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06.06.11

Ayn Rand: The GOP’s Favorite Bonkers Demagogue

Democrats often limit their criticism of Republicans to public policy. But as Michael Tomasky points out, a new ad makes a more philosophical—and devastating—critique.

It was a bit rich last week to hear Paul Ryan, as he emerged from the House Republicans’ White House meeting, whining about being the victim of “demagoguery.” Obama replied that he understood a thing or two about the subject since he was “the job killing, death panel, probably-wasn't-born-here president.” In fact the Democrats have not yet even attacked the Ryan plan in quite the right way, which is on the basis of its immorality. I was glad to see over the weekend that one liberal group has finally done it.

There’s a reason Republicans are better at attacks than Democrats are. Well, there are actually two. The first is that the Republicans are more willing to lie. But the second and more subtle reason is that Republican attacks against Democrats are typically philosophical in basis, while Democratic attacks are usually policy-specific. Democratic attack ads say: X million seniors will go without care under the Republican plan. Republican attacks say: This is just more of the [insert relevant negative adjective] philosophy that laid America so low until Ronald Reagan came along and fixed everything. The difference exists for a simple reason: Republican programs are unpopular, but their bumper-sticker philosophy is popular (less government, stronger defense), while Democratic philosophy is viewed negatively but people strongly support specific government programs. This dichotomy makes for Republican attacks that are in general far more emotionally compelling. They tell a story and provide a context.

This is why I was pleased to see this ad from a progressive religious outfit called the American Values Network, which attacks the Ryan budget as immoral. Wait, doesn’t immoral in politics mean you kill babies or sleep with someone of your own sex? It doesn’t have to. It can mean what it meant for millennia in public life: atrocious treatment of the less fortunate in society.  Imagine that. And the best thing about the ad is the way it links Ryan—speaking of demagoguery—to the most unjustifiably self-important, crashingly tedious, and plainly bonkers demagogue in American history: Ayn Rand.

The ad uses a clip from a 1959 television interview Rand gave to Mike Wallace (surprise moment: he is the only one of the two who fires up a cigarette) in which she affirmed that she views religion as “evil” and states that she, of all the thinkers in history, is unique in developing “a new code of morality not based on faith.” This got me curious enough to sit down and watch, finally, the entire Wallace interview, which lasts about 25 minutes and can be seen in three parts on YouTube (part one is here, and will lead you to the next two).

As the ad is produced by a religious group, it tends to stick to questions of God. But the sections of the Rand interview that deal with politics and society were more interesting to me and more germane to today’s debates. What a delusional madwoman. I could go on at length, but the moment that most crystallizes her estrangement from historical fact comes when Wallace says to her in effect: OK, your supposed laissez-faire Valhalla, with no taxes or regulations—this is not just some theory of yours. This world existed long ago, he put it to her; the problem was that people with power cheated and stole and exploited other people, so society made rules to try to prevent those things from happening. In response, Rand simply denies that this was the case and blames all corruption on the state, which would be news to, among many others, the men—and women, and children—who worked twelve hours a day, six days a week until the government constricted the capitalists’ freedom by stopping it.

It’s astonishing that a scenario that in 1959 seemed a bad joke is now a driving force in our national dialogue.

All this is germane today because of Rand’s influence on the contemporary GOP. Ryan is quoted in the ad saying, “Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.” Doesn’t get much more direct than that. When Democrats say that Ryan wants to end Medicare as we know it, well, there’s a reason they say so. One can’t believe what Ryan apparently believes and not want to end Medicare as we know it. If he didn’t, he’d be a coward and a hypocrite. There is a version of Medicare that can be squared with Randian Objectivism, but it sure isn’t the Medicare we have. It’s pretty much the Medicare Ryan has proposed, in which seniors largely look after themselves, with decreased “utilization” of health-care services, and spend a lot more money doing it.

Wallace introduced Rand by saying of her then-utterly-marginal philosophy that “if it ever did take hold, it would revolutionize our lives.” He did not mean it as a compliment. It’s astonishing that a scenario that in 1959 seemed a bad joke is now a driving force in our national dialogue. Thank God (pardon the expression) someone is pointing this out.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.