All Shook Up

The tectonic plates of Texas politics are once again in motion, an early sign of earthquakes to come. Republicans and Democrats, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

October 2006By Comments

OF COURSE WE’RE ALL GOING to wake up on November 8 to discover that Rick Perry will be our governor for another four years. But the incumbent was polling at 35 percent in late summer, and unless he uncorks a big homestretch sprint against independent Richard “Kinky” Friedman, Republican-turned-independent Carole “Grandma” Strayhorn, and Democrat Chris “No Nickname, No Chance” Bell, his victory will be one of historic proportions. That’s because Perry is in danger of eclipsing the record currently held by Democrat Dolph Briscoe for the lowest winning percentage in any Texas gubernatorial race since the nineteenth century.

Briscoe’s 48 percent plurality in the 1972 election (which similarly featured an effective third-party challenge) marked the beginning of the end for the century-long hegemony of Texas Democrats: Six years later, Briscoe was succeeded by Bill Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. So it isn’t illogical to ask if something equally seismic is building beneath our state’s Permanent Republican Majority, which until recently seemed destined to endure many election cycles into the future. Perhaps this wacky four-way governor’s race is less a freak of nature than evidence that the tectonic plates of Texas politics are again in motion, an early warning of major quakes to come. And if that’s true, this improbable campaign season may well mark the beginning of the end for one of the most venerable traditions in Texas politics: one-party rule.

That’s not because Texas Democrats are poised for a return to power, any more than the independents are ready for prime time. But if Friedman and Strayhorn are at best long shots against the major parties’ get-out-the-vote machines, they’ve each bested Bell in a number of polls and, taken as a package deal (just think of them as One Kinky Grandma), have even outpolled the governor. Meanwhile, with the independents rising, the Texas GOP has been perfecting the politics of self-destruction. It’s not just the widely observed ideological arrogance and relentless internal litmus testing that already threaten its four-year-old permanent majority. With astonishing heedlessness, Texas Republicans are rushing to repeat the fatal errors of the once unassailable political franchise that preceded theirs. The real and present danger to the Texas GOP is its apparent determination to line up on the same side of history—the wrong side—as the Texas Democrats who went down the tubes before it.

How the Democrats went wrong is a long, sad story, but even an abridged version tells us a lot about the shifting paradigms in today’s Texas politics. After the Civil War, Texas Democrats were apoplectic over what they saw as a vast Yankee conspiracy to enfranchise freed slaves and bring the state into the Industrial Age. As soon as they had reclaimed the state government from Republican carpetbaggers and scalawags, the unrepentant ex-Confederates who led the state party wrote and ratified the minimalist 1876 state constitution, still in creaky, much-amended effect today. Vehemently anti-government, anti-industry, and anti-black, the new constitution was seen as a restoration of antebellum agrarian values against the corrupting influence of the modernizing, commerce-minded North. Having lost one war, Texas Democrats essentially declared another with the 1876 constitution, a hundred years’ war against the future.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, Texas Democrats made a cursory accommodation of progress, as banks and railroads were regulated and women allowed to vote. But the dominant Texas lifestyle was little better than serfdom, as hundreds of thousands of landless tenant farmers and sharecroppers lived from crop to crop, their numbers growing every year. The misery was color-blind, but power was for whites only: Texas Democrats bookended the nation’s Progressive Era with an anti-minority poll tax in 1902 and the scandalous “white primary” law of 1923, which banned blacks from voting in the Democratic primary, effectively disenfranchising them entirely in a one-party state. By 1930 Democrats still ruled a rural, agricultural state that remained as white, racist, and, despite newfound oil wealth, as desperately impoverished as it had been in the 1870’s. The war with the future seemed to have become a rout.

The turnaround began with the Great Depression. Texas Democrats accepted the vast expansion of federal largesse that saved the economy, but, states’ righters to the core, they fumed about the expansion of federal power that enabled the New Deal. Regardless of their protests, by 1950 the future had gained on Texas with a vengeance: Almost overnight we had become an urban state with burgeoning cities and a booming manufacturing sector spurred by World War II and Cold War defense spending. Yet the emerging pillars of national Democratic power—the urban “liberal elite,” organized labor, and minorities—had already become the axis of evil to the state party. Urban professionals were largely abandoned to the vestigial Texas Republican party; organized labor was thwarted by a series of anti-strike and right-to-work laws that had been passed by Texas Democrats in the forties; and opposing federal desegregation mandates became the Texas party’s signature issue well into the sixties. Red Scare politics also figured in a toxic mix. During the fifties Texas Democrats like Governor Allan Shivers, a race baiter who favored the death penalty for Communists, and his successor, Price Daniel Sr., conjured a unified threat to their white Christian monoculture, with Communist-controlled labor unions funding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

During the sixties Lyndon Johnson, who had proved a master at trimming between his liberal national party and his conservative state party, brought the two into uneasy accord. It didn’t last, and LBJ’s own civil rights legislation and Great Society programs inaugurated a mass white flight from the Democratic party in Texas as well as across the South that the Republicans were all too willing to embrace. Already strong in the cities, Texas Republicans benefited as the Democrats remained a rural-dominated party. Those rural voters stuck with the party just long enough to provide Briscoe’s margin of victory over liberal Frances “Sissy” Farenthold in the hotly contested 1972 Democratic primary, but by 1978 they had defected and were the key to Clements’s watershed win.

