The philosopher as running mate

There is a video on YouTube, apparently uploaded earlier this year, of Paul Ryan doing his best to politely get away from a young Catholic trying to offer him a Bible while haranguing him about Ayn Rand. This is just one of many instances of Ryan getting (unwanted) attention drawn to his previous statements about his admiration for a philosopher many consider controversial.

What makes the Ryan/Rand connection an interesting part of the 2012 campaign for news media, and Ryan’s Democratic critics, is that it is a way to talk about policy in a narrative form. The coverage becomes part of a story about Paul Ryan’s life disguised as a policy discussion. “Is the Ryan budget a product of his 'Randian' philosophy? When did he start reading her and how has this influenced his political stances?”

With that the coverage starts leaning full force toward a process story about how the Romeny/Ryan campaign will handle this “controversy.” The beginning of a process story usually means the end of a policy story.

This, of course, is not the first time a philosopher has made her or his way onto the campaign trail becoming part of a candidate’s narrative.

In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s critics painted him as a radical for his supposed love of Saul Alinsky. Just as Rand supposedly makes Ryan an anti-government radical, Alinsky made Obama equally scary for his critics. Alinsky became shorthand, for those critics, for political radicalism packaged in the more acceptable form of a talented politician.

A classic moment from the 2000 presidential campaign came on December 13, 1999 during a Republican presidential primary debate. The candidates were asked “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with, and why?” Steve Forbes gave a bit of a fumbling answer about John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and, when attempting to go for a third, was cut off. Alan Keyes cited “the founders of this country” and proceeded to ramble about tariffs and taxes.

George W. Bush trounced them both by simply saying, “Christ. Because he changed my heart.” Unlike Forbes and Keyes, Bush was asked to elaborate, to which he replied, “Well, if they don’t know it’s gonna be hard to explain.”

The philosopher as running mate can be a double-edged sword.

These philosophers are complex and campaign discourse does not always lend itself well to complexity thus giving an inaccurate picture of the candidate.

At the same time, there is something true about the philosopher’s influence on the candidate. President Bush’s Christianity is essential to understanding him as a political leader. Alinsky wrote about community organizing and social change and community organizing is an important part of President Obama’s personal narrative.

The sound bite understanding of a philosophy becomes shorthand for the policy positions of the candidate. It is one more way for voters to have some insight into the candidate’s thinking. Unfortunately for the Romney/Ryan ticket Ayn Rand is often summed up in one of her book titles: The Virtue of Selfishness. In this case the double-edged sword may be cutting in only one direction.

Note: The favorite philosopher question from the 2000 debate can be found here on the C-Span website. The question comes at about 1:13:05.

Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University and an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University. He tweets at @rspicer.

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