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Paul Ryan’s “Blame the Victim” Disease: How He Epitomizes A Horrible New Consensus

Much like coverage of domestic violence or bombs in Gaza, Paul Ryan's poverty plan has a very disturbing hallmark.

Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com


Because there’s no real way to dispute the fundamental moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism without it, the rhetorical trick of blaming the victim is never too far from the surface of American society, regardless of the subject. In pop culture, we hear it when ESPN blowhards  indict women for their partners’ violence. In foreign policy, we see it when  Wall Street Journal Op-Eds blame Palestinian children for the IDF’s bombs. And in the realm of domestic policy, the blame-the-victim logic is so widespread that I struggle to think of even one major political debate in which it isn’t being pushed by Republicans or Democrats. Often, it’s both.

Unsurprisingly, though, no single issue that attracts more widespread support for blaming the victim than poverty, where it’s often taken as a given that a person’s inability to provide herself with the material comforts of a modern life stems from her own shortcomings, rather than the failure of the social and economic system at large. Examples of this can be found in Republican-controlled state legislature initiatives across the country. But, as if to make the lives of everyone (besides the poor) easier, former vice presidential nominee and current House Republican leader Paul Ryan has put many of them together in his newest compendium of wonky Big Ideas, a “discussion draft” of supposedly anti-poverty measures called “ Expanding Opportunity in America.”

Now, while Paul Ryan has  previously and repeatedly mentioned his love of Ayn Rand, the crackpot cult-leader and novelist who made it her life’s mission to turn a sociopathic degree of selfishness into a highbrow political ideology, it’s worth acknowledging upfront that his poverty “draft” is  not nearly as Objectivist as his infamous budgets. Brian Beutler rightly notes that despite its many flaws, Ryan’s draft “proposes spending more taxpayer money on poor people” by expanding the  earned income tax credit — something that Ayn Rand, despite the EITC’s market-oriented construction, would never do. Indeed, Ryan’s ideas for “expanding opportunity” are such a philosophical break with his earlier plans to redistribute income upward that  some have persuasively claimed he has no choice but to disown them, make a clean break with his former self, or risk being totally intellectually incoherent. (He’s a politician, so I think I can guess which option he’ll take.)

But even if we acknowledge all of this, and even if we grant that a run-of-the-mill Republican is preferable to a delusional Objectivist, Ezra Klein and other non-conservative pundits are still going way too far when they argue,  as Klein recently did, that lefties should embrace Ryan’s plan with open arms. Larger EITC or no, Ryan’s plan still rests on a rather fundamental misconception of the poor, one that centrists like Klein may share but that people who want to think of themselves as members of a leftist tradition stretching all the way back to the French Revolution never should: that those who suffer under the capitalist order have no one to blame but themselves.

This is most obvious when you look at the portion of Ryan’s draft that has  attracted the most scorn, the idea that poor people, if they want to use government programs, should sign a “contract” that would outline various steps and benchmarks they’d be responsible for — or else suffer the consequences of undefined “sanctions.” What kind of steps and benchmarks these are, Ryan doesn’t say, which is perhaps a gesture toward his beloved subsidiarity (the Catholic belief that authority should be devolved as much as possible), albeit one that is particularly hollow within the context of a policy that quite literally would have government agents  micromanaging poor people’s lives. The point is, however, that Ryan assumes poverty in America cannot be adequately addressed by doing seemingly obvious things like  giving people money or creating  well-paying jobs that tackle vital public needs, but that it instead requires the poor to learn from a government-provided surrogate parent how to wrest themselves free from that dreaded “ tailspin of culture” Ryan’s previously warned us about.