In Idiocracy, the 2006 Mike Judge classic, the most average man in the U.S. military, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), is selected for a government hibernation experiment, but the overseers forget about the project, and Bauers wakes up five hundred years later in an America that has become profoundly stupid. Costco doubles as a law school and food crops are watered with Brawndo, a sports drink marketed as “It’s what plants crave.” The president is a wrestler and porn star named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), who punctuates his State of the Union address with gunfire and wins the people over by conceding that he knows “s—’s bad right now, with all that starving bullshit, and the dust storms, and we are running out of french fries and burrito coverings.” In this idiot world, average Joe Bauers is the smartest man alive. 

Representative John Bryant wasn’t in hibernation for the last forty years, but he nonetheless finds himself back in a Legislature that is far meaner and less thoughtful than when he last served in the early eighties. Bryant, a progressive Democrat from Dallas, was first elected to the Texas House in 1974, before winning a seat in Congress in 1982, where he served until 1997. In 2021, alarmed by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and other markers of creeping authoritarianism, he ran for Texas House District 114, squeaking by four Democratic opponents in a primary and runoff before handily defeating a Republican in the general election. And that’s how, in 2023, the 76-year-old found himself back in a Lege where the upper chamber is run ruthlessly by a former radio shock jock once known for getting an on-air vasectomy and where even serious lawmakers spend much of their time talking about drag queens and sexy books at the school library.

Having served in both Congress and the Texas Legislature during very different political times, Bryant has an unusual—and unusually candid—perspective on politics at the state capitol. The Legislature of today suffers from a “stultification” of debate and dissent, he says. The problem is that the Democrats are an anemic opposition party. Instead of drawing a stark contrast with the Republicans, many members of the minority party are content to collect crumbs from the GOP leadership in the House and Senate. “The eighty-eighth session was a continuation of a lack of strategy, a lack of organization, a lack of willingness to sacrifice personal agendas in favor of working as a voting bloc,” said Bryant. 

This session, Bryant turned heads by tanking legislation with well-researched points of order—technical objections based on the rules—and by aggressively grilling state officials. But Bryant was surprised that tough questioning was noteworthy, much less controversial. “What I was doing was just adequate,” he said. “It was something you hear every day in a legislative body operating with a real opposition.” 

In May, and again in June, I talked to Bryant about how the Legislature has changed, the role of the opposition, and his own record this session. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Monthly: What made you want to come to the Legislature again? The pay’s not great. Why come back, especially in this political environment?

John Bryant: Well, remember the filing for these offices is in December of the year preceding the election. So this was December 2021. It was only eleven months after the invasion of the Capitol. You know, there was a huge amount of talk—and there remains a lot of talk—about measures that would effectively bring about an authoritarian system. I just thought we could lose everything. And so, you know, I’m sitting here complaining about it, when I could just run again. Maybe I can put my finger in the dike for a while until we get things straightened out. So I did.

TM: And how’s that working out?

JB: No matter what about this authoritarianism, the absence of Democratic opposition in the House and Senate does a significant disservice to the state. You have to be willing to provide some leadership on the Democratic side. This is a state with thirty million people. We have major problems. Half our people don’t own anything. They have no assets. There is just an absence of Democratic opposition. Along with some other folks, I’ve tried to provide some this time. I think that’s important, and to that extent I’m glad I came back.

TM: So when you say there is a lack of Democratic opposition, can you elaborate a little bit on that? What does that look like on the day-to-day? Republicans control the place, and they have for a long time. What’s lacking? 

JB: Well, basically, the Democrats have lost their muscle memory of being a governing majority. And so what’s lacking is a sense of what it was like to win and be in government. So they have, over twenty years, adapted to trying to work around the edges. And hopefully by virtue of having a smile and a shoeshine every day, they can slip a few bills through. So the whole objective has grown to be: How can I pass bills despite my minority status? Well, they don’t oppose the Speaker, they don’t nominate a Democratic Speaker, they don’t really fight a war; they fight little battles. It’s okay [from the Republican point of view] for Democrats to fight against individual issues, which the Republicans expect us to do, and they like that we do it, because it energizes their base. 

