Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is the latest episode in a story of conflict within the Republican Party that has many chapters. It has been said a thousand times that, in the long competition between the party’s radical base and its slightly less radical leadership (there are no moderates anywhere in sight in the GOP these days), the choice of the extreme budget-cutter Ryan represents a shift toward the extreme base, and that is certainly true. But it is also a development in another, related story.
The record of the last decade or so suggests that the party these days is animated by two main goals. First, it seeks unchallengeable, absolute power. Its modus operandi for achieving that goal has been to use institutional power—the power of corporations, courts and legislatures—to acquire more institutional power. A recent case is the drive in Republican-dominated states around the country to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as the poor and minorities, by legislating onerous requirements for voting.
The other goal has been a less familiar one. More and more, Republicans have exhibited a strong desire to take up residence in an imaginary world, an alternate reality—one in which global warming is found to be a fraud perpetrated by the world’s top scientists, Obama turns out to have been born in Kenya and is a Muslim (and a socialist), budgets can be slashed without social pain, firing government employees reduces unemployment, tax cuts for the wealthy replenish government coffers, and so forth. Perhaps it seems odd to identify such an objective as a political goal, but past ideological movements of the left as well as the right offer many examples of the power of such a longing.
Conscientious fact-checkers in the media have rebutted individual items that make up the GOP’s factitious universe. Such efforts are always worthwhile but are likely to backfire with the believers. When ideology takes over from reality, fantasy is not a disadvantage for the believers; it is the source of appeal. The deceptions are then popular not in spite of their untruthfulness but precisely because of it. When the target of the insurrection is not only some hated rival or establishment but the factual universe, with all its unwelcome restrictions and psychological burdens, then the more flagrant the violation of truth, the keener the thrill.
Often, the will to power and the will to fantasy go together. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century discovered, the two can reinforce one another. Such seemed to be the explicit ambition of a top adviser to President George W. Bush when, at one giddy moment at the height of the Iraq War, he famously said that the Bush administration had delivered a coup de grâce to nothing less than “the reality-based community,” for “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was a classic statement of the totalitarian logic of the propaganda artist in power. What better way to win support for propaganda than to abolish the reality that contradicts it? The adviser's boast was premature, but his logic was clear: If we don’t like the real world, we can do away with it.
Those dreams of omnipotence expired in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conflict between the will to power and the will to fantasy lived on in new forms. The career of Sarah Palin offers an illustration. She and reality were strangers, as the world saw in her first interviews and subsequently. Her mind was almost a blank slate in that respect, and she showed neither inclination nor aptitude to remedy the lack. To draw her into that world was a kind of cruel mistake. She soon withdrew from it, deciding, after protracted dithering, to stay out of this year’s presidential race and retreat into a world in which her talents and temperament were in fact stellar, the world of myth-making and spin on Fox News. (It is entirely in keeping with this choice that her husband, Todd Palin, has now turned up in NBC’s militarized “reality” show—that is, unreality show—Stars Earn Stripes.)
There was a lesson in Sarah Palin’s withdrawal. For all the triumphs of cash-fueled political manipulation, the sphere of policy and governmental decisions has its dangers for the addicts of unreality. Fantasies can be a path to power, but they can also become a costly self-indulgence.
Palin’s balk at reality’s edge was only one of many twists and turns in the winding path the GOP has followed between power and fantasy. Sometimes it has tipped one way, sometimes the other. Twice—in the presidential primaries of 2008 and those of this year—the party harked for a time to the siren call of the unreal world of the base (Mike Huckabee in 2008; Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich this year) but twice it veered away, entering, with conspicuous distaste, into the arranged marriage with the more sober choice (John McCain in 2008, Romney this year).
But now comes the choice of Ryan. It is a decided, possibly a decisive, tip in the direction of fantasy. To be sure, Ryan is no Sarah Palin. He is a veritable policy wonk.But he is an ideologue. Ideologues can know a lot, and Ryan does, but their knowledge is so tendentiously selected that information, instead of conducting them to what is real, actually armors them against it. Such is the case with Ryan. The media spotlight has been on the renowned Ryan budget, passed twice by the Republican majority in the House, but even more telling is his stand on global warming. He is a major-league denier. All the most prestigious academies of science around the world, including the American National Academy of Sciences, agree that warming is real, man-made and well advanced. Ryan demurs. He has accused climate scientists of a “perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion,” in order to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” He has voted against any and all measures to remedy the problem. He has suggested that the existence of snow in winter in Wisconsin is evidence against warming, which he has called “a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow.”
As for that budget, it promises to achieve balance while providing no such thing, instead calling for broad tax cuts without specifying spending cuts anywhere near the level that would be needed as offsets to bring the budget into balance. It depends entirely on one of the hoariest of false promises in politics, the free lunch, thereby contributing to what Paul Krugman rightly calls an economic “culture of fraud.”
The GOP base is fired up. But the cost could be high. Even today’s electoral politics may have one foot still remaining in the reality-based community. Ordinary voters may not be a tribe of Diogenes, carrying lamps through the world in search of truth, but they are much less likely to be passionately attached to a long list of fantasies than the GOP fanatics. That this could be so may be a saving grace of American politics in our otherwise spin-stupefied era.