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7 Ways Paul Ryan Wants to Betray His Fellow Generation X-ers

The Peter Pan of American conservatism is bursting with immature, half-baked ideas for the country.

Photo Credit: AFP


Last Wednesday in Tampa, Paul Ryan launched himself as the youthful face of his party, and much as been made of what he means to that ship of restless, and by now, somewhat battered, souls that sailed forth onto the American scene between the mid-'60s and mid-'70s. Is he truly a Gen Xer or not? His risk-taking, nose-thumbing at authority and taste for AC/DC and Led Zeppelin fit the image, but in many ways, he bears scant resemblance to his generational compatriots. His rigid political stance, for example, is atypical of a generation famous for its skepticism of institutions and party lines. And his white-bread-dipped-in-mayonnaise style is at odds with many of today’s multiculturally hip late 30- and 40-somethings.

But there’s one key way that Ryan fits a common negative image of Gen X: His is a case of seriously arrested development.

Ryan and I are exactly the same age. I attended the University of Georgia from 1988-'92, when young people were leaning toward the GOP. The political message of unapologetic self-interest was happy news to young folks, dudes in particular, who rejected the Baby Boomers’ collective ethos and really didn’t want to share their toys.

Most of my classmates were decidedly apolitical. Weaned on Watergate, Gen X had seen one disappointing charade in Washington after another, and largely concluded that politics was the realm of snake oil and empty spectacle. Alternative music, technology, entrepreneurial projects, and travel, particularly to post-Communist Europe, were the hot topics. Nearly anything but politics, which seemed unworthy of anyone’s time.

The first Gulf War got a minority of Gen Xers energized – a fact that has largely disappeared from memory. In 1991, a small group of UGA students pitched tents amid the stately neoclassical buildings of north campus to protest. Michael Kirven, co-founder of Bluewolf, a global technology consulting firm, was among them. I spoke to him about what motivated him at the time:

“This was the first issue where I felt like I could do something to make an impact,” Kirven recalls. “You had a clear sense that you could make your case: you were either in favor of the conflict, or against it.” He recalls the hostile environment, the round-the-clock police presence necessary to protect the protesters from angry hecklers. “From 5pm until midnight there was a non-stop parade of people not just disagreeing with us, but angry,” Kirven says. “A few wanted to have meaningful dialogue, but most of them just shouted. They threw things.”

At UGA, the war protesters were outnumbered by the Paul Ryan types, who welcomed the Gulf War as a chance to show off their muscular view of America, forged in the crucible of the Reagan Revolution. They were the Alex Keatons who worshipped wealth and conservative economics, the chicken hawk brigade that loudly supported a war they would never have signed up to fight themselves. Later represented in the punditocracy by the bow-tied Tucker Carlson and his ilk, they favored the novels of Ayn Rand, in which they saw themselves vindicated as misunderstood geniuses surrounded by mediocrity.

Paul Ryan, voted “Biggest Brown-Noser” in high school and born with enough money for Colorado ski trips and a surefire job at his family’s construction company, embraced libertarianism in college, where he interned with Wisconsin senator Bob Kasten and volunteered on the congressional campaign of John Boehner. Clutching his copy of The Fountainhead or driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer job, Ryan’s High Dork partly explains why so many of today’s pundits either give him a pass or pretend that he is a guy with serious ideas. Many of them are also dorks, harboring adolescent fantasies of their own misunderstood genius, hoping that no one will notice the superficiality of their thinking. Paul Ryan is their man – an intellectual slacker whose musings would not hold up for five minutes in a graduate seminar.