So Democrats go back home again, and everybody claps because you fought hard on these issues. But you lost the war—because the war is the budget, the way we tax, the way we spend, the way we fund public education. And you’ve got to be able to go into these sessions prepared—it’s only a hundred and forty days. It goes by in a nanosecond. You’ve got to prepare to hold out on the things that they really want that you might have some ability to stop in return for concessions on important things. And you’ve got to be willing to stand up every day and educate the public; even if you’re losing on the floor, you’ve gotta be educating the public by carrying on a robust debate, because unless they read about it, they’re not going to see a difference between Democrats and Republicans.

TM: Am I correct in assuming that you think the Democrats are spending too much time on the culture wars and not enough time on these other issues of taxation, the budget, public education?

JB: No. Those are very important matters, what you are characterizing as culture wars. But the main thing you have to be talking about is all of the things that affect people every day. How come my kid is in a classroom with forty students? How come I have to drive fifty miles to the hospital when I used to have one right down the street? How come everybody in town is making eleven dollars an hour except the people who work either at the school district or work at the hospital, if it’s still there?  

But [small-town Texas] is not hearing from us. So West Texas votes seventy-five-twenty-five for Donald Trump. It’s fifty percent Hispanic. They’re just not hearing anything from the Democratic Party. And the whole reason for being in public office is to lift them up to the middle class.

TM: What’s an example of a missed opportunity, of Democrats not forcing Republicans to negotiate on the big issues?

JB: Let me give you a very good example right at this moment. We’ve been reading in the paper now, ever since the final weeks of the regular session and throughout the special session, an argument about the best way to provide property tax relief. It’s an argument between the Republican governor, the Republican lieutenant governor, and the Republican Speaker. The Democrats are not even in the conversation. There is no Democratic bill out there that says, “Here is our position.” There is no Democratic voice saying, “Here’s a better alternative,” or “These guys are wrong or they’re missing an opportunity to do even better.”

This is the situation we’re in over and over and over. Take the appropriations bill [the $321.3 billion budget for 2024–25]. That, above all other things, is a statement of who the two political parties are. This appropriations bill contains nothing for public education, no increases, nothing for teacher pay raises. We remain last in mental health funding. You saw the front page of the Dallas Morning News today? We are forty-eighth in virtually every category of our medical-care system and access to it. 

And yet, all but twenty-two, twenty-three Democrats voted for it. [On a final vote in the House, the bill got 22 total nays, 18 from Democrats.] Almost no one spoke against it. No joint effort to say, “We’re not going to put our imprimatur on this bill if it doesn’t address the fundamentals that are most important and most needed by the public.” Well, it’s because a lot of people got little bitty things in [the budget bill], some little thing they wanted for their local college, a little thing they wanted real bad for their hometown—none of which adds up to anything important for the long-term public interest of a state with thirty million people. And so we go down the road, dragging the bottom on ratings in nearly every area of providing education, health care, mental health, and so forth. 

TM: Well, you’re in the room when there’s an opportunity to have these conversations, to develop strategy, to get together as a caucus and make decisions. Why isn’t that happening? Who is to blame?

JB: First, these caucus meetings turn out to be nothing but conversations. Nobody’s stating the goal and exhorting everyone to get in line behind the goal. They’re just conversations. Second, anytime we have a caucus on the major issues—the appropriations bill and property taxes—the Democrats who are part of the Speaker’s governing structure and who have been rewarded with titles and plum assignments come to the meeting to argue for going along to get along. And they bring lists of things in the bill. They say, “These are the good things that are in this bill.” When you look at them, they are completely insignificant when compared to failing to properly fund the public school system, failing to properly fund mental health and the medical care of our population, and failing to do so many other things. They are all personal goals, lists of personal goals. 

TM: You made a point this session of grilling witnesses during committee hearings—Texas education commissioner Mike Morath, for example, who rarely gets put on the hot seat, and I think it’s fair to say you did have him squirming a bit. But what does that do? Where does that sort of thing that we’re talking about lead to?

JB: First, showing members that by asking questions you can cause something to happen. I don’t know how to say this without sounding terrible—it’s astonishing how many committee meetings there are in which no question is asked by a Democrat. Why is that? Because the object here is to keep a low profile, to get your bill passed, don’t make anyone mad. But these are big issues. 

TM: Did you hear from your Democratic colleagues directly about your grilling? 

