Two videos have made the Internet rounds in recent weeks. Seemingly unrelated, each illuminates something vital about our messy political moment—and about our likely common future. The first involves Paul Ryan, former GOP vice presidential nominee, current House speaker, and possible future consensus candidate at July’s Republican convention in Ohio. Speaking to a bipartisan group of House interns, Ryan pointed out that our political discourse “did not used to be this bad and it does not have to be this way.” To his credit, Ryan swallowed some of the blame himself. “There was a time that I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits,” he said. But “to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”
Though Ryan didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, many interpreted his speech as a criticism of the GOP frontrunner’s insult-based campaign strategy. An open war is raging for the soul of the Republican Party, with Trump channeling the raw anger of the white working class against “establishment” types—like Jeb Bush and John Kasich—who have had long careers in government. Some strategists see Ryan as the most broadly palatable establishment alternative to the Trump phenomenon.
It was Ryan’s line about “makers and takers” that made the news. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency faltered, in part, because of a surreptitiously recorded video in which the former Massachusetts governor lambasted the 47 percent of Americans “who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” In other words: takers. Reinforcing the stereotype of Republicans as wealthy and unconcerned with the plight of the poor, the video helped sink the Romney campaign.
Ryan’s public disavowal of the “makers and takers” notion could mark more than just a rhetorical change. Forget the hypotheticals about Ryan emerging as a GOP compromise candidate; for now, he’s still House speaker, and will likely remain so for years. Even if Trump does secure the presidential nomination, the RealClearPolitics polling average has him losing by 10 points to Hillary Clinton in November. Such a landslide would be a clear rebuke to Trumpism—and make Ryan the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
The other video, showing a dreadlocked white college student in a testy encounter with a black student at San Francisco University, also involved takers—not of government handouts and welfare benefits but of cultural symbols. “You’re saying that I can’t have a hairstyle because of your culture. Why?” asks the agitated young man. “Because it’s my culture,” she replies. The conversation only gets dumber from there.
The notion that styles, attitudes, and symbols originating in the black community become inauthentic when taken up by white kids has become an article of faith on the radical Left in recent years. Along with the specious concept of “white privilege,” the concept was cooked up in sociology departments in colleges and universities across the country. The purpose? To turn up the heat on racial resentments and mobilize a cadre of radical political activists. It has worked. A generation of young thought police eagerly enforces penalties for playing dress-up, making music, and wearing the wrong hairstyle.
It can’t be long before this brewing revolution consumes itself. The very act of pointing out instances of appropriation and privilege will itself become an act of privilege and appropriation. Raw and self-justified anger will become the only legitimate grounds on which to make political and cultural claims within the Democratic Party. We’re seeing signs of it already. The undercurrent of racial tension in the race between liberal Hillary Clinton and radical Bernie Sanders could foreshadow the Left’s identity crisis. If that crisis explodes into disorder, who on the left will step forward to disavow the divisive rhetoric that helped create the trouble? Will any Democrat ever give a speech apologizing for fostering racial resentment and castigating millions of white Americans to score political points? It’s hard to imagine such gestures today, in part because the Democrats’ internal struggle hasn’t spilled out into the open as dramatically as it has on the other side of the aisle.
But it will. And when it does, all Americans had better hope that the Democrats can produce someone like Paul Ryan to step forward and try to bridge the divide. We’ll need conciliators then, even more than we need them now.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images