Those of you who read my recent column on Ken Paxton’s indictment may have noticed that I don’t consider Republican voters solely to blame for his election as attorney general:
Democrats may be enjoying some schadenfreude at Paxton’s expense, but they too are partly responsible for his election. If Democrats competed effectively in statewide races, if Republicans had any fear that nominating someone like Paxton might lose them a general election, then we might have avoided this embarrassment.
I figured I would receive some pushback on that because, in my experience, if there’s one thing Texas Democrats are good at, it’s blaming Republicans for everything, including their own shortcomings. And several commenters, as if on cue, obligingly trotted out the old defenses—as they no doubt will do in the comments section of this post too.
Ironically, those predictable knee-jerk objections corroborate the original criticism. The Democratic defenses aren’t inherently specious: as it happens, I think voter ID is unconstitutional, and that partisan redistricting has damaged both parties by creating “safe seats” that protect incumbents rather than constituents. At the same time, Democrats have not won a major statewide office in Texas for more than twenty years, and in last year’s general elections their margin of defeat was roughly twenty points. The structural and systemic constraints Democrats invoke aren’t sufficient to explain that record of failure, in my view. And Democrats who explicitly disagree—who argue that they lost because they never really had a chance—are effectively admitting that their efforts are futile, thereby facilitating the outcome they’re fatalistically diagnosing.
The latter point seems straightforward enough to me, and yet barely a day goes by that I don’t hear a Democratic official or supporter invoke their own obsolescence. Cynically, I’m not sure that Texas Democrats, as a group, actually want to win. As members of the minority party, they have fewer responsibilities than Republicans do, and their supporters are willing to accept the morally self-aggrandizing framing that Democrats in Texas are inevitable underdogs, honorable yet doomed.
This pathology is not limited to the left, obviously. I’ve written quite a bit lately about the politics of grievance among Republicans, and yesterday I came across an article from two sociologists about America’s “emerging victimhood culture,” which I found ominously plausible. And all things considered, Texas Democrats have more valid complaints about the system than Republicans do. But as a matter of both strategy and ethics, asserting victim status is a fundamentally unsound thing to do unless you are in fact a seriously vulnerable person (a Syrian refugee, perhaps, or a disabled child in Texas whose life-saving therapy may not be covered by Medicaid much longer—more on the latter tomorrow). Barring such circumstances, we should all keep in mind that you can’t win if you don’t play—and any sympathy or support you elicit will most likely be at the expense of people who need it more.
And for all the travails of Texas Democrats, I can point to at least three developments this year that are potentially advantageous, at least for those among them who do, in fact, want to compete.
The first is that, in my subjective assessment, Texas Democrats as a group are less helpless than they were a year ago. I’m going a little bit out on a limb with this, because they seemed pretty punchy last year, with a high-profile gubernatorial candidate in Wendy Davis and support from national Democrats in the form of Battleground Texas, plus the ongoing demographic trends that are widely considered auspicious for the left. Then, as mentioned, they proceeded to lose the general elections by a huge margin. The sheer ignominy of that defeat, however, may have had a salutary silver lining, precisely because Democrats couldn’t disavow all responsibility this time. The subsequent finger-pointing has risks of its own, but at least Democrats are talking about what they might do differently next time, as opposed to sighing over what will be done to them by the Republican hegemon.
The second and third developments are related to the Texas GOP, which continues to be divided between those who want to destroy their party and those who are powerless to stop the destruction. One result of the infighting is that, on the issues, Democrats increasingly seem like the more mainstream party. The Texas electorate, writ large, hasn’t lurched to the right along with the Republican Party; I continue to think that Joe Straus is the best barometer we have for the median Texan voter, and as Speaker of the House, he’s the only major official elected in a purple district, so to speak. Texas Democrats, meanwhile, are still Democrats: more conservative than their national counterparts, but nonetheless left of center in this particular state.
Still, when it comes to questions such as whether Texas should fund public education, or have any regulations on handguns, or make itself a national laughingstock with fruitless efforts to preempt imminent Supreme Court rulings about gay marriage, a reasonable adult conservative may well agree with Texas’s center-left Democrats than with the extreme right-wing fringe. Nonetheless, the cuckoo-bananas crowd continues to champion its version of events, and to devote its energies to marginal issues and purity tests. As a result, Texas Democrats have an opportunity to commandeer all the priorities—jobs, economic development, roads, public education, higher education—that Republicans have successfully campaigned on in the past and are currently, more often than not, ignoring.
The third auspicious development is that plenty of Texas Republicans are painfully aware of the need for damage control. Earlier today, while out for lunch, I was introduced to a conservative political operative, who took me aside and quietly confided that he’s worried about the party, and doesn’t understand why so few Republicans are acting reasonable in public. I’ve lost track of how many times conservatives have taken me aside to quietly confide that in the past year. During this year’s session, it was clear that Republican legislators took a similar view of things, and saw Democrats as necessary partners in a coalition contra the forces of nonsense, as embodied by the tea party scorecard voters. Regardless of what happens in the 2016 elections, Democrats can safely bet that Republicans will have reason to revive that coalition in the 2017 session. That should give them some leverage to make progress on their own policy priorities—assuming, of course, that Texas Democrats can conceive of themselves as people who occasionally win.