JB: I had one of them [a Democrat in good standing with House Speaker Dade Phelan] one time—leadership sent that person here. Basically she said I was asking too many questions about some of these things, trying to get me not to press. And she said, “We have a system for this.” “So, yeah, let’s talk about this system. You’ve been in that system, part of it, now for a long time. How long?” “Long time.” “Well, for ten years, your school district, which is as poor as can be, has not had a single increase in funding. So what’s the point in being in that system that you’re talking about here?”

Let me emphasize to you, what I was doing was just adequate. It wasn’t anything extraordinary in any other legislative body. It was something you hear every day in a legislative body operating with a real opposition. 

TM: Including back in the seventies, when you were here?

JB: Oh, yes. 

TM: You think debate and dissent was much more robust back then? 

JB: Oh, my gosh. Much more. It was real freewheeling on the floor and in committee as well. It was nothing like now, in terms of the stultification of debate as a result of not trying to offend anyone in power so you can get a little bill passed. Most of them are rather inconsequential.

TM: I think in the fifteen years, I’ve been paying attention. I’ve seen the degradation of debate and engagement and dissent. And I’d say this session the Democrats seem more whipped than ever. Dan Patrick has a complete lock on the Senate.

JB: What a bunch of sheep; I’ve never seen anything like it. I had a lobbyist in my office, a former senator. He says, “When I was down here before, a senator was a big deal, he was independent, he might do this, he might do that, you never knew. Everyone was very deferential [to the senators].” Now it’s just go along to get along, Democrats included. The Senate voted thirty-one to nothing on the budget. Are there no differences between Democrats and Republicans on the budget? Thirty-one to nothing on the property tax deal, too, and same way with the education funding. 

TM: Do you pay a price, then, for taking this course of action, of asking questions, being aggressive? I mean, do you get any bills passed?

JB: We’re in the minority. Your objective is going to be to put us in the majority and to try to utilize the unity of the Democratic caucus to gain some advances on the big issues, not pass inconsequential legislation. 

TM: But I would imagine one of your colleagues who’s on the leadership team or is following the strategy of keeping their head low and trying to get a bill passed would say, “I don’t like that it’s this way, but if I don’t do that, then I will get nothing passed. I will have nothing to take home. I will have nothing to show for coming up here for one hundred and forty days.”

JB: That’s true. That’s exactly what they’re saying. And the answer to that is, look at the big issues, not the little issues. What do you have to show on the main issues? Your school district hasn’t gotten any more money in ten years? Ten years. We’re dead last in mental health. There’s no debate on guns. So what are you really accomplishing? 

So if your objective is to get a bunch of things you can tell people about when you get home, then you have the wrong objective. Your objective is supposed to be to improve the lives of your constituents, and you have to work hard at educating them about what you’re doing. 

We’re not ever going to be in the majority again if we’re not willing to be in full-throated opposition to the Republican view of the budget, taxes, and education. You’ve got to be willing to be in opposition in order to get in the majority.

TM: I’m not disputing any of the reasons you’re giving, but I wonder if an additional reason is just a feeling of Stockholm syndrome—if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. 

JB: That’s exactly right. I agree with you. I was calling them Patty Hearst Democrats when I first got here.

Let me point out something else that is important: out of the sixty-four Democrats, sixty-two of them have safe seats because of redistricting [in 2021]. [Three seats had margins of victory within 4 percentage points in 2022.] So here are sixty-two Democrats with safe seats. They got nothing to lose. Why don’t we get in there and fight? 

And a lot of them are. I want to be clear: there’s a bunch of really good folks here who every day think about how to fight. And I’m not here to address the entire caucus. But it’s not enough. You know, if you’re going to be a progressive, you’ve got to be willing to get out on the edge and then go home and do a lot of homework. You got to convince people that you’re doing the right thing and they’ll reelect you.

TM: What else in the Lege has changed?

JB: You’ve got now megabillionaires in this state. We always had wealthy people, but nothing like these guys, all of whom have think tanks and foundations and lobbyists, and they’re all over the place and they’re keeping scorecards on the Republicans, which really—what’s the right word?—intimidates the Republicans from voting freely in the interests of their districts—and they will admit that off the record—because they don’t want to be targeted by these guys. I’m talking about [Midland oilman Tim] Dunn, these Wilks brothers, all those guys. We never had anything like that in those days.