By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – Last week, Paul Ryan, the President of the American Idea Foundation and a long-time admirer of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, delivered remarks as part of the Churchill Centre’s Leadership Series. In a conversation moderated by the Churchill Centre’s Program Director, Justin Reash, Speaker Ryan discussed the leadership, legacy, and lessons of Winston Churchill and how the wisdom of Churchill can help elected officials meet the challenges of our day.
Ryan also detailed how the American Idea Foundation is channeling Churchill to make an impact in communities around the country. He provided an update on the Foundation’s efforts to advance evidence-based public policies and to harness the ingenuity of community leaders, researchers, and legislators towards solutions with a track record of improving outcomes.
Video of the conversation is accessible here and some excerpts, edited slightly for clarity, follow.
Developing an early appreciation for Prime Minister Churchill and his leadership:
“I’m a big, big believer in the meritocracy of Congress and the meritocracy of ideas and policymaking. This means doing your homework, knowing your principles, understanding your philosophy, being able to debate and converse with people and being able to persuade. This is really what I got from Winston Churchill. That is so much more durable. You’re not going to be Icarus. You’re not going to be fleeting. You’re going to have a much more durable, meaningful career and that’s kind of the way I chose to do it….
“Jack Kemp kind of got me into Churchill. He was a huge Churchill fan, so I read and quickly chewed through [William] Manchester’s books when I was 23 or 24. I just read Andrew Roberts’ book, Walking with Destiny. I re-read that a year ago. My dad had that book. My dad had all the Churchill books on our bookshelf and he had read them. My dad died when I was a kid, but he was a big Churchill fan so there was a reverence for Winston Churchill in my family….
“I read a lot of Churchill when I was a young man and was inspired by my mentor and it just so resonated with me. His wit, his intellect, his courage, his confidence, his ability to lead, and all the skills and the trials and tribulations. He went through his wilderness years and what he had to endure until he was the man for the moment who arguably saved Western civilization, I think it’s a history worth understanding and repeating if one can. And so, I just became consumed with all things Churchill because I thought if you want to aspire to be a leader, this is a great role model to have. I don’t drink like he did, but I just admire the man.”
Learning from mistakes and developing resiliency:
“The best takeaway that I got out of Churchill was to try and have a good, even-handed temperament, a sunny disposition, and look at things optimistically even when it is a tough time or you’ve had a large string of losses. I mean, surely it couldn’t be as bad as Great Britain in World War Two when Winston Churchill summoned his country to respond and to deserve victory. That kind of inspiration in the toughest of times and the most difficult circumstances pales in comparison to the kind of the trials and tribulations we go through these days.
“I’ve just drawn inspiration from that and I just think that this is what leaders should be like. These are the qualities that make a person a good leader when times are good and when times are bad. You know Churchill lost. He lost his election after World War Two. It’s just an amazing thing and then he came back here to Missouri to give us the Iron Curtain speech.
“The only other thing I’d say is try to see around corners. I’m worried, really worried, about our being a reserve currency and I’m concerned about our debt, our deficits, and our monetary policy. What got me into that was not just my love of economics, but my sort-of Churchillian sense of duty to look on the horizon and see those gathering storms. I always recommend to look at the storm clouds and see if you can do everything you can to get your country to improve its trajectory and to prevent horrible things from happening….
“I always sort of trained my mind: Don’t just get sucked in and focused on the here and the now, the politics of the day, or the cultural war of the moment. Look at what are those true, gathering storms on the horizon that are existential to democratic capitalism and to our American experiment and [focus on] what you can do to prepare people and policymakers in the country for these things to avert a crisis and steer around these problems. The lessons of Churchill are what got me focused on those things that I focused on in Congress.”
Providing advice for those looking to become Churchillian-type leaders:
“To a young person, I would say: Read the classics, learn the classics, understand the classics. Understand your philosophical argument, boil it down to an irreducible primary understanding of what you think and understand why you believe what you believe. Understand your opponent’s arguments extremely well so that you can make the case on both sides and so you can win your case. Be extremely resilient when you get knocked down. Fight for your cause and do it articulately. Do it effectively, do it with good cheer and when you get knocked down, get back up.
If you know Churchill, he had just as many losses as wins…. We think only that Winston Churchill won World War Two. We don’t [think of] the string of losses that he had, so the way I look at it is just never get demoralized. I mean look at what Churchill went through. It’s a lesson in adversity and tenacity and resilience and endurance.”
Detailing the genesis of the American Idea Foundation’s mission:
“I very much believe in this country’s founding. I believe in its principles, natural law, and natural rights. The motto of our Foundation is: The condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life.
