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Paul Ryan Isn’t Wrong On Poverty. But The Media Is.


“Paul Ryan’s Inner City Education,” by BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, is a decent read but one that can’t avoid the expected media treatment of political efforts to combat poverty. In this case the title gives away where it’s going: It’s time for that sheltered white guy to learn that there are poor people! The efforts by communities to combat poverty must take the necessary backseat to political expediency.

Let’s look at how the story frames Ryan’s efforts, and how that framing harms the success of anti-poverty efforts.

He also knows how it looks. There is a long tradition in American politics of campaigning in Harlem to win votes in Westchester, and more than one critic has accused him of using disadvantaged people of color as stage props in his political ascent. He’s sensitive about this perception, and moves to preempt it almost immediately after we meet in the predawn hours at a downtown Marriott Courtyard, where it’s still too early for the mini-muffins and microwavable breakfast sandwiches. I am the first reporter he has allowed on one of these trips, and he spends a good deal of time encouraging me to ignore him.

“This story isn’t about me,” he tells me. “It’s about Pastor Webster and the work he’s doing in this community. I’m just an observer.”

Emphasis mine. Paul Ryan was 23 years old when he became an aide to Jack Kemp, the optimistic GOP politician known for his anti-poverty efforts. None of this work on poverty is a novel concept for Ryan. Ryan was Kemp’s researcher and speech-writer and has spoken at length about his appreciation of Kemp’s work throughout his time in Congress. A logically consistent conclusion might note that Ryan’s long-term focus on the welfare state was driven by his work with Kemp. Instead Coppins’ take is that Ryan is doing this to combat “a perception” instead of taking Ryan’s statement at face value – he wants to highlight the work of Pastor Webster as a model for community improvement.

And it turns out that the most compelling point in the article is how just one man, in this case Pastor Webster, can make a huge difference in the lives of so many in his or her community. Ryan requesting that Coppins focus on that story makes sense. His goal, which also serves his political interests, is to have the media learn more about community-driven efforts that succeed in hopes of replicating them and inspiring others. For the media, that story must take a back seat of course to the false premise that this is a novel venture for Ryan.  The media’s interest in poverty as a political cudgel instead of sharing stories of success only feeds the impasse preventing open discussions on how to best produce policy.

But he is also a deeply polarizing figure in Washington and beyond, a fact that has largely filtered the responses to his newfound passion for the poor into two categories: swoons and sneers. The reality is that Ryan, like most politicians, operates in the reality somewhere in between House of Cards and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and his political transformation — from right-wing warrior-wonk crusading against the welfare state, to bleeding-heart conservative consumed with a mission to the poor — is one of the most peculiar, and potentially consequential, stories in politics today.

Note Coppins’ overt claim here: Being a right-wing warrior fighting the welfare state and a bleeding-heart conservative consumed with helping the poor are at odds with each other. They aren’t. What Ryan realizes is that the press covers them like they are two different things. Republicans want to put welfare out of business due to a lack of customers not out of a lack of compassion. Every effort they make to do so is either marked as racism, politically craven, or just awkward. This article continues that cliched tradition. It’s another variant of Republicans either being stupid or evil. In this case “awkward” substitutes for stupid and evil get positioned as “political.”

For all the relentless focus the Democrats have put on the welfare state, their results could be accurately described as “left-wing warriors crusading for taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of government employees to maintain the poor.” Or as Bob Woodson, the 76-year-old community organizer who first connected him with Webster, says, “provider driven.” And there is no transition on the left to move to policy that lifts the poor out of poverty. Protection of the providers is paramount and trumps any discussion on outcomes. A political party interested in solving poverty should cheerfully welcome efforts to solve it. The same Democrat intransigence regarding parents’ desire for school choice is on display yet again now that the failures of the war on poverty are coming into focus.

This takes me to another portion of the interview that recalls the controversy over Ryan’s statement about poverty in urban areas.

When I ask him if he can understand how some people might have honestly interpreted his comment as a racial dog whistle, he thinks about it. “Dog whistle… I’d never even heard the phrase before, to be honest with you,” he says. The admission isn’t meant as a dodge, or an excuse. He hails from a state where “diversity” means white people swapping genealogical trivia about their Polish and Norwegian ancestry — his hometown of Janesville, Wis., is 91.7% Caucasian, according to the 2010 census — and he is coming to terms with the fact that he is not equipped with the vocabulary of a liberal arts professor. 

Here we have the reasoning that Ryan hasn’t heard the word dog whistle is that he “hails from a state that is  … 91.7% Caucasian”

Come on. Many left-leaning media outlets often approach 100% Caucasian yet they all seem quite familiar with the term “dog whistle.”

The conclusion that “dog whistle” unfamiliarity is due to being white or from Wisconsin does not hold water. It may be hard for some media types to understand this, but there are people who not see the world through a racial lens because doing so would strike them as actual racism. They don’t find solutions in endless academic vocabulary expansion used to document false assertions. Spending days seeking the secret code behind people’s words has not resulted in a productive dialogue and instead offers an escape valve from one. “Dog whistle” implies you can look into your opponent’s soul as a way to dismiss a logical argument instead of offering a rejoinder — an impossible task and one that uses a logical fallacy. Being unfamiliar with such pathetic tactics to discuss challenging issues should be a mark of character not an aspersion.

While Coppins’ article is certainly an interesting read, I cannot recommend that Republicans — in an attempt to win hearts and minds — subject themselves to this. You will have an out-of-place hand gesture, facial movement, or any other awkward moment immortalized to further make the case that you aren’t “cool.”  If you submit yourself for observation by a person that does not share an understanding of your fundamental philosophy, the end result sadly doesn’t surprise anyone. The focus will be on the “elephant” in the room and not reporting efforts to combat poverty. Rating the politics as paramount stopped a good story from being told. Our best efforts to combat poverty often lie with the ingenuity of individual Americans like Pastor Webster.