Fresh from her invisible, starring role at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last week, long-dead novelist Ayn Rand moved north to Charlotte, N.C., this week to continue her ghostly domination of the U.S. 2012 presidential election.
Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren took the first shot at the doyenne of unfettered capitalism and the author of the 55-year-old doorstopping novel Atlas Shrugged: “The Republican vision is clear: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own,’ ” she told her fellow Democrats.
Former president Bill Clinton made an even clearer dismissal: “We believe ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’ ”
As delighted as the Democrats were to raise the spectre of Rand, the Republicans the week before were keen to banish it.
“The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves,” said Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, directly repudiating his former advocacy of Rand’s philosophy of radical selfishness.
Nothing demonstrates the author’s abiding influence more powerfully than the desperate attempts of her newly most-prominent acolyte to shrug it off.
To care for others, Rand remonstrated in all her pages of lecturing prose, is to invite doom. Altruism is “contemptible evil” and taxation a form of slavery that will inevitably “destroy those without whom we would not be able to survive” – i.e., capitalists. And those who cannot defend or care for themselves – such as the disabled – should be left strictly to their own devices.
“Misfortune is not a claim to slave labour,” she declared.
Before he rose to join the presidential ticket, Mr. Ryan said Atlas Shrugged “taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are,” adding that it “inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.” Today, he is equally insistent that his lifelong enthusiasm was just a youthful misunderstanding.
But such flips are commonplace in politics. What’s remarkable is the continuing impact of this famously turgid novel, first published in 1957 and almost universally condemned as unreadable by literary critics ever since.
Originally published in a then-audacious print run of 100,000 copies, Atlas Shrugged currently finds almost half a million buyers a year, its late-life success mirroring the rise of Tea Party extremism in U.S. politics. Its fans see a remarkable overlap between the big-government policies of President Barack Obama’s administration and the dystopian fantasy world of Atlas Shrugged, which is so disabled by government interference that its heroic capitalists throw off their chains, go on strike and let it burn.
In bailing out banks and auto companies, many pundits and bloggers have charged, Mr. Obama was acting out the very moral drama imagined by Rand, setting off a “downward spiral,” according to one Wall Street Journal editorialist, that will continue “until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.”
Defending disproportionately low taxes for the rich as necessary incentives for “job creators,” 21st-century Republicans preach a philosophy that horrified conservatives when Rand first explained it. Today, it inspires figures as diverse as former U.S. central banker Alan Greenspan, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and actress Sharon Stone.
Although many on the religious right are leery of Rand’s stern atheism, Atlas Shrugged has become holy scripture among popular right-wing television pundits. Protesters at Tea Party rallies hold signs reading, “Who is John Galt?” – the first sentence of the novel – and “Abolish Socialism or Atlas will Shrug.” Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul is a devoted fan.
Rand’s ascendance may offend liberals and traditionalists alike, but it is admirable in one important respect, according to Yale University history professor Beverly Gage. Unlike modern liberals, Prof. Gage argued in a recent article, conservatives are eager to embrace ideas. And the political canon they have assembled, with Atlas Shrugged on the top shelf, is a vital resource in sustaining their movement.