It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

By | 2018-11-09T23:31:27+00:00 November 10th, 2018|
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Paul Ryan used to give copies of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as Christmas gifts. The novel, a long ode to what Rand called the “virtue of selfishness,” sums up the departing House Speaker’s own obsessions.

Owning a copy is more a status signal than anything. “I make all my interns read it,” he told The New Yorker in 2012.

Rand’s succès de scandale interested Ryan in economics when he was a high school student. Its power undergirds his political acumen today.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged valorizes John Galt, a plutocrat who saves an America crippled by government intervention. He and his millionaire pals go on strike, and the government crumbles. They save the day.

Whatever one thinks of Atlas Shrugged’s merits and demerits, its influence on Paul Ryan and his brethren is key.

Ryan still holds to Markets Uber Alles. Indeed, he implored President Trump to drop his midterms immigration message and hammer home his booming economic record. Ryan doesn’t like broaching the issue of illegal immigration, despite three-quarters of Republican voters recently saying it was “very important” to them.

The economy is king. At least to those still umbilically attached to a defunct neoliberal claptrap Americans have rejected time and time again.

If the economy was all that mattered, Americans wouldn’t have told pollsters that healthcare was their number one issue, followed at a snip by immigration.

If the economy was all that mattered, an all-devouring red wave would have swallowed the Democratic purple puddle. Republicans would still control the House of Representatives.

Maybe it used to be true. Maybe it was the economy, stupid. At least until the financial meltdown in 2008.

Despite fatter paychecks, record low unemployment, and business confidence sitting at its highest in decades, Democrats still narrowly won the House. To disfigure the cliché: it’s not just the economy, stupid.

In his latest work, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama portends a major shift in electoral concerns. The economy, once said to occupy the first, second, and third issues in voters’ minds, is now trumped by identity.

Though Americans told pollsters they approved of the president’s roaring economy, and even gave him credit, it wasn’t their top concern.

Fukuyama contends that demographic anxiety (often stoked gleefully by some on the Left) is driving voters to tribalism—superseding economics as the main determiner of voting behavior.

This shift thickened in motion following the great crash of 2008. Fukuyama points to elite blunders like the subprime mortgage crisis, and the Euro crisis, as harbingers. He told the Washington Post:

We are now in a phase where identity politics have moved to the right. There are several factors conspiring to produce the wave of populism that has emerged in Europe and the United States. One has to do with globalization and its highly unequal impact on developed country populations. Outsourcing and technological change have not just impacted working-class incomes but have also led to a broad social decline that is perceived as a loss of status.

He goes on to contend that high levels of immigration have fueled the rise of populism across Europe, and the United States—with the blind approval of Paul Ryan and the GOP old guard.

Indeed, Brexit voters here in the UK told pollsters they would take an economic hit in exchange for leaving the European Union. The Remain campaign’s threats of economic doom did little to sway Brexiteer bloody-mindedness.

It is what German researchers have termed the “nostalgia effect.” A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found two-thirds of people in the European Union’s five largest countries felt that life was better in the past.

Strikingly, these pines were not limited to the rose-tinted spectacles of the middle-aged and elderly—a majority of under-25s agreed.

And such nostalgia was only marginally more prevalent among the usual suspects—men, the minimally educated, the working class, and those who identify as right-wing.

In America, seven in 10 Trump voters felt that life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. Forty-one percent of Americans say the past was a better place.

So Ryan’s spreadsheet sermonizing no longer holds the sway Ayn Rand holds over him.

Indeed, immigration anxiety is largely an economic concern—those already struggling are reluctant to welcome newcomers willing to work for much less.

The fear of losing one’s status through unchecked immigration and demographic change means the tribalism of identity politics now infects both sides—as demonstrated in the midterms split decision.

Perhaps that tribalism will only amplify if Nancy Pelosi is elevated once again to speaker of the House. Or her early calls for bipartisan cooperation could transpire. But a few things seem certain: Ayn Rand’s influence on the GOP is on the wane. And the tumult has only just started.

Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

About the Author:

Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage is a British political journalist.