Breathless denunciations to the contrary, Paul Ryan is not a racist. He does, however, have a bad habit of sounding like an idiot.
Speaking about the long-term, systemic poverty that plagues our nation’s inner cities, the GOP chairman of the House Budget Committee waxed sociological about the effects of generational unemployment in an ambiguous manner that left him open to predictable liberal charges of racism and bigotry. That reliable left-wing organ, ThinkProgress, was only too eager to play its appointed role in this latest production of outrage kabuki.
In a radio interview on Wednesday, Ryan hinted at wanting work requirements for men in inner cities in upcoming House legislation, citing the work of Charles Murray — a conservative who argues blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites — to prove his point. “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” Ryan said.
Not wanting to be left out of the action, Politico jumped in to make sure that Paul Ryan’s remarks were properly framed in the context of racial “dog whistles”, which conservative politicians allegedly have been using for decades.
By calling out his use of “code words,” Lee put Ryan in the company of past politicians who have blown the proverbial dog whistle—using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters. Examples of dog whistling include Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of “states’ rights”; Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing”; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against “welfare queens”; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.
Pretty bracing stuff, but the fact of the matter is that Paul Ryan’s words were not motivated by racial animus. Instead, they highlighted (however ineptly) a genuine problem that plagues too many communities across the nation. Ron Christie over at The Daily Beast stepped up to clarify at greater length the grinding tragedy that everyone knows exists but few have any idea how to address.
In 1965 the American poverty rate stood at 17.3%. After trillions of dollars of federal spending, the figure remained largely unchanged at 15% in 2012. In his report, Ryan identifies 92 federal programs that are designed to help lower income Americans. In fiscal year 2012 alone, $799 billion was spent on low-income assistance programs. Clearly money isn’t the problem. Perhaps culture is a factor to poverty in America.
According to data that Ryan’s report cites from the Census Bureau, single parenthood is directly correlated to poverty in our country today. While single women constitute less than 20% of all households, they head 34% of all poor households. According to the National Vital Statistics Reports issued by the Department of Health and Human Services last year, the black out of wedlock birthrate for 2012 stood at a staggering 72.3%.
…There is something wrong with our society today that finds nothing wrong with over 40 per cent of our children born into a single parent household. If there isn’t a “tailspin of culture” that ignores the significant black out of wedlock birthrate in the United States today, our society is in trouble.
All that said, the merits of his message do not excuse Rep. Paul Ryan from falling so easily into a foreseeable liberal trap. If it were a one-time aberration, it could be overlooked and forgiven; after all, everyone misspeaks on occasion. However, this comes right on the heels of his “full stomachs and empty souls” speech at CPAC, which also featured a tearjerker human anecdote about brown bag lunches that turned out to be too good to be true. This is a trend that needs to be nipped in the bud, and not just for Ryan’s sake. These kind of verbal missteps reflects a defect in conservative messaging that threatens to seriously hamper our electoral prospects.
On the issues of poverty and unemployment, conservatives need to start talking about what we are for, rather than getting sucked into a constant reiteration of what we are against.
In my own local community, there exists the Congregational Community Action Project, or CCAP, which is a joint project of dozens of houses of worship to provide relief and charitable aid to our neighbors who are down and out. They do a lot of good work. Example: on one occasion, this writer helped to assemble packets of quarters, laundry detergent, and dryer sheets, which would then be provided to the local homeless shelter, so that the residents would be able to go to the laundromat and walk into a job interview wearing a set of clean clothes. It’s a little thing, but it makes a difference, and it is the kind of community action that only the most doctrinaire disciple of Ayn Rand would oppose. Certainly, if asked to comment on it, the rising luminaries of the Republican Party’s younger, more libertarian base like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and (yes) Paul Ryan would find no objection; they’d likely praise it to the heavens. It’s a perfect example of the kind of poverty-alleviating measures that conservatives rightly out to champion: local communities coming together and taking responsibility, and leaving the federal government out of it.
But liberals keep trapping us. Here is where the diabolic genius of Hillary Clinton’s “It takes a village” formulation really shines forth. The left routinely synthesizes opposition to federal poverty programs of dubious effectiveness, not to mention constitutionality, into an opposition for any kind of formalized assistance at all. And our leaders keep letting them, because they allow themselves to get sucked into an unending litany of what we are against: “We’re against inner-city poverty programs that foster dependency”, “We’re against federally funded school lunches”, etc. At the end of the day, the only thing that voters end up hearing is “Republicans are against helping poor people.”
We never get around to saying, “We are for fostering a culture of tight-knit neighborhoods where people are free to build their jobs and dreams and raise their kids and help lift each other up in tough times” or “We are for local schools and community groups ensuring that no child in their area goes without three square a day”. This lack of differentiation plays right into the hands of Democrats eager to paint opposition to a federal welfare state as being one and the same as opposition to ever lifting a finger to assist another human being.
Optimism and positivity have to be the order of the day conservative movement. Instead of talking about “generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work”, what Paul Ryan should have said is, “We have generations of men who have been chained by a failed bureaucracy and stagnating regulatory system, and Republicans intend on clearing away the choking dross of the federal government so that these man and these communities can breathe free and finally take hold with both hands of the dignity and self-worth that comes from holding a good job and upholding their responsibilities to their family and their neighbors.” This is the kind of rhetoric that stirs hearts and lets voters know that we are on their side.
It seems to this writer that many who live, work, and write in the bubble of the conservative/libertarian movement take it for granted that everyone understands the positive aspects of our philosophy, but that just isn’t the case. We’ve spent so long in the trenches sniping and charging back and forth with our opposite numbers on the Left that we often forget that we possess a beautiful, life-affirming message of liberty and hope that the majority of swing voters and working-class Americans have never heard us explicated to them. It is long past time for that to change.