The Ryan Pick Confirms: This Election Is More About the Past Than the Future

The Republican VP nominee is young, but the political debate between now and November is largely about how far back into history we want America to go.


The selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate is appropriate for many reasons, not the least of which is that it highlights the size of the chasm that now exists in American politics. Just a few hours after the announcement was made, on a Saturday morning in mid-August in a state trending Democratic, the New York Times' Nate Silver declared Ryan to be the "most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential spot since at least 1900."

1900 is as good a date as any to start. Political operatives eternally preach that elections are about the future, but this time around I'm not so sure. It's easy to argue that the coming race is more about what has passed as history over the last 100 years: what we've learned as a nation. What we've seen as a people. What we've discovered as scholars and scientists. What we've endured as a country on the edge of virtually everything that goes on in this world. And what we want to do with all of that experience.

Do we want to go back a hundred years? Do we want to go back 50? Do we want to gingerly step ahead? Have the past few decades been good or bad? And what policies today can best fix the mistakes we have made? These are the questions that we should be asking our candidates, and that they should be asking us. Otherwise, we will continue to drift along, more in denial than in decline, failing to pay our bills, ignoring our own national needs, and pretending the world of our children will be better than our own.

This is why Ryan's entrance into the national campaign is very good thing. There is nothing moderate or ambiguous about him. And that is one reason why he seems so popular with those Americans who are so annoyed about the present and so downright concerned about the future. Vast corporate power. Small, ineffective government. A great divide between rich and poor. This was America in 1900, was it not? And isn't it what we are mostly talking about in politics today, in the presidential race and beyond?

The good old days! When the federal government had neither the political will nor the legal authority to punish banks for alleged wrongdoing. We just saw evidence of such impotence last week with the Justice Department's retreat from a possible case against Goldman Sachs. The good old days! When corporate power dominated the U.S. Supreme Court. Did you know that the Chamber of Commerce did not lose a single case on the merits at the high court this past term?

The good old days! When government wasn't always around. Never mind the addled federal government. Since President Obama took office, ABC News reported in June, "636,000 state and local jobs have been cut. In 2011 alone, 113,000 jobs were cut in local schools, 68,000 jobs were cut in local government administration, and 78,000 jobs were cut in state government administration, according to a Commerce Department report." This is why our courts are closed and our schools are overcrowded.

The good old days! When minorities and the poor were disenfranchised. Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, we are back to the days of the poll tax. As Ari Berman and others have so well chronicled, the "voter fraud" measures in Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania are little more than pernicious actions by officials to disenfranchise citizens. Remember Bill Internicola? The 91-year-old decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge was told by Florida that he couldn't vote because he wasn't a U.S. citizen.

The good old days! When women had little or no reproductive rights. Forty years after contraceptive bans were voided and abortion rights recognized, the social compact over those divisive rulings is gone. Rachel Maddow wrote in February of the "mainstream Republican embrace of an antiabortion movement that no longer just marches on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade to criminalize abortion; it now marches on the anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut holding signs that say 'The Pill Kills.'"

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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