Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is the latest episode in a story of conflict within the Republican Party that has many chapters. It has been said a thousand times that, in the long competition between the party's radical base and its slightly less radical leadership, the choice of the extreme budget-cutter Ryan represents a shift toward the base, and that is certainly true. But it is also a development in another, related story.
The record of the last decade or so suggests that the GOP these days is animated by two main goals. First, it seeks unchallengeable, absolute power. Its modus operandi for achieving that goal has been to use institutional power — of corporations, the courts and legislatures — to acquire even more institutional power. A recent case in point is the drive in Republican-dominated states around the country to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as the poor and minorities, by legislating onerous requirements for voting.
The other goal has been a less familiar one. More and more, Republicans have exhibited a strong desire to take up residence in an imaginary world, an alternate reality — one in which global warming is found to be a fraud perpetrated by the world's top scientists, Obama turns out to be a Kenyan-born Muslim (and a socialist), budgets can be slashed without social pain, firing government employees reduces unemployment, tax cuts for the wealthy replenish government coffers, and so forth. Perhaps it seems odd to identify this retreat from reality as a political goal, but past ideological movements on the left as well as the right offer many examples of the power of such a longing.
Conscientious fact-checkers in the media have rebutted individual items that make up the GOP's factitious universe. Such efforts are always worthwhile but are likely to backfire with the believers. Once they have been lured away from reality by ideology, fantasy is no longer a disadvantage for them; rather, it is the source of the appeal. The deceptions are popular not in spite of their untruthfulness but precisely because of it. When the target of the insurrection is not only some hated rival or establishment but the factual universe, with all its unwelcome restrictions and psychological burdens, then the more flagrant the violation of truth, the keener the thrill.
Often, the will to power and the will to fantasy go together. As the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century discovered, the two can reinforce each other. Such seemed to be the explicit ambition of a top Bush adviser when, at the height of the Iraq War, he famously said that the administration had delivered a coup de grâce to nothing less than "the reality-based community," for "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." It was a classic statement of the totalitarian logic of the propaganda artist in power. What better way to win support for propaganda than to abolish the reality that contradicts it? The adviser's boast was premature, but his logic was clear: If we don't like the real world, we can do away with it.
Those dreams of omnipotence expired in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conflict between the will to power and the will to fantasy lived on in new forms. The career of Sarah Palin offers an illustration. She and reality were strangers, as the world saw in her interviews. Her mind was almost a blank slate, and she showed neither inclination nor aptitude to remedy the lack. To draw her into that world was a kind of cruel mistake. She soon withdrew from it, deciding, after protracted dithering, to stay out of this year's presidential race and retreat into a world in which her talents and temperament were in fact stellar: the world of mythmaking and spin on Fox News. It is entirely in keeping with this choice that her husband, Todd Palin, has now turned up in NBC's militarized "reality" show, Stars Earn Stripes.
There was a lesson in Sarah Palin's withdrawal. For all the triumphs of cash-fueled political manipulation, the sphere of policy and governmental decisions has its dangers for the addicts of unreality. Fantasies can be a path to power, but they can also become a costly self-indulgence.
Palin's balking at reality's edge was only one of many twists and turns in the winding path the GOP has followed between power and fantasy. Sometimes it has tipped one way, sometimes the other. Twice — in the presidential primaries of 2008 and 2012 — the party hearkened for a time to the siren call of the unreal world of its base (Mike Huckabee in 2008; Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich this year) before veering away to enter, with conspicuous distaste, into an arranged marriage with the more sober choice (John McCain in 2008, Romney this year).
But now comes the choice of Ryan. It is a decided — possibly a decisive — tip in the direction of fantasy. To be sure, Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin. He is a veritable policy wonk, but also an ideologue. Ideologues can know a lot, and Ryan does, but their knowledge is so tendentiously selected that information, instead of connecting them to what is real, actually armors them against it. Such is the case with Ryan. The media spotlight has been on the renowned Ryan budget, passed twice by the Republican majority in the House, but even more telling is his stand on global warming: he is a major-league denier. All the most prestigious academies of science around the world, including the American National Academy of Sciences, agree that warming is real, man-made and well advanced. Ryan demurs. He has accused climate scientists of a "perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion" in order to "intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change." He has voted against all measures to remedy the problem. He has suggested that winter in Wisconsin is evidence against warming, which he has called "a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow."
As for that budget, it promises to achieve balance while providing no such thing, instead calling for broad tax cuts without specifying spending cuts anywhere near the level that would be needed as offsets to bring it into balance. Ryan's budget depends entirely on one of the hoariest false promises in politics, the free lunch, thereby contributing to what Paul Krugman rightly calls an economic "culture of fraud."
The GOP base is fired up. But the cost could be high. Even today's electoral politics may still have one foot remaining in the reality-based community. Ordinary voters may not be much like Diogenes, carrying a lamp through the world in search of an honest man, but they are much less likely to be passionately attached to a long list of fantasies than the GOP fanatics. That this is so could be a saving grace of American politics in our otherwise spin-stupefied era.