If We Had a Liberal Media We Wouldn't Have Had a Paul Ryan

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Farewell, Paul Ryan, you smirking fraud. Thank you for fucking off back to Wisconsin, to be with your family, at least until you accept one of the consulting or shadow lobbying jobs you are already being offered, which will inevitably bring you back to the Washington area, where you will actually spend the rest of your lucrative career, unless you someday decide to run for Wisconsin governor, god help them.


Other commentators have explored, at length, Ryan’s abhorrent ideology and history of dishonesty in support of that ideology. He has done nothing, in his years in office, to make the country a better place for anyone but a subset of very high net-worth individuals and families. But he does have one notable accomplishment: His entire career exposed the concept of the “liberal media” as a fiction. Because if “the media” were meaningfully liberal—if the vast majority of editors, producers, reporters, anchors, correspondents, and executives at large, corporate-owned press outlets were “liberal” in any but the most superficial sense—Paul Ryan would never have established the reputation has been accused of betraying.

Paul Ryan is a radical. He made this clearer before Obama, when he was solidly on the right flank of a Bush-era Republican Party already in the process of abandoning any claims to moderation (Bush’s Social Security privatization proposal did not go far enough for Ryan). But the media’s longstanding and economically illiterate habit of treating conservative deficit hysteria with unthinking credulity allowed Ryan (who, like his counterparts on the left, knows that deficits don’t matter, except as political cudgels) to rebrand himself as a Fiscal Hawk. His long-term, highly ideological project—to destroy America’s already meager social insurance programs and radically redistribute wealth upward—became about making Serious Choices to address the crisis of debt. And then, the plaudits began rolling in.

The sheer admiration the political press has shown for him since then can’t even be explained by something like his popularity—he is deeply unpopular, almost entirely because his ideas are deeply unpopular, and that is in spite of a years-long campaign by our liberal media to launder those ideas. If longtime Washington journalists treat plans to literally end Medicare, among the most popular programs in the history of American governance, as not just “serious” but arguably necessary, by what possible definition can the elite media be said to be “liberal”?

One recurring line in the political obituaries for Speaker Ryan is that he pulled one over on the press, which was eager to find any reasonable opposition to Obama in a sea of birthers and conspiracy-peddlers. That’s partly true, but it’s hardly exculpatory. Because it depends on the press having been bamboozled, and Ryan is not actually a particularly skilled bamboozler. What he was up to was always obvious, if you paid attention to his actual record, or compared his claims to his proposals. The proof of this is that it has always been very easy for partisan center-left critics—that is, people whose politics are supposedly the same as those of your average member of media elite—to see Ryan clearly. Jonathan Chait, about as conventional a center-left Democrat as they come, knew Ryan’s game from day one, and did a good job, over many years, identifying his project and documenting his dishonesty.

Ezra Klein, on the other hand, was bamboozled by Ryan after he made the transition from normal liberal blogger to fully automated post-partisan self-driving technocrat. The partisan lens was the correct one with Ryan, as was obvious to everyone to the left of Joe Manchin—which, it turns out, did not include the majority of the nonpartisan Beltway press, who generally refused to acknowledge that our foremost Congressional wonk’s proposals were both radical and politically toxic, and that his actual goal was not “fiscal responsibility” but the total transformation of American social and economic life, in favor of the “makers” and against the “takers.”

Even as they revel in forcing Democrats to account for the unpopularity of Nancy Pelosi, the political press has never really acknowledged, let alone asked anyone else to account for, Ryan’s broad unpopularity. It could be argued that he did about as much damage to Mitt Romney’s presidential bid as Sarah Palin did to John McCain’s, and that both of them left office as deeply divisive figures supported only by a passionate fringe, though only one of them is actually talked about that way, because only one of them boasts Mike Allen as a member of that fringe.


No media ecosystem with a systemic liberal bias would’ve ever allowed an Ayn Rand acolyte offering warmed-over Jack Kempism to be treated as a serious person with important ideas. If rank-and-file members of the media actually evinced any understanding of ideology and political economy, Ryan simply couldn’t have gotten away with it. Imagine an avowed Marxist-Leninist ascending to the speakership as a Democrat, and a “Meet the Press” panel debating her New Economic Policy as, well, maybe a bit of a political lift, but something Republicans are really going to have to take seriously.

Ryan’s only truly canny move was that he didn’t personally engage in the culture wars (not that he rejected them—like all “mainstream” Republicans he knows that the popular culture warriors are necessary to get the unpopular supply-siders elected), making it easier for the press to treat him as a responsible alternative to Those Republicans. Ryan grasped, consciously or not, that the “liberalism” of the mainstream media is just a reflection of the geographical and professional milieu in which elite journalism is produced, and it features no actual political principles beyond cosmopolitanism. (Even that cosmopolitanism is undermined by the self-loathing instincts that lead nonpartisan journalists to constantly adopt the conservative framing of white, rural America as more “real” than urban, multi-racial America.)


This is partly why just about the only “liberal” issue in recent memory on which “the media” was out in front of the general populace is the humanity of LGBT people (or, to be more accurate, LGB people)—a courtesy that they have not, by and large, extended to various other groups under regular attack by the forces of modern conservatism. Beyond that facile caricature of identity politics, which recognizes extremism only when it threatens their similarly credentialed peers and colleagues, there is nothing—a void in the place where a conventionally political person has a worldview.

Sometimes even liberal and left-wing critics of the elite political press concede to the right that, sure, even if both sides-ism and The View From Nowhere and economic pressures tend to drive the way journalists cover politicians more than personal beliefs, yes, most individual journalists are personally left-of-center. Paul Ryan taught us that even that concession goes too far—it assumes that the most influential members of the Washington press corps even understand politics well enough for that label to make sense.


They are constantly trying to tell us that they don’t.