“I’m a big believer in democratic capitalism and natural rights and upper mobility. I worry that we’re going into this era of what I guess you could call “woke capitalism” where you have this new emotional attachment by young people to socialism, to zero-sum thinking, zero-sum economics, and a belief that life is not dynamic. There is such a thing as a win-win situation, positive sum economics, positive sum societies. And so, the American Idea Foundation seeks to explore this and prove it out by fighting poverty with center-right, market-based, poverty solutions and proving that the best way to make the most difference for the poor and the best way to get people out of poverty are center-right, free-market based solutions.
“We have a number of research projects and grassroots projects ongoing to try and reconnect people with the poor and to test ideas and prove that free-market solutions are the best way to get people out of poverty. It really is a poverty foundation for poverty solutions, but it also is a vindication of capitalism. It’s a vindication of free enterprise economics and it’s also a vindication of the political attitude and temperament that is inclusive and aspirational and is the polar opposite of identity politics.”
Focusing on evidence-based solutions, removing partisanship from poverty fighting debates:
“I got into a bunch of political battles in Congress, which ended up becoming ideological, partisan stalemates on poverty solutions. Every now and then when government lined up, we’d win something like a work requirement for welfare reform but more often than not, because we had divided government, we just had these stalemates on poverty policy because it became about ideology.
“So, I stepped back and rationally wrote a law with Patty Murray called the Evidence Act to use data and analytics to get access to all the data and statistics of government poverty programs and to measure the outcome of poverty programs and use scientific data and analytics and randomized control trials to see what works and what doesn’t work. We want to prove what works to get people out of poverty versus what doesn’t work and invariably, you find these principles that we believe in are validated.
“You can win an argument about the best way to get people out of poverty not by making an argument based on political rhetoric or political philosophy or ideology but making a fact-based argument using irrefutable statistics and that leapfrogs this ideological stalemate that we tend to get wrapped around the axle on.
“It gets to: Let’s agree on the front end. Do we want fewer poor people? Do we want the poor to get out of poverty? Yes. Okay, great. Let’s now find out what does that? How does that work? What is proven to work? And that is what we’re advancing through our data projects, so that we can more or less bypass these ideological stalemates and go with what actually works.
“I’m confident our principles of personal responsibility, of upward mobility, of free enterprise, of incentives, those principles work. And so, I think you can you can advance these ideas using data and statistics, instead of ideology and partisanship.”
Real world examples of the Foundation’s efforts to link practitioners, policymakers, and validators:
“We work with frontline fighters in the poverty space. One of them just passed away, a good friend of ours, Omar Jawhar, a black pastor down in North Dallas. He had COVID-19 and just passed away. He and his partner, Antong Lucky, a former gang member, said: “We’re basically going to get kids out of gangs and preventing them from joining gangs. They were doing a great job in the inner city of Dallas and making a big difference, so we brought some rigorous data and evaluation to the program to show how you can measure it, scale it, and replicate it.
“We work with academics. We work with Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) in their Economics department and we’re running randomized control trials on poverty solutions in Fort Worth, Texas, which is just one town over from Dallas. Catholic Charities has a program there called the Padua Program, which is creating a case-manager navigator to work with the poor, to develop a plan with incentives and disincentives to get people to help get themselves out of poverty. We’re doing rigorous analysis on how and why this works and how it works and what doesn’t work and what does work, so that we can build scale and replicate this across the country.
“We then work on scaling and replicating these programs around the country, getting people to see that if this is what you’re trying to achieve in your community whether the problem is homelessness, addiction, keeping people in technical college, or getting people just literally out of poverty, then here is what works. The Foundation connects grassroots leaders and poverty fighters who are working with the poor with academics, with problem solvers, and with resources and then helps prove a concept and tell the story.”
Future site visits in formation by the American Idea Foundation:
“COVID-19 threw a wrench in our gears. We had a big grassroots outreach plan for 2020. We were going to do Dallas. We were going to do South Carolina. We were going to do Indiana and we had plans with legislators to go into inner-city communities to meet with local leaders and local elected officials. COVID-19 put all that on the back burner, so then we put our research projects up front, like this Evidence-Based Clearinghouse that I’m talking about. We’re also doing a research project on Opportunity Zones, so we’ve been in more of the research mode because we have been in our homes.
“This summer, we’re going to start the grassroots wing of the Foundation back up. We are doing South Carolina with Tim Scott in Columbia and we’re just starting to do that kind of an outreach.”
Advice for those in younger democracies on how to achieve positive policy outcomes:
“To a Ukrainian, I would say that you’ve got to build your institutions because if you have a government based on the power of a personality, it will never work. You have to build up your institutions. I won’t prescribe specifically what kind of government [Ukraine] ought to have or how their democracy should work, but you’ve got to have separation of powers. You have to divide and separate the powers of your government in such a way that they work in healthy tension with one another, so that one cannot usurp the others. Then you have to build up those institutions like an independent judiciary, an independent legislature, an independent executive, and you have to build those institutions. Then you have to have transparency.”