Home > Uncategorized > In which I Defend Paul Ryan

In which I Defend Paul Ryan

I don’t generally have much sympathy for the man, but I’m surprised and vaguely bothered by the media reaction to his “inner city” “culture” of jobless men comments.  A few points:

  1. Yes, those are all code words/memes straight out of the Southern Strategy playbook.
  2. Yes, the Southern Strategy is a racist and cynical strategy to play.
  3. No, that doesn’t mean that Paul Ryan is a racist.
  4. Fair or not, it really does hurt Democrats to be perceived as being on a hair trigger to insinuate that people like Paul Ryan are racists.   Like it or not, Paul Ryan doesn’t sound like a racist to most people.  Even I, tho I dislike him intensely, don’t think he’s a racist.

So, what’s going on?  Well, the genius of the Southern Strategy is that it is a strategy to appeal to racists without racism.  Read this famous quote from Lee Atwater carefully:

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Notice what he’s trying to say is that he believes the Southern Strategy will weaken racism over time.   Don’t worry about whether he’s right about that or not, that’s not my point… why does he believe it?   It’s because what he is selling is not explicit racism, but rather policies which happen, as a side effect, to have a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans.   The Southern Strategy was born on the realization that economic conservatism can be sold to socially conservative racists, not the other way around.  The connection, though, is so abstract that Atwater seems to believe that given time, the racial connection would weaken.

Let’s get back to Ryan, then.  I think from his record that Ryan is clearly an Ayn Rand devotee.   That is, he really believes in economic conservatism.  So what does he do in public life?   He tries to sell his vision of economic conservatism, mostly to republican conservative voters.  How do you do that?   The strategy for 40+ years now is to use Southern Strategy dog whistles.  It’s cynical, but attacking his strategy seems very unlikely to work and insinuating that he’s a racist risks an unnecessary backlash.

Paul Ryan is guilty of being cynical and a policy hack and you really should attack him along those lines, so let’s stop this foolishness.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Min
    June 6, 2015 at 6:44 am

    I interpret Atwater differently. When he says, “But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other,” the “racial problem” that he is referring to is the problem of being perceived as a racist.

    As for whether Ryan is a racist, you make a good point about his actual feelings on race. But he is still a racist. Actions speak louder than words. Or, as the existentialists say, you are what you do.

  2. BSEconomist
    June 6, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    I think I have to (somewhat) disagree with you on both counts.

    The crux of the issue here is precisely what Atwater means by “racial problem”. I think it goes without saying that he’s not worrying about the same “problem” that you or I would worry about, but in situations such as these it’s always helpful to remember that “everyone’s the hero of their own personal drama”.

    With that in mind, let’s try to take his perspective seriously for a moment. He’s clearly proud of himself, and he believes he’s solved a real problem, but what problem does he perceive? I find the sentence previous to your quote to be the most enlightening:

    “you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that.”

    He’s saying that the “racial problem” is specifically not about keeping black people down. He’s saying that as a matter of salesmanship, arguing for policies that happen to keep black people down can be sold to racists on that basis. Except that isn’t his point. The point is that you’re no longer talking about race.

    So, look through his eyes. He remembers the civil rights movement, with lots of people talking about race on both sides as well as the ensuing chaos. In the conservative imagination, there’s always a golden age in the past, remembered with fondness, in which our current problems didn’t exist. Atwater’s from a tradition which really believes that some subjects (i.e. sex) are taboo for good reason and if we all just shut up about it, things will gradually return to the way they are supposed to be (which is not to say that I endorse his view on what is “supposed to be”).

    Now consider that he might be right, at least partly. After all, since Atwater made those comments, it has become even more taboo to speak in public about racial issues. Think about it, the “polarity”, for want of a better term, of racial issues has completely flipped from Atwater’s time: racial injustice is only tolerated by the rest of society when those injustices can be framed as caused by something else. For example, the reaction of the media to Baltimore: tough on crime vs police brutality. Even mentioning that race, or “unconscious bias”, may be involved in these problems is a little taboo.

    So you might say that Atwater’s “racial problem” has been solved, but the cost of his solution is that real problems/injustices have started to accumulate (in part because no one feels comfortable talking about these issues enough to fix them). The net result, though, is that things will never return to how bad they were during Atwater’s time (i.e. Jim Crow, or Willie Horton, etc).

    Ryan’s views and actions should be taken in that context.

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