I don’t get it. Apparently, Republican establishment types and the conservative commentariat think the world of Paul Ryan. When Republican House members were looking for a new Speaker, everyone lined up to support Ryan, as though he would be something of a savior.
I don’t get it.
Those with a slightly longer memory recall the moment when vice presidential candidate Ryan sat down to debate Joe Biden during the 2012 presidential campaign. And they call that Biden cleaned Ryan’s clock. To be nice about it, Biden made Ryan look like an overgrown boy scout. Considering that Mitt Romney had chosen Ryan to be his running mate, the performance damaged both Ryan and the Romney campaign.
For reasons that escape me, the weak performance did nothing to dim Ryan’s star.
As I said, I don’t get it.
The conservative commentariat will rejoin that Ryan is a great thinker, a deep thinker, a serious intellectual … what have you. Heaven knows where they got that idea… perhaps because Ryan can quote Ayn Rand.
On that point, I really don’t get it.
Anyway, enough of a preamble. Last week Ryan gave a speech in which he declared that America was a great idea. He meant that the nation was founded on an idea, not an identity.
It was very idealistic of him, and perhaps revealed his youthful exuberance, but it was not conservative. The latter philosophy values tradition and custom, balance of powers, negotiated compromise and pragmatic considerations. It’s not about imposing anyone’s ideals on the populace.
Come to think of it, the liberal left is all about great ideas—like the idea of equality and the idea of social justice.
Yes, indeed, the left is awash in great ideas. Republicans and conservatives have preferred to take the more pragmatic side of the argument. Not Paul Ryan.
Writing in the Daily Caller Scott Greer took serious issue with Ryan. Greer correctly pointed out that Ryan got it confused. America is about identity, one’s identity as an American, more than it is about ideas.
According to the Republican leader, “America is the only nation founded on an idea — not an identity. That idea is the notion that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. Our rights are natural. They come from God, not government.”
Ryan then decided to give a history lesson on the idea-obsessed founders and how America’s greatest leaders have always come together through compromise and debate.
With that lesson in mind, he called upon America’s modern politicians to return their focus to “ideas” and instead of pandering to their respective bases.
The speech is obviously a rather gooey attempt to bridge the political divide, but there’s one line that stands above the platitudes and cliched allusions — America is a nation founded on an idea, not an identity.
It’s a popular notion to think that our nation was created in a vacuum and created solely to uphold abstract principles. That line of thinking believes there’s no cultural basis to the American proposition, and there’s no real national identity outside of the belief in meritocracy.
That’s pretty quaint — and largely untrue.
To be fair, Ryan probably meant to strike a blow against identity politics. He might have been inveighing against those who would define themselves in multicultural terms, in terms of their local ethnic groups or races. He might have been attacking those who aspire to be hyphenated Americans.
If so he would still have missed the point. Among America’s greatest achievements, often noted and often emphasized, is its ability to treat everyone like Americans. No matter where you come from, once you become a citizen you become an American. Very few nations on the face of the earth can make the same claim.
One recalls that Theodore Roosevelt found the notion of hyphenated Americans to be anathema. Americas become Americans by observing certain customs and rituals, by pledging allegiance to the flag and respecting the laws of the land and the decisions of the majority. You cannot be loyal to your ethnic group and still be primarily loyal to your nation. If you are loyal to an ideal, your loyalty will similarly be divided. Practices make us all Americans—or, at least, those who are citizens of the great country.
Keep in mind, if we are Americans by virtue of our belief in some idea or other, then we will enter into the world of inquisitions and witch hunts. How, otherwise, do you know what anyone really, really believes. You can see whether someone pledges allegiance to the flag. You can see that he does or does not practice civic virtues but you cannot see what is in his mind.
Teddy Roosevelt made the point vigorously in 1915:
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.
For his part Greer refers to Samuel Huntingtion, who argued in his book Who Are We? that America as a nation arose out of a specific culture, an Anglo-Protestant culture. Had the nation arisen out of Spanish Catholicism it would have been an entirely different place.
… America’s founding ideas are actually an outgrowth of the nation’s Anglo-Protestant identity. Put another way, that unique identity gave birth to the unique ideas that made us the nation we are.
America’s belief in individual rights, liberty and equality of opportunity could only come about from the specific culture and institutions that were brought to the New World by British settlers, as Huntington notes. That culture — which placed a premium on liberty and representative government — was unique to Anglo-Protestants and provided the worldview from which our Founders forged a nation.
If the 13 colonies were primarily settled by another people — such as the French or Spanish — we would almost certainly not be the country we are today.
Our Anglo-Protestant culture also bequeathed the nation’s strong commitment to hard work and the adoption of English as the all but official language of the land. Ryan endorsed that last quality by delivering his speech in that particular language, not French or Spanish.
It is true that our Founding Fathers were very much animated by ideas, but they also didn’t conjure up our country out of thin air. The reason many of them wanted to separate from the British crown and start a new country was over the feeling they were being denied their rights as Englishmen, not that they one day suddenly thought it’d be better to found a country on the idea that “the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.”
And our Founders were keen to emphasize the cultural identity the citizens of the new country would share.
At a time when Europeans and Americans are debating the question of whether or not certain immigrant groups can assimilate into Western civilization, the multicultural left believes that they should not and that they need not.
Some groups have no real problem adapting to Anglo-Protestant culture. Some groups find it very difficult. Some find it impossible and set out to undermine the cultural foundations of the nation.