Ruthless People

In the new Texas politics, civility is a casualty. But do the ends justify the meanness?

MAYBE THEY MEANT EVERY 140 years for 2 days.” Toward the end of a particularly dismal legislative session in the mid-eighties, that slogan appeared in the Capitol on yellow-and-red lapel buttons—a play on the state constitutional requirement that lawmakers assemble every two years for 140 days. Where are those buttons when you really need them? After a brutal regular session of cutting essential services and three special sessions of toadying to U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay on congressional redistricting, the best that can be said of the first legislature of the Republican era is that it has gone home.

This dark view of the sea change that has rolled over Texas politics is widely held among the political crowd but by no means universal. The split is not, as you might think, by party—R’s celebrating their ascension to power and D’s mourning their loss of it—but rather by attitudes about politics. One view is that of the extreme elements of both parties, who regard the public interest as inseparable from their faction’s agenda and the opposition as (with apologies to Ronald Reagan and CBS) the Antichrist. The other view, to which I subscribe, holds that the public interest is an elusive holy grail untainted by partisan agendas, and while we don’t know exactly where to find it, we confine our searching to the middle of the political spectrum, in a region called Compromise.

Another factor that separates the two groups is years of service; many of us who have been around for a long time (legislators, lobbyists, and reporters) are troubled by the dominance of the extremists of each party and by the meanness polarization produces. These insurgents, new to the Capitol or new to power, tend to regard us veterans as old codgers pining away for a bipartisan tradition that already seems as remote as the Defenestration of Prague. “Transitions are always painful,” they say. Or, less kindly, “You don’t get it.” Well, they’re right. I don’t get it, I don’t want to get it, and

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