September 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Tim Ryan and the Democrats becoming the consensus party
The Republican way used to be the way. Not anymore.
The following text is a snippet of a speech given in the US House of Representatives. The member is talking about a big decision made recently at the very top of the United States government. That decision is going to affect tens of millions of people. For some, this impact is morally good. They say it will save millions of lives. For others, it’s anything but. They say it’s a grotesque flex of power.
This speech was given last Wednesday.
Here it is, slightly edited:
This is the largest governmental overreach into the private lives of American citizens in the history of our lifetime. This is big government coming into our doctors’ offices coming into our bedrooms, a small group of people trying to control American citizens …. And I believe that the vast majority of the American people are absolutely exhausted and want the government out of their lives out of our personal lives … [This] is an extreme overreach. This is a country built on freedom. And it is time for us to stand up. The exhausted majority – Democrats, Republicans and independents – is saying we want limited government and we want it out of the private lives of American citizens ….
If you’re anything like me, you hear something very familiar.
You hear Republican Party rhetoric that’s been boilerplate since the early 1950s (though it probably goes back to the rightwing reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal). America became a liberal democracy when the US government conceded that the Declaration of Independence applied equally and universally, not just to white people of means.
Starting in 1954, with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, but especially since 1964, with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, anything that the federal government did could be credibly labeled “Big Government” – unless it helped white people, like agricultural subsidies. (In that case, it was helping “family farms.”) But anything else was associated, in the minds of respectable white people, the political center, with Blackness. That meant the federal government was against them. “Overreach” was racist without sounding racist.
I think this rhetoric rose to its zenith in 2010 after Barack Obama and the Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Beforehand, “Big Government” was Medicaid, housing and urban renewal, the Equal Opportunity Commission and so on. Afterward, however, it became intimate. It was coming into your bedroom. The Republicans would say what the above speaker said: “We want limited government … out of the private lives of American citizens.”
The speaker above is not a Republican, though.
The speaker is a Democrat. Not just any, though. It’s Tim Ryan, the Ohio Congressman, who is running for the Senate. The intimate threat of “Big Government” here isn’t the Environmental Protection Agency or the Justice Department. Neither is it a liberal program, like Obamacare, that moderate Democrats ran away from a dozen years ago. It’s the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe.
Importantly, Ryan isn’t cynically staking out a place in the moderate middle. He isn’t straddling a make-believe bipartisan center. The full text of his speech accuses the court’s rightwing supermajority of making “women second-class citizens.” It alleges that “Justice Thomas’s opinion about nullifying marriages, about getting rid of birth control is an extreme overreach.” It says a broad majority wants the government out, “especially the women of the United States.”
This isn’t phony centrism.
It’s traditional liberalism.
Yet, when you take out references to women, as I did above, the speech sounds like something Strom Thurmond might have given. Here’s what the “Dixiecrat” presidential nominee said in 1948:
We stand for social and economic justice, which, we believe can be guaranteed to all citizens only by a strict adherence to our Constitution and the avoidance of any invasion or destruction of the constitutional rights of the states and individuals. We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions (italics mine).
By “constitutional rights,” Thurmond meant, as he said in the next breath, “the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.” Congressman Ryan is obviously hostile to that notion. But there’s not much distance between what he said – “we want limited government and we want it out of the private lives of American citizens” – and Thurmond’s “totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation.” It’s a matter of degree, not kind.
What does all this mean?
What does it mean when a House speech that’s solidly in the liberal tradition, about the rights and freedoms of women, is structured and delivered according to the state’s rights rhetoric we have all come to associate with the political party of “movement conservatism.”
For one thing, Roe’s fall makes it easy for Democrats to sound conservative. For another, it means things that used to be true are no longer true. Yet another, those things are no longer true, because the ground beneath them has shifted so that the opposite can be true.
“Big Government” used to mean Black Democrats. Now it means white Republicans. Transgressing the bipartisan center, “overreaching,” used to originate from the left. Now it originates from the right. “Government tyranny” used to mean forcing states to treat Black people decently. Now it means forcing women to give birth.
The Republican way of looking at the United States was the way of looking at the United States for half a century – since the victories of the civil and equal rights movements and the backlash against them.
Could the Democratic way of looking at the United States, post-Roe, be the new dominant way of looking at the United States? That depends on how much the ground has shifted beneath our feet.
Michael Beschloss might be the country’s most famous presidential historian. If PBS Newshour needs a broad perspective on executive decision-making, it calls Beschloss. If documentary filmmaker Ken Burns needs a perspective from 30,000 feet, he calls Beschloss. If the major newspapers need a deeper presidential context, they call Beschloss. He’s the undisputed champion of partisan neutrality.
He was, anyway.
During the years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Beschloss became the inverse – a lightning rod, a figure of controversy. This appears to be entirely due to the former president’s efforts to corrupt the federal government in order to reward friends and punish enemies.
After news broke of the FBI’s discovery of nuclear secrets being found in the former president’s Florida home, Beschloss wrote on Twitter: “Rosenbergs were convicted for giving U.S. nuclear secrets to Moscow, and were executed June 1953,” referring to the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were alleged Communist spies.
Politico put it this way recently: “With his sonorous baritone and his taut jawline and his impeccably gracious manner all still intact, Beschloss today may be the greatest example … of a contemporary Washington phenomenon: The radicalized establishmentarian.”
That might be true – if the ground had not shifted so much that a traditional liberal like Tim Ryan can structure and deliver a speech according to the boilerplate rhetoric of the Republican Party.
To call him a “radicalized establishmentarian” implies that he’s still a part of an establishment that increasingly accommodates redhat fascism. But what if Beschloss didn’t leave the establishment? What if the establishment left him? To call Beschloss radicalized conveniently ignores the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that he hasn’t changed.
It’s the political landscape that’s changed.
Brown, the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election et al. – these, and the reactions to them, constituted the foundation of the Republican Party’s dominance for the last half century. The GOP was the bipartisan center. They represented the majority consensus.
But a consensus can’t stay the same.
The foundations beneath it change.
We now live in a world in which Democrats can sound conservative without sounding false or phony. That’s not because they are conservative (though some are). That’s because the conditions in which the Democrats operate have changed such that to be for women’s rights and freedoms is to be against “government tyranny.”
Could the Democratic way of looking at the United States, post-Roe, be the new dominant way of looking at the United States?
The signs point to yes.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.