Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Since Paul Ryan announced he would be departing the hallowed halls of Congress for an undeserved — and probably quite comfortable — retirement, I’ve been revisiting my one-sided relationship with the speaker. My emotional history with Ryan, which I recounted last year, started with real admiration and ended with intense loathing.
But as much as I dislike the man, his impending departure hasn’t given me the pleasure I thought it might. The thing is, Ryan’s exit doesn’t change too much. He’ll probably be succeeded as Republican leader by either Steve Scalise or Kevin McCarthy, a servant of big oil and an empty suit, respectively. The Republican Party will be a poisonous institution long after Ryan lets go of the speaker’s gavel.
So, instead of chronicling his many sins, which have been ably covered elsewhere, I wanted to use this column to talk about Ryan’s relationship with Washington, D.C., political culture. The story of Paul Ryan is the story of why political Washington — its priorities, its morality, its social codes — totally sucks.
D.C. prizes being polite over being moral. A coherent moral code would judge federal politicians — who control an apparatus of tremendous economic, social and military power — by whether they use this power justly. Instead, D.C. politicos tend to care more about whether you’re friendly at dinner parties. Having reprehensible beliefs about public policy is all right, but it’s not okay to advance those goals in a way that’s boorish or uncouth.
These warped values were essential to Ryan’s rise. His agenda gives billion-dollar handouts to corporations like Apple and takes health care away from poor families. He would love nothing more than to gut Medicare and starve Social Security. His life’s mission is class warfare — and not the good kind.
For years, that mattered little to the political class, which painted Ryan as a good guy, a reasonable guy, a smart guy. Of course, Ryan isn’t reasonable, smart or good, but he possesses the kind of oily charm that goes a long way in the nation’s capital. There’s nothing in Ryan’s voting record to suggest he cares one whit about poor people, and yet D.C. journalists wrote credulous and nauseating profiles about his serious attempts to make the Republican Party the party of the poor.
Ryan perpetrated a con on D.C. journalists, pundits, lobbyists and politicians. And because D.C. folks judge a public official’s character largely by whether they seem earnest on Meet the Press, it worked for years.
Another reason D.C. sucks: It rewards submission to authority. It’s a deeply held truism in D.C. political culture that your network determines your career advancement. I’ve interned on Capitol Hill for the past few months, and I’ve repeatedly heard people say — with completely straight faces — things like “Your network is your life” and “If you’re not networking, you’re losing.”
So if your career is frequently decided not by merit but by ability to impress powerful people, you, well, kiss ass. The most powerful people in D.C. are often the most successful ass-kissers. As Mark Leibovich writes in his misanthropic masterpiece This Town, D.C. is “Suck-up City.”
Unfortunately, this system of career advancement teaches future leaders to constantly acquiesce to authority. Ryan did a lot of bootlicking as he progressed from young Hill staffer, to wunderkind congressman, to committee chairman, to speaker of the House. He mastered suck-up city.
But by the time he reached a position of serious authority, Ryan’s backbone had atrophied to the point of disfunction. While I don’t want to exaggerate Ryan and Trump’s policy differences, there were clear moments during the 2016 campaign — such as Trump’s racist attacks on a Mexican-American judge and the Access Hollywood tape — when Ryan felt a tug at his shriveled conscience. And he couldn’t do anything about it, because the city that made him had also broken him.
While some halfheartedly cheer as a monster leaves elected office, Washington political culture remains intact. In the battle for a more compassionate political future, we should never forget that our enemies aren’t individual men and women in government, as grotesque as they may be, but the systems and culture that gave them power.
Max Foley-Keene, opinion editor, is a sophomore government and politics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.