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By Jamelle Bouie
On Tuesday, Republicans in North Carolina overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto to pass a strict limit on bodily autonomy in the form of a 12-week abortion ban.
In addition to this new limit on abortion, the law extends the waiting period for people seeking abortions to 72 hours and puts onerous new rules on clinics. As intended, the net effect is to limit access to abortion and other reproductive health services to everyone but those with the time and resources to seek care outside the state.
North Carolina Republicans are obviously not the only ones fighting to ban, limit or restrict the right to bodily autonomy, whether abortion or gender-affirming health care for transgender people. All across the country, Republicans have passed laws to do exactly that wherever they have the power to do so, regardless of public opinion in their states or anywhere else. The war on bodily autonomy is a critical project for nearly the entire G.O.P., pursued with dedication by Republicans from the lowliest state legislator to the party’s powerful functionaries on the Supreme Court.
You might even say that in the absence of a national leader with a coherent ideology and agenda, the actions of Republican-led states and legislatures provide the best guide to what the Republican Party wants to do and the best insight into the society it hopes to build.
I have already made note of the attack on bodily autonomy, part of a larger effort to restore traditional hierarchies of gender and sexuality. What else is on the Republican Party’s agenda, if we use those states as our guide to the party’s priorities?
There is the push to free business from the suffocating grasp of child labor laws. Republican lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio have advanced legislation to make it easier for children as young as 14 to work more hours, work without a permit and be subjected to more dangerous working conditions. The reason to loosen child labor laws — as a group of Wisconsin Republicans explained in a memo in support of a bill that would allow minors to serve alcohol at restaurants — is to deal with a shortage of low-wage workers in those states.
There are other ways to solve this problem — you could raise wages, for one — but in addition to making life easier for the midsize-capitalist class that is the material backbone of Republican politics, freeing businesses to hire underage workers for otherwise adult jobs would undermine organized labor and public education, two bêtes noires of the conservative movement.
Elsewhere in the country, Republican-led legislatures are placing harsh limits on what teachers and other educators can say in the classroom about American history or the existence of L.G.B.T.Q. people. This week in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that bans discussion in general education courses at public institutions of “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.” He also signed a bill that prohibits state colleges and universities from spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs beyond what is necessary to retain accreditation as educational institutions.
Nationwide, Republicans in at least 18 states have passed laws or imposed bans designed to keep discussion of racial discrimination, structural inequality and other divisive concepts out of classrooms and far away from students.
Last but certainly not least is the Republican effort to make civil society a shooting gallery. Since 2003, Republicans in 25 states have introduced and passed so-called constitutional carry laws, which allow residents to have concealed weapons in public without a permit. In most of those states, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, it is also legal to openly carry a firearm in public without a permit.
Republicans have also moved aggressively to expand the scope of “stand your ground” laws, which erode the longstanding duty to retreat in favor of a right to use deadly force in the face of perceived danger. These laws, which have been cited to defend shooters in countless cases, such as George Zimmerman in 2013, are associated with a moderate increase in firearm homicide rates, according to a 2022 study published in JAMA Network Open. Republicans, however, say they are necessary.
“If someone tries to kill you, you should have the right to return fire and preserve your life,” said Representative Matt Gaetz, who introduced a national “stand your ground” bill this month. “It’s time to reaffirm in law what exists in our Constitution and in the hearts of our fellow Americans,” he added. “We must abolish the legal duty of retreat everywhere.”
It should be said as well that some Republicans want to protect gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee did just that this month — after a shooting in Nashville killed six people, including three children, in March — signing a bill that gives additional protections to the gun industry.
What should we make of all this? In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt said there was “nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy” and that he, along with the nation, looked forward to “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” Famously, those freedoms were the “freedom of speech and expression,” the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way,” the “freedom from want” and the “freedom from fear. Those freedoms were the guiding lights of his New Deal, and they remained the guiding lights of his administration through the trials of World War II.
There are, I think, four freedoms we can glean from the Republican program.
There is the freedom to control — to restrict the bodily autonomy of women and repress the existence of anyone who does not conform to traditional gender roles.
There is the freedom to exploit — to allow the owners of business and capital to weaken labor and take advantage of workers as they see fit.
There is the freedom to censor — to suppress ideas that challenge and threaten the ideologies of the ruling class.
And there is the freedom to menace — to carry weapons wherever you please, to brandish them in public, to turn the right of self-defense into a right to threaten other people.
Roosevelt’s four freedoms were the building blocks of a humane society — a social democratic aspiration for egalitarians then and now. These Republican freedoms are also building blocks not of a humane society but of a rigid and hierarchical one, in which you can either dominate or be dominated.
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