeld, teachers’ unions carried out a long-standing plot to rob Americans of their patriotic and spiritual heritage.

And now Rahm Emanuel stands on their side. Emanuel will be gleefully supported not only by contemporary conservative politicians like Paul Ryan, but by generations of conservative educational activists and intellectuals.

In the News: Paul Ryan and a WASP-free White House

Governor Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential running mate has been heralded by some conservatives as a triumph.  Ryan is known for his commitment to restricting abortion and defending traditional families.  He is also the GOP’s leading voice for budget-cutting, even to the point of earning some censure from Catholic leaders.   But the pick has been seen as a play to conservatives, or, as we say here at ILYBYGTH, to voters from Fundamentalist America.

One unusual aspect of Romney’s decision is that it guarantees a WASP-free White House for at least four more years.  Of course, there’s nothing new about a WASP-free White House.  Barack Obama is African American Protestant, while Joe Biden is Catholic.  But no matter who wins in November, with LDS (Morman) Romney and staunchly Catholic Ryan, there will be no White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant in this race.

This matters for a couple of reasons.  First, it shows the way Fundamentalist America is changing.  Sixty years ago, asking conservatives to line up behind a non-Protestant candidate was political suicide.  In 1928 and nearly in 1960, it was tricky even for the Democrats to run a Catholic candidate.  These days, many different types of conservatives celebrate the Romney-Ryan ticket.  Ryan is seen as the “conservative” choice, not the “Catholic” choice.  Just as with the Protestant-free US Supreme Court, the fact that conservatives don’t seem to care about the non-WASPiness of this election tells us something about the changing nature of American culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this.  We could attack Fundamentalist America for being hypocritical.  Here is how this argument would go: conservatives demand respect for “traditional values,” but they don’t ever clarify what those values are.  Since such things change within even one lifetime, the defense of “traditional values” is meaningless.  What last year’s traditionalist defends as a necessary part of American life, next year’s traditionalist insists was never part of traditionalist thinking.  In this case, traditionalist conservatives could be taken to task for shifting their “traditional values” without ever admitting it.  Sixty years ago, Catholics and LDS members were seen by many as outsiders, owing loyalty to a foreign potentate, in the case of Catholics.

A more sympathetic interpretation, however, is that this change from WASP to a more big-tent conservatism shows the healthy ways Fundamentalist America can change.  Fundamentalist America, in this line of thinking, is not the dinosaur it is made out to be.  It is a dynamic, thoughtful, fully contemporary way to be American.  As American culture broadens to welcome former outsiders such as Catholics and African Americans, so too does Fundamentalist America.