With his surprising selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Republican Mitt Romney is asking Americans to choose between competing narratives of our past, interpretations of present realities and visions of our future.
According to the historical narrative embraced by Messrs. Romney and Ryan and their tea party supporters, the U.S. is a unique nation, anointed by God not merely to dominate a continent but to shape the destiny of the world. In their view, America's wealth and might are primarily due to the accomplishments of enterprising individuals whose initiative, imagination and risk-taking created great fortunes. Mr. Romney's recent use of the slogan ""Built in America"" is designed to emphasize this belief in so-called ""American exceptionalism"" and to distinguish his view of America's past from the more secular, multicultural and communitarian perspective expressed by President Barack Obama. There is little place in the Romney narrative for the contributions of ordinary Americans or the impact of government investment, and no mention of the role of slavery, the exploitation of immigrants, and the genocide of indigenous peoples in creating the nation's prosperity.
The choice of Mr. Ryan as a running mate underscores the significance of this historical interpretation in shaping Republicans' current policy positions. Mr. Ryan's ideology and rapid political ascendancy reflect the hyper-individualism of Ayn Rand, whose books profoundly influenced his ideas about government and society. Although his views are framed in the language of fiscal responsibility, at bottom he regards the market and the individual as the sole agents of human progress and is deeply distrustful of government as an institution.
According to Messrs. Romney and Ryan, the nation's economic woes are the result of excessive and unwarranted government interference with the free market that has not only impeded growth but has also undermined the nation's moral fiber by creating a culture of ""entitlement."" To his credit, unlike many politicians of both parties, including his running mate, Mr. Ryan has made his proposals to address these problems explicit.
The heart of Mr. Ryan's plan is to shrink the role of the federal government (and indirectly that of state and local governments) in the economy and U.S. society as a whole. It would do this in three ways. First, it would drastically reduce federal revenues, not only by extending the Bush tax cuts but also by slashing taxes further in a manner that, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, would provide a massive transfer of wealth from low and middle-income Americans to the nation's wealthiest citizens. It would essentially complete the destruction of the progressive tax system that has been a cornerstone of U.S. prosperity since the 1930s.
Second, in order to achieve his stated goal of balancing the federal budget by 2040, Mr. Ryan would replace Medicare with a system of subsidized private insurance plans that would increase the cost of health care for most elderly Americans, convert Medicaid into a block grant to states, and make deep cuts in discretionary spending in food assistance, education, transportation, and scientific research. If Mr. Ryan still embraces his 2011 position, he also supports the eventual privatization of Social Security.
The third component of his fiscal strategy is a dramatic reduction in government's role in environmental protection, consumer product safety, occupational health, workers' rights and regulation of the banking and housing industries. These proposals are defended as critical to economic growth.
Mr. Ryan, and by implication Mr. Romney, envision an America in which personal rather than public responsibility prevails, in which market values dominate, and in which government plays a diminished role in society. The massive reductions in federal revenues they favor would preclude vital future investments in the nation's physical and human capital infrastructure such as those proposed by the Obama Administration and compel state and local governments to raise taxes, lay off more teachers, police officers, firefighters, and social workers, and close more libraries and parks. Their future is rooted in myths about America's past and a denial of current demographic, social and cultural realities. The November election will reveal which vision of the future Americans prefer.
Michael Reisch is the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.