Paul Ryan hasn’t been Speaker of the House long, but he already knows how to get favorable press in the New York Times. Sunday’s edition of the Times pictured Ryan as fighting what the paper terms “polarizing populism” and the “angry insurgent refrain blasting into the winter primaries.” In contrast to all this anger, Ryan told the Times that he favors “an agenda that’s inspirational, that’s inclusive, that’s optimistic.” The Times mentions the Trump campaign as the current focus of much of the polarizing anger that it finds so troubling, but Ryan himself says that the battle against the forces of political darkness has been going on for far longer than the current campaign: “I remember working for Jack [Kemp] fighting the Buchanan wing of the party on similar issues.”
Of course, if the “inspirational,” “inclusive,” and “optimistic” policies touted by Ryan worked well for Republicans, there would have been a Vice President Kemp, not to mention a Vice President Ryan. The reason Ryan didn’t become Vice President wasn’t because he wasn’t sufficiently “inclusive” and “optimistic;” it was at least in part because many white working class voters outside the South chose to stay home rather than vote for either Obama or Romney. Such voters concluded that a party that drives down their wages by supporting transnational trade agreements and by at least acquiescing in mass immigration wasn't worth voting for. Other than burbling about optimism and inclusion, it’s not clear that Ryan has much to offer such voters today. In fact, before becoming Speaker, Ryan was a reliable supporter of both transnational trade agreements and mass immigration.
And concerns over declining wages have only grown more salient since 2012. According to a Pew study released last week, the middle class shrunk significantly between 1971 and 2014. Many of those who left the middle class during that period grew richer, but those who remain middle class are getting poorer: Pew found that the median income of middle class households was 4% less in 2014 than it had been in 2000, and the median wealth of those households declined by 28% from 2001 to 2013. Any candidate hoping to succeed next year is going to have to find a way to address the real economic concerns those numbers represent.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.