Ayn Rand And The Conservative Contradiction

When I wrote my book (The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be) on the history of the American political debate, I spent a lot of time tracing the roots of both modern American conservatism and progressivism. It is the former I will occupy myself with today, for I have to confess a serious mistake of omission in my book.

I think I was accurate in describing John C. Calhoun — with his combination of traditionalism, authoritarianism, and worship of states’ rights — as the single most influential figure in American conservatism. And I think my discussion of the critical roles of people like Russell Kirk, William Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Barry Goldwater was true enough as well. But where I made my biggest mistake was in missing the importance of Ayn Rand as arguably the single most influential writer in the history of American conservatism. She is now getting a new round of exposure because of the film that her apostles just made, “Atlas Shrugged,” and I am pleased she is, because when her actual ideas get exposed to the light of day, they will hurt the conservative movement badly.

Frankly, when writing my book, I just couldn't reconcile myself to believe that someone as twisted as Ayn Rand could be such a huge influence on so many people. When you read her writings, it is hard not to recoil at the cruelty of her thinking. AlterNet had a nice piece the other day summarizing her philosophy:

The philosophy, such as it was, which Rand laid out in her novels and essays was a frightful concoction of hyper-egotism, power-worship and anarcho-capitalism. She opposed all forms of welfare, unemployment insurance, support for the poor and middle-class, regulation of industry and government provision for roads or other infrastructure. She also insisted that law enforcement, defense and the courts were the only appropriate arenas for government, and that all taxation should be purely voluntary. Her view of economics starkly divided the world into a contest between "moochers" and "producers," with the small group making up the latter generally composed of the spectacularly wealthy, the successful, and the titans of industry. The "moochers" were more or less everyone else, leading TNR's Jonathan Chait to describe Rand's thinking as a kind of inverted Marxism. Marx considered wealth creation to result solely from the labor of the masses, and viewed the owners of capital and the economic elite to be parasites feeding off that labor. Rand simply reversed that value judgment, applying the role of "parasite" to everyday working people instead. On the level of personal behavior, the heroes in Rand's novels commit borderline rape, blow up buildings, and dynamite oil fields -- actions which Rand portrays as admirable and virtuous fulfillments of the characters' personal will and desires. Her early diaries gush with admiration for William Hickman, a serial killer who raped and murdered a young girl. Hickman showed no understanding of "the necessity, meaning or importance of other people," a trait Rand apparently found quite admirable. For good measure, Rand dismissed the feminist movement as "false" and "phony," denigrated both Arabs and Native Americans as "savages" (going so far as to say the latter had no rights and that Europeans were right to take North American lands by force) and expressed horror that taxpayer money was being spent on government programs aimed at educating "subnormal children" and helping the handicapped. Needless to say, when Rand told Mike Wallace in 1953 that altruism was evil, that selfishness is a virtue, and that anyone who succumbs to weakness or frailty is unworthy of love, she meant it.

Given Rand's endorsement of terrorism, her strong admiration for a rapist and serial killer, her intense racism and vile hatred of people with disabilities, and her complete dismissal of traditional Christian values of altruism and generosity, I had a hard time believing that so many leading Republicans would be so openly embracing of her. But the same AlterNet piece summarizes a lot of the Republican leadership's excitement about her:

For over half a century," says Jennifer Burns, a recent biographer of the novelist, "Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." And with good reason. Besides her prominence in the Tea Party's intellectual and cultural lexicon, some of the Republican Party's leading lights have cited Rand by name as an inspiration. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) said she was the reason he entered public service. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) called Atlas Shrugged "his foundational book." Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an avowed fan and quotes extensively from Rand's novels at Congressional hearings. His father Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) told listeners that readers ate up Rand's Atlas Shrugged because "it was telling the truth," and even conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas references her work as influence in his autobiography -- and apparently has his law clerks watch the film adaptation of The Fountainhead. The phenomenon holds amidst the right-wing media as well: Rush Limbaugh called her "brilliant," Glenn Beck's panel on Rand featured the president of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaroom Brook, and Andrew Napolitano enthusiastically recounted a story in which his college-age self introduces his mother to Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. John Stossel and Sean Hannity have name-dropped her as well. Going further back, Alan Greenspan -- former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a fierce advocate of free-market ideology -- is an acolyte of Rand's thinking and knew her personally, and Rand was also dubbed the unofficial "novelist laureate" of the Reagan Administration by Maureen Dowd. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about Ayn Rand's reach on the right is how unremarked-upon it most often is.

