Paul Ryan has a long way to go if he wants to restore civility and trust in American politics.
The Republican House leader implicitly criticized many in his own party this week for playing to voters’ fears and undermining their confidence in the institutions of government.
Ryan called for a more confident America, one in which “we question each other’s ideas vigorously, but we don’t question each other’s motives.”
“People with different ideas are not traitors,” he said. “They are not our enemies.”
You wouldn’t know it listening to some of the louder voices on the right.
Elephant in the room
Ryan, who was his party’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, didn’t call out Donald Trump by name, the man Republicans are about to nominate for president.
He didn’t have to. No one is appealing to people’s anxieties more than their aspirations than the Manhattan businessman. Nor is anyone playing identity politics as adroitly as he is.
But it’s not for lack of trying.
Ryan bemoaned a political discourse that seems to have lost all sense of decorum and respect.
It “did not use to be this bad,” he said, “and it does not have to be this way.” Skepticism of government is healthy, “but when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions.”
Quite so. Which makes it important that a Republican should say this for it’s the Republican Party that has done — and is doing — more than anything to erode that trust.
In the last few weeks alone, Republicans in Congress have refused to even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and declined to invite the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, to give his customary testimony on the president’s spending plan.
Americans have come to expect this sort of obstructionism. Republicans have abandoned all norms and been playing constitutional hardball since Obama was elected in 2008.
Tearing down norms
Paul Waldman recently argued in The Week that Republicans’ extremism, “troubling though that may be,” is not the biggest problem in American politics. (Read our in-depth article from earlier this week on that topic.) No, says Waldman, it’s that Republicans decided some time ago that there are rules and there are norms and while rules need to be followed, norms can be torn down whenever they find that doing so advances their momentary political goals.
That’s how filibustering has become the new normal and why it now takes sixty votes in the Senate rather than a majority to get things done.
It’s why so many diplomatic, judicial and lower-agency vacancies aren’t being filled by a majority in Congress that refuses to give the president a “win”.
It’s why every budget now raises the risk of a government shutdown.
It’s how Republicans came to toy with defaulting on America’s debt.
There is no law against any of it. Only conventions, whose function, as Waldman puts it, “is to permit government to operate in something like an efficient fashion.”
When a political party treats governing like a joke, it’s perhaps no surprise, argues Waldman, that it winds up picking a joke of a candidate for president.
You push your voters to the least serious person, the one who “tells it like it is” — in other words, the one with the most contempt not just for the norms of politics but for the norms of civilized human behavior. That’s what Republicans have ended up with. And they pretend that they can’t understand how such a thing could have happened.
Eliot A. Cohen goes one further, arguing in The American Interest that it’s not just Trump or Republicans. “What we increasingly lack, and have lacked for some time, is a sense of the moral underpinning of republican (small r) government,” he writes.
Whatever happened to integrity? Cohen wonders. Or modesty? Or selflessness?
American culture, he laments, is today nastier, more nihilistic and far less inhibited than ever before. “It breeds alternating bouts of cynicism and hysteria and now it has given us Trump.”
Ryan’s speech is a start. But reversing such cultural and political forces which have been building up for years is going to take more than exhorting politicians to play nice.