Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Problem With Ideas

Our institutions presume that interests are real and that it's usually impossible to satisfy them all.
ryan and obama

Paul Ryan gave a speech yesterday on “the state of American politics”. It wasn’t very good, and Daniel Larison ably criticizes it here.

The problem wasn’t just Ryan’s refusal to speak the name of Donald Trump, whose  campaign was the obvious occasion for his remarks. It was the curiously abstract perspective that he offered in alternative to Trump’s vitriolic populism. By my count, Ryan referred to “ideas” more than twenty times in less than fifteen minutes. He never used the word “interest” and offered just one example of an idea with significant consequences for many Americans: the Kemp-Roth tax reform of 1981.

Ryan’s emphasis on ideas–and antique ones at that–reflects the weakness of the conservative movement. Trump, Clinton, and Sanders enthusiastically appeal to citizens’ interests in economic stability, national security, and group representation. Movement conservatives, on the other hand, approach politics as a legal brief or seminar in political philosophy.

Ryan contends that this intellectualized style is consistent with our tradition of government. America, he claims, was founded on an idea. Therefore, polite discussion about principles is the appropriate currency of politics.

That’s not how the Framers saw it. In Federalist 10, Publius argues that conflict between opposed and sometimes irreconciliable interests is the essence of politics:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

Ryan may be reluctant to admit the role of interests because of his Kempist optimism that there’s some set of policies that benefit rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uncredentialed alike. Philosophical disputes are central, on this view, because everyone’s interests are fundamentally aligned. But what if there is no universal good in which all can hope to share? In that case, we can’t avoid asking who really benefits from any given measure.

Ryan is right to insist that conflicts between interests be resolved institutionally rather than by disorderly means. But our institutions presume that interests are real and that it’s usually impossible to satisfy them all. The Framers, in other words, knew that politics is about choosing winners and losers. In that respect, Trump understands their legacy better than Paul Ryan.



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