Paul Ryan's convention speech heralds a post-factual age

Time and again, Ryan mislead, misspoke, and made Demonstrably Misleading Assertions.

Paul Ryan made his big speech at the Republican National Convention last night, and ThinkProgress summed it up best: "An energetic, post-factual speech by Ryan." Time and again, Ryan mislead, misspoke, and made "Demonstrably Misleading Assertions".

If you're interested in the politics of it, he's also been attacked on style – Mother Jones' Kevin Drum recalled Harrison Ford's famous snipe to George Lucas, "you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it" – and doubtless, his "John Galtesque" evocation of the mythical grey, socialist hellhole of Obama's America will win over some. But if Ryan gets away with some of what he said, political discourse in the United States has a lot to answer for.

The most egregious of Ryan's statements was an attack on Obama for failing to protect a General Motors plant in his constituency:

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.

The plant's closure was announced in June 2008, over six months before Obama was inaugurated. Ryan probably knows this, because on 3 June, he issued a statement bemoaning the closure.

Given his (completely undeserved) reputation for being a serious, competent man when it comes to fiscal policy, one would expect Ryan to be better when dealing with those matter. Sadly not.

Ryan said "President Obama has added more debt than any other president before him". In fact, as the New Republic point out, by far the largest aspect of this decade's deficit projection is the Bush-era tax cuts – and unlike the bailout and stimulus, those tax cuts are unlikely to be a temporary measure, and certainly wouldn't be repealed by Romney.

Ryan also tried to blame Obama for the US downgrade. S&P, in their rationale for the downgrade, explicitly blame the Bush tax cuts, and explicitly blame Congressional Republicans – of which Ryan is, of course, one – for the failure to scrap them. And more generally, the blame for the fear of a US default in the Summer of 2010 lies exclusively with the Republicans, who engineered the debt ceiling show-down.

Ryan also attacked Obama for not acting on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, a bi-partisan body, on which Ryan sat, formed to examine the national debt. Obama didn't do a whole lot with the recommendations – but only Ryan actively voted against the report.

If he can't avoid misleading even in the areas where he claims special competence, Ryan certainly isn't going to be a stickler for accuracy in the broader debate. A lightning round-up of various "facts", checked:

  • Ryan said the stimulus "cost $831 billion – the largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal government." As Ezra Klein notes, "the Congressional Research Service estimates (pdf) that World War II cost $4.1 trillion in 2011 dollars. That was the biggest one-time expenditure ever, not the stimulus. Ryan is simply incorrect."
  • Ryan attacked Obama for "raiding" Medicare. Ryan's budget takes the same amount of money from Medicare. Ryan has walked back this part of his budget since pairing with Romney, but has not said where he will make up the savings – and the Romney budget requires extraordinary cuts in non-defence spending.
  • Ryan said that the Affordable Care act would impose "new taxes on nearly a million small businesses." In fact, businesses under 50 employees are exempt from the employer mandate, and at least 1.4m small business are eligible for the health insurance tax credit. The only small businesses which aren't helped by the law are medical device manufacturers, who are subject to a new tax. But there are just over 5,000 of them in the US – rather fewer than a million.

Ryan opened his speech by attacking Obama for the negativity of his campaign, and then proceeded to spend the next half hour doing nothing but attack Obama – largely for things he didn't actually do. It signifies a candidacy, and a presidential race, which has fully embraced the post-truth age. Don't believe me? Even Fox News have called Ryan's speech deceiving, concluding:

Republicans should be ashamed that there was even one misrepresentation in Ryan’s speech but sadly, there were many.

Paul Ryan waves to the people. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.