Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, left, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speaks with PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff on Sunday night at Aspen Ideas Festival.

Democracy around the world is undergoing a “stress test” in the face of rising authoritarian regimes.

At home, the two major political parties are being taken over by respective “entertainment wings” that are at least partially obviating what used to be a meritocracy.

And the 2020 presidential race is Donald Trump’s to lose thanks to a strong economy boosted by tax cuts and a “guttural” devotion to the incumbent on behalf of the parties’ base of “forgotten men.”

Those were among the key assessments former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan delivered Sunday night during an appearance at the Hotel Jerome on the opening night of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The crowd overflowing into the hallway out of the ballroom heard Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who stepped down in January after declining to run for reelection, being questioned for an hour by Judy Woodruff, the anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour.

Ryan said he wanted the crowd to know that despite the political environment he described as more “hyper-polarized” than he had ever seen in his adult life, the system still works.

The last Congress over which he presided passed over 700 bills, 80 percent of which were bipartisan, Ryan said, “but nobody knows this.”

“You probably know more about Donald Trump’s tweets on a 787 Dreamliner than you do that we overhauled the FAA system to build more airports and build them with a GPS air traffic control system,” he said, also noting the passage of criminal justice reform and efforts to combat sex trafficking. Yet still, “More people know about the consternation and the angst on TV,” Ryan lamented.

But “underneath all the controversy, all the bitterness, all the polarization, there are still men and women of goodwill, who don’t necessarily agree with each other, who are finding ways of working together to get things done,” he said. “This last two years actually showed that.”

The modern media and communications infrastructure means that “aspirational and inclusive politics is not winning the day these days,” Ryan said, assigning blame to “both sides of the aisle.”

“I believe you motivate people to vote for you based on hope and optimism and growth,” Ryan said, which he learned from his political mentor, Jack Kemp. “ … And that is not the kind of politics we are playing today.

“ … What I fear is occurring here is we have what call these entertainment wings of our parties,” said Ryan, who in his retirement from Congress is teaching a class on political science at the University of Notre Dame. “A person can make a lot of money on polarization whether it’s through the internet, websites, [cable or whatever].

“In the old days, like 10 years ago, there used to be a meritocracy in politics,” he continued. “You used to have to work your way up, prove your worth, get things done, compromise, negotiate, pass reforms and prove yourself, and then maybe you could run for president or be a governor or something like that.”

But nowadays, because of the ‘entertainment wings’ of party politics rising to prominence, someone with a good digital following or a strong presence in the media can “ leapfrog what I call the old meritocracy.”

Ryan, who has publicly expressed qualms with much of Trump’s positions on trade, immigration and his temperament, did not explicitly endorse the president for re-election in his remarks, although he called the race “Trump’s to lose.”

That’s because the American economy is the strongest in the developed world right now, Ryan said, which he credited to the tax cuts passed in his Congress and signed by the president. The reform mainly cut corporate taxes, and along with a deregulatory agenda enacted by the Trump administration, that has led to real wage growth for middle and lower class Americans for the first time in a generation, Ryan said.

The ballooning deficit is a problem that could stifle this economic growth, Ryan cautioned, and the only way to get that under control is to deal with entitlement spending. He did not offer many specifics on how to get that done but outlined the problem: two-thirds of federal spending is on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, veterans health care and farm subsidies. The number of retirees in this country is growing in a 20-year timeframe, from 44 million to 77 million, though the generations behind them are lagging in numbers to pay the taxes needed to keep these programs solvent.

An economic recession could hurt the president’s chances at being re-elected, Ryan acknowledged, but short of that, he didn’t seem concerned about most of the Democratic Party’s two dozen candidates vying to replace him. A candidate like Joe Biden would likely be the toughest to beat, but the aging centrist is going to have a hard time getting out of a primary field that has moved to his left, according to Ryan’s analysis.

Middle of the road voters don’t like the tweeting and the noise, but they like the performance of the economy under Trump, Ryan said.

The Republican base voters who swung states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania may be in favor of the things about Trump that repel others, he added.

“He’s taking on political correctness, he’s taking fights that a lot people want to see fought,” Ryan said. “The forgotten man that he speaks to is a person that finally feels like they are being taken seriously. … That is the guttural core of what I would call the party base right now, the Trump base.”

Woodruff attempted to bait him: “And setting a good example for our children, for the next generation?” The audience cheered at her remark.

Ryan didn’t take the bait. “I answered your question,” he said, and pivoted to what he said is the bigger underlying issue. Democracy is undergoing a “stress test” around the world right now; it’s not just Donald Trump, he said. 

“You are having a hard time seeing democracy get through the ugliness and the messiness of free societies in the 21st century,” he said. “I think we are going to pass this test but I think we have to do more to make sure that we do.

“... What I worry about is, is our system of self determination, liberty, freedom, constitutional government going to be able to persist against a country of 1.4 billion people run by one guy, or maybe seven people, that is leaner, meaner and can make quicker decisions? Is democracy going to be able to survive in the test that is going to happen with these illiberal dictatorships? That to me is the far more important question for the 21st century, not the populistic politics of the moment.”

Ryan said he thinks we are “going to do fine,” despite what is likely to be a “bumpy road.” That’s because “free people are always going to come out on top, because that is where you get creativity and innovation,” he said.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.