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Paul Ryan's Got a Great Big Problem With Progressivism | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Paul Ryan's Got a Great Big Problem With Progressivism

Paul Ryan's return to Wisconsin on the day after his selection as Mitt Romney's choice for the Republican vice presidential nomination was billed as a "homecoming."

But Ryan did not actually go home to Janesville, the blue-collar town where he was born and raised. Janesville is a Democratic city that backed the ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2008, and that might well do so again in 2012. Indeed, the headline on a news story from Janesville published Sunday read: "Residents and Officials Say Ryan Brings Welcome Attention Even if He Won't Get Their Vote."

Instead, Ryan and Romney appeared in Waukesha County, the state's Republican stronghold.

In Waukesha, Ryan announced: ”I am a Wisconsinite through and through."

"My veins run with cheese, bratwurst and a little Spotted Cow, Leines and Miller," he declared, mentioning three of the state's many beers. "I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, fish here, snowmobile here, and I even think ice fishing is interesting.”

What Ryan did not mention was the political philosophy that underpins what is universally recognized as “the Wisconsin Idea.” The vice presidential candidates's thinking was shaped by Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand and Austrian economists, not by the progressive political ideals of the first Wisconsinite to lead a national political ticket into serious competition for the White House: governor, senator and 1924 presidential candidate Robert M. La Follette.

In fact, the House Budget Committee chairman is expressly at odds with his home state's progressive tradition.

In 2010, Ryan told conservative commentator Glenn Beck: "What I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of progressivism because I see progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the big government problems that are plaguing us today. And so to me it’s really important to flush progressives out into the field of open debate—so people can actually see what this ideology means and where it’s going to lead us and how it attacks the American idea."

"I love you!" gushed Beck.

Beck referred to progressivism as "a cancer."

"Exactly," replied Ryan. "Look, I come from—I’m calling you from Janesville, Wisconsin, where I’m born and raised, where we raise our family. [It's] thirty-five miles from Madison. I grew up hearing about this stuff. This stuff came from these German intellectuals to Madison–University of Wisconsin and sort of out there from the beginning of the last century. So this is something we are familiar with where I come from. It never sat right with me. And as I grew up, I learned more about the founders and reading the Austrians and others that this is really a cancer because it basically takes the notion that our rights come from God and nature and turns it on its head and says, No, no, no, no, no, they come from government, and we here in government are here to give you your rights and therefore ration, redistribute and regulate your rights. It’s a complete affront of the whole idea of this country and that is to me what we as conservatives, or classical liberals if you want to get technical."

La Follette and "those first progressives," Ryan said, "tried to use populism and popular ideas as a means to getting—detaching people from the Constitution and founding principles to pave the way for the centralized bureaucratic welfare state."

OK, we know what Ryan thinks about progressives, contemporary and historic, and about the ideals for which La Follette and the first progressives.

So what would La Follette, the true progressive, have thought of Ryan?

Well, Ryan is most identified with the conservative campaign to mangle Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, while La Follette and the Wisconsin progressives fought to establish old-age pensions and protections.

Ryan is proudly opposed to healthcare reform, while La Follette (and, it should be noted, Teddy Roosevelt) began talking up national healthcare in the early 1900s.

Ryan wants to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, while La Follette and the Progressives declared themselves for “a taxation policy providing for immediate reductions upon moderate incomes, large increases in the inheritance tax rates upon large estates to prevent the indefinite accumulation by inheritance of great fortunes in a few hands” and “taxes upon excess profits to penalize profiteering.”

While Ryan’s a steady critic of government, the Progressives wanted to nationalize the railroads and utility companies. And they declared in their 1924 platform: “We demand that the power of the federal government be used to crush private monopoly, not to foster it.”

Where La Follette and the progressives sought to cut federal spending on the military, Ryan has consistently sought to increase funding for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned. La Follette’s 1924 Progressive Party platform called for the “curtailment of the $800 million now annually expended for the Army and Navy in preparation for future wars” and “the recovery of the hundreds of millions of dollars stolen from the Treasury through fraudulent war contracts and the corrupt leasing of the public resources.”

While Ryan has been a steady supporter of wars and occupations abroad, as well as Wall Street–sponsored “free trade” agreements—which have devastated his hometown of Janesville—the Progressives denounced “the mercenary system of foreign policy under recent administrations in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists and international bankers, which has at times degraded our State Department from its high service as a strong and kindly intermediary of defenseless governments to a trading outpost for those interests and concession-seekers engaged in the exploitations of weaker nations, as contrary to the will of the American people, destructive of domestic development and provocative of war.”

Ryan’s right that the first Progressives favored referendums. They even wanted “to extend the initiative and referendum to the federal government, and to insure a popular referendum for or against war except in cases of actual invasion.”

La Follette and the pioneering progressives of Wisconsin believed in democracy—political and economic. They wanted Americans to be truly empowered to shape their communities, their states, their nation and their future. It was a radical vision. Far more radical than what most contemporary "progressives" espouse.

The "first progressives" so ardently decried by Ryan challenged the crony capitalism of Wall Street and Washington. They believed that the combination of corporate capital and political power created a toxic combination that threatened to overwhelm the power of the people and render democracy meaningless.

They called the combination “the money power.”

Robert M. La Follette, the greatest Wisconsinite to step onto the national political stage, fought against "the money power."

Paul Ryan, the latest Wisconsinite to step onto the national political stage, fights for "the money power."

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