Paul Ryan Fears the 30 Percent

NORTH CANTON, OH - AUGUST 16: Republican vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at a campaign event at Walsh  University on August 16, 2012 in North Canton, Ohio. Ryan is campaigning in the battleground state of Ohio after being named as the vice presidential candidate last week by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Photo: Jeff Swensen/2012 Getty Images

Mitt Romney, in his infamous secretly recorded remarks, divided the American electorate into the lazy-entitled-non-taxpaying 47 percent who support President Obama, and everybody else. Ryan Grim has a speech by Paul Ryan using a different (and, from the right-wing perspective, more hopeful) division of 70-30:

"Seventy percent of Americans want the American dream. They believe in the American idea. Only 30 percent want their welfare state," Ryan said. "Before too long, we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are takers, not makers."

Romney’s 47 percent mashed together the proportion of Americans not owing federal income taxes with the proportion of Obama voters. Where does Ryan’s 30 percent come from?

The figure seems to have been concocted by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks made the 70-30 case in The Battle, published two years ago, a book I reviewed. Like Romney’s 47 percent riff, the 70-30 argument is an attempt to apply to the Obama years an Ayn Rand–inspired analysis dividing society into virtuous makers and parasitic takers. Brooks and Ryan are close intellectual collaborators — here they are co-writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed, here is Brooks introducing a Ryan speech at his think tank, and here he is fulsomely praising Ryan’s ideas as the beacon of the Republican Party. (Brooks has also influenced Romney’s thinking.)

I’d encourage you to check out my review of Brooks’s book, but the summary is that the argument is a loose pastiche of factual misstatements and illogic. Brooks argues that 30 percent of Americans hate capitalism, the 30 percent being racial minorities, liberal academics, and, most alarming to Brooks, young people. This 30 percent coalition seized power, under the noses of the freedom-loving 70 percent majority, by exploiting the economic crisis. But Obama is cleverly attempting to use his power to expand dependency and lock in his majority. Later in the book, attempting to reconcile his case with the au currant conservative argument that George W. Bush had also betrayed conservatism, he insisted that this 30 percent coalition had been running the country “for years,” never considering how this made an utter hash of his theory.

Brooks’s case is a variation of the “2012 or Never” arguments that have proliferated on the right. Ryan has been making his version of it as well, frequently decrying the approach of a tipping point at which the “takers” outnumber the “makers” and freedom is extinguished forever. It’s a mishmash of an underlying reality — demographic change that is making the electorate more liberal — and the fantasy of a secret Obama dependency plot.

This is how the 30 percent nightmare has morphed into the 47 percent nightmare: The twin engines of demographics and Obama socialism have expanded what was once a small minority into a prospective new ruling class. Ryan’s statistic is different than Romney’s, but the sentiment is essentially the same.