In losing their hundred years’ war, Texas Democrats had scorched the earth behind them, destroying the very constituencies their party would soon enough need to compete with the Republicans and their growing legions of conservative white suburbanites. Texas’s long-suffering blacks helped Ann Richards eke out a twilight victory over catastrophically inept campaigner Clayton Williams in 1990. But relative to whites and Hispanics, black numbers declined dramatically under generations of hostile fire from Texas Democrats, from 30 percent of our population before the Civil War to just 12 percent today. Organized labor might have given Texas Democrats the disciplined though shrinking base that it still provides the national party, except that Democrats here crippled the unions’ power. The big-city political machines that give critical support for Democrats in the Northeast and Midwest never really developed in our big cities; locked into their rural mind-set, Texas Democrats were basically content to let Republican professionals rule our cities, with two of the three largest—Dallas and San Antonio—still sporting clubby council-manager governments and conservative business moguls who pull the strings.

Democrats got a reality check in 2002, when at last they offered a forward-looking “dream team”—Hispanic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and black senatorial hopeful Ron Kirk—and were soundly trounced. Conventional wisdom (and relentless rhetoric from the other side) insisted that Texas Democrats were hopelessly liberal in a deeply red state. But Sanchez and Kirk, both wealthy, business-boosting moderates, actually got blown out for the sins of their lily-white Democratic forefathers, who had remained, almost to the end, scorched-earth conservatives, leaving their heirs with only a stunted, poorly organized traditional Democratic base.

The Democrats’ collapse left us with a new Republican political singularity. But all Texas’s new rulers seem to have learned from their opponents’ history is that declaring war on the future is a lot easier than solving its problems. And it’s not just that Republicans have adopted the same minimalist-government dogma that enabled the Democrats to keep Texas barefoot and pregnant for generations. This June’s state GOP convention was a frightfest worthy of the halcyon days of conservative Democratic paranoia, the crisis-mode rhetoric so urgent that you’d have thought that Texas Republicans had only just learned that millions of Mexican nationals have crossed our border illegally and are now living and working among us. “Under attack this very week are our principles of national sovereignty and the rule of law,” inveighed party chairman Tina Benkiser in a tub-thumping call to arms echoed by speaker after speaker. “Well orchestrated by left-wing liberal groups, thousands of illegal aliens marched in the streets waving foreign flags, defacing our flag, and demanding to be recognized as law-abiding citizens.”

The demagoguery (Left-wing liberal puppet masters! Flag-defacing aliens!) was vintage save-our-monoculture hysteria from the fifties, and the state GOP went on to call for a wall across the entire border, “American English” as our official language, an end to bilingual education, and the apprehension and deportation of all illegal aliens currently residing in this country. No consideration was given to how all those aliens would be deported and who would replace one in ten Texas workers (or who, absent the illegal workforce, would build that wall), much less the far more urgent issue of ensuring a twenty-first-century education for the Hispanic kids (most of them American citizens regardless of their parents’ status) who are going to be the majority of Texans in twenty or thirty years.

Little wonder we sometimes observe that Texas has historically had just one political party, a future-averse conservative uniparty once called the Democrats, now called the Republicans. But there’s one key difference. The delayed industrialization and urbanization of Texas—abetted by the Democrats’ fixation on limited government—and the century between the Civil War and LBJ’s civil rights legislation gave Democrats a huge lead on the future; when it finally caught up with them, they were finished. Today’s Republicans are living smack in the middle of the multicultural, highly urbanized, economically diversified future the Democrats fought against for so long, even if the Texas GOP leadership doesn’t appear to get it. And their millennium will be a moment if they don’t realize that their future is now.

That’s why this year’s kooky independents are so portentous. Amid the history of Texas’s eternal uniparty is a long tradition of un-orthodox challengers. The Populist candidate got 44 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 1896, and candidates representing everyone from Socialists to the Ku Klux Klan have made credible runs. Ruling-party primaries have also featured challengers bent on course corrections that almost amounted to a third-party challenge; Farenthold forced the more conservative Briscoe into a primary runoff, and if Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison had taken on Perry and the Christian conservatives the governor has so frantically courted, Republicans might have seen something similar this year. But Hutchison chickened out, and Grandma and Kinky stepped up. Sure, they’re both much stronger on style than face-the-future substance: Strayhorn is just another conservative Republican, albeit hoping to bracket Perry on the left on stem cell research and clean energy technology and on the right on taxes and his supersized toll road, the Trans-Texas Corridor; Friedman is a surprisingly retro political naïf whose media-savvy self-promotion (and fondness for the Ten Commandments) harkens back to flour salesman and radio personality W. Lee “Pappy” O’ Daniel, the huckster who was elected governor in 1938. However, the parties should take note of how many Texans are evidently willing to look past the questionable merits of the independents and embrace a future that doesn’t include the same old uniparty status quo.

But Perry’s going to get out his voters, and the real heat on one-party politics is probably going to come when the Hispanic kids who marched in the streets to protest hard-line immigration policy last spring are old enough to vote. They also have a sophisticated political tradition to build on: the League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in Corpus Christi in 1929; the Viva Kennedy clubs that carried Texas for JFK in 1960; and La Raza Unida party candidate Ramsey Muñiz’s 1972 run for governor, which resulted in Briscoe’s prophetic plurality. Those kids will inhabit a multicultural, ultramodern megalopolis stretching from Brownsville to Denton, and Texas leaders who want to stay on the right side of history should put aside their fears and remember the cardinal rule of Texas politics: The future always wins.

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