...Given that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the lead architect of the GOP's 2012 budget plan, his own devotion to the ideas of Atlas Shrugged and its author are worth noting. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat has dismissed the connection as Ryan merely saying some "kind words about Ayn Rand," which simply isn't a plausible characterization given what we know: Ryan was a speaker at the Ayn Rand Centenary Conference in 2005, where he described Social Security as a "collectivist system" and cited Rand as his primary inspiration for entering public service. He has at least two videos on his Facebook page in which he heaps praise on the author. "Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism," he says. All of which reflects a rather more serious devotion than a few mere kind words. So it should come as no surprise that Ryan's plan comports almost perfectly with Rand's world view. He guts Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of housing, food, and educational support programs, leaving the country's middle-class and most vulnerable citizens with far less support. Then he uses approximately half of the money freed by those cuts to reduce taxes on the most wealthy Americans. By transforming Medicare into a system of vouchers whose value increases at the rate of inflation, he undoes Medicare's most humane feature -- the shouldering of risk at the social level -- and leaves individuals and seniors to shoulder ever greater amounts of risk on their own. But if your intellectual and moral lodestar is a woman who railed against altruism as "evil" and considered the small pockets of highly successful individuals to be morally superior, it's a perfectly logical plan to put forward.

It isn't just Republican political philosophy that Rand's ideas have infected, unfortunately. The selfishness-is-a-virtue and strong-taking-advantage-of-the-weak ethos have become the guiding principal of Wall Street bankers and multinational corporate CEOs as well. The invisible hand and enlightened self-interest of the free market has been pumped up on steroids and turned into a fist holding brass knuckles, and those too stupid or weak to be taken advantage of are freely hurt. And the bankers and media allies and politicians who are disciples of Ayn Rand don't just do it because the market demands it: they absolutely revel in it. Reading emails from some of these Wall Street traders about the joy they are taking in ripping their customers off, or watching Glenn Beck give a speech where he speaks with joy about how in nature, “the lions eat the weak," while his audience laughs and applauds is a truly sobering thing.

What is most bizarre about all this is that the conservatives who worship at the feet of Rand claim also generally to be Christians. When Rand Paul's exposure as a mocker of Christianity was revealed in last year's campaign, he was offended and appalled by these terrible smears, and spent the rest of the campaign quoting the Bible in virtually every speech, but his attitude in college is far more in keeping with Ayn Rand's own attitudes about religion — and with the logical conclusion of Rand's selfishness is a virtue, charity is evil philosophy. The Jesus of the Gospels was all about helping the poor, giving your riches away, helping others at every turn. In other words, the exact opposite of Rand's entire philosophy of life. Any politician or media figure who claims to be an admirer of both Rand and Jesus is either hopelessly confused or an out-and-out liar.

There is a deep and ultimately unresolvable contradiction buried in the heart of modern conservatism and the Republican Party. Their base is overwhelmingly churchgoing, theologically conservative Christians. These are folks who read their Bibles and take them seriously. The problem is that there is no way, no way whatsoever, to meld the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus who preached about the Golden Rule, the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus who preached over and over and over again about mercy and charity and self-sacrifice cannot be reconciled with Ayn Rand. In his very first sermon, Jesus said that the Lord had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives and sight to the blind.

The Ayn Rand who so inspired Paul Ryan thought the poor were vermin who deserved what they got, and was horrified at the idea that there might be government help for the blind. These two philosophies are in direct, unalterable contradiction, there is no way to smooth over the differences or magically synthesize them into a coherent ideology. Sooner or later, and I suspect sooner, this contradiction will tear the Republican Party apart.


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