Keep Texas Red. That’s the sentiment I grew up hearing in East Texas—and I still hear it, in more desperate tones, today. But what exactly are we supposed to be keeping? Looking at Texas’s political leadership, it’s tough to say. Rather than offering an affirmative vision for the future of our state, most Republicans seem more interested in emulating the national party’s use of fear to inspire its base. Fear of immigrants. Fear of gay and transgender people. Fear of the Austin City Council. Fear of whatever it was Jade Helm was going to do to us.
Fear can be a potent political drug in times of change. And Texas is indeed changing rapidly. It’s becoming more racially diverse, more urban and suburban, and more connected to the rest of the world. And that sort of change can be destabilizing. But lashing out isn’t the answer. The Texas GOP needs to be the party of optimism, the party it once aspired to be: a party that embraces change while figuring out how to maintain the essence of Texas as it moves into the future.
Which is why the future of Texas conservatism—whether Donald Trump retains the White House or Texas Republicans hold on to the Texas House—should be rooted in one concept: opportunity. Opportunity is at the core of the Texas ethos. It’s what inspired pioneers to come here and start a new life, and it continues to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Emphasizing opportunity would harness that ethos by keeping government out of our way‚ except when we face make-or-break moments in our lives. When Texans go to school, enter the workforce, become ill, or have a run-in with the law, their opportunities can change for the better or worse. Conservatives ought to address those hinge events without feeling unduly hemmed in by the small-government orthodoxy that has defined the movement since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That orthodoxy has been found wanting of late, even among the Republican faithful, many of whom responded four years ago to Trump’s promise to strengthen the social safety net (a promise he quickly abandoned once in office). But rather than follow the lead of the national GOP, which has embraced the traditional left-wing strategy of encouraging identity-group grievances (in this case those of the white working class), Texas conservatives should seize the mantle of equal opportunity for all.
Below, I offer a few ideas that could give Texas Republicans the forward-looking appeal that the state needs. If, as seems likely, Democrats take the Texas House or come close to doing so, there’ll be a reckoning among Republicans. We might as well begin laying the groundwork for the debate now.
A new Texas conservatism needs to recognize that a quality education is the best ticket for children to achieve their dreams. An effective education system creates opportunity in underprivileged communities. The classroom is a better place to combat poverty than the welfare line. But right now Texas public schools are ranked twenty-eighth in the nation in terms of student performance.
In response, Texas conservatives have pushed hard for a voucher-based school choice program. Unable to get that reform through the Legislature, Republicans settled for resisting increases in state funding, causing localities to hike property taxes to pick up the slack. That strategy predictably led to backlash from educators and parents during the 2019 session, pushing the Legislature to increase per-student state funding for public education by 20 percent.
But the 2019 school finance bill was a failure because it didn’t significantly reform how we educate. We put desperately needed dollars into what is too often a mediocre system just to keep it afloat. Conservatives ought to be fighting to repair and transform that system, not just tighten its belt.
We can’t educate Texas kids for the twenty-first-century economy with an education system stuck in the seventies. We need to realize that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. That means offering pathways to productive employment that extend beyond the college green. Instead of spending more to subsidize college tuition, we should reallocate money to employer-sponsored training programs, many of which receive very little public support today.
Our schools and curricula need to meet students where they are. That means leveraging new technologies to play to kids’ strengths and passions. One silver lining of COVID-19 is that it has forced educators and students to experiment with tech-enabled education. When wielded effectively, these new tools can help teachers better evaluate and address each student and then create student-specific assignments.
A better education system will also require paying educators a salary that reflects the importance of their profession and attracts the best talent. With that added pay should come more rigorous performance evaluations of teachers and administrators.
We should make sure that all Texans can chase opportunity by learning new skills and changing jobs more easily. Our economy is rapidly transforming, and the future of work won’t look like today’s work. COVID-19 has only sped up this process, pushing us to learn how much of what we do can happen away from the office.
By 2030, one study finds, automation will require as much as a third of our workforce to learn new skills and, in some cases, change occupations entirely. What are we doing in Texas to make sure that our workers are prepared to seize that opportunity? Conservatives shouldn’t completely leave it to private markets to sort that out. If companies can’t find workers with the skills they need, those companies won’t come to Texas. They’ll settle in another state that invests in its workers. Or, as many are doing now, they will bring their own skilled workers here in lieu of hiring Texans.
That’s why the Texas Workforce Commission needs to kick into high gear. In May the commission awarded a $300,000 grant to Workforce Solutions North Texas to offer job training to workers whose jobs were affected by the pandemic. That sort of thing ought to be happening throughout the state.
We should also reexamine licensing requirements, especially for low-income jobs. Barriers to employment should ensure the proficiency of employees and the safety of consumers, not protect businesses from competition. Don Willett was on to something in 2015, when, as a Texas Supreme Court justice, he took the Legislature to task over a 750-hour training requirement for eyebrow threaders. “Not one of the 750 required hours of cosmetology covers eyebrow threading,” he wrote in the 2015 case Patel v. Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. “Government-mandated barriers to employment should actually bear some meaningful relationship to reality.”
We need to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, has the same promise of opportunity. Black children graduate high school at lower rates than their white peers, and Black adults are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white adults. One study found that if your name is Jamal or Lakisha, you have to submit many more résumés to get a job interview than someone named Greg or Emily—and that’s with a résumé that is otherwise exactly the same!
Opportunity requires that our legal system function without favor or prejudice. Law and order is a central pillar of conservatism, but we need to make sure that it is applied fairly. Conservatives rarely discuss the sorts of gross injustices that the recent attacks on George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have laid bare. We should never back away from supporting the vast majority of good police officers. But neither should we shy away from addressing the real problems with how we police. That means we’ll be vocal allies in the bipartisan movement for body cameras, for more rigorous training, for a thorough review of use-of-force protocols, and for unflinching application of the law against police officers who breach their sacred trust.
We also need to start finding the political courage to push back against police unions that, as unions tend to do, fight off accountability measures. This battle was on full display last session, when the bipartisan Sandra Bland bill that aimed to reduce the number of arrests police make for minor infractions was shot down by a coalition that included the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, our state’s largest police union. Conservatives should renew the effort to pass that bill next session.
We need to acknowledge that it’s difficult to seize opportunity if you’re sick. At 17.7 percent, Texas’s uninsured rate is the highest in the country; about five million Texans lack health insurance. We know that when Texans don’t have health insurance, they are less likely to seek care, more prone to worse health outcomes, and more likely to be a drag on state resources.
To be fair, not all of this is the state’s doing. Our national health-care system is a mess. But Texas leaders can’t afford to wait on Washington. Governor Abbott should be working with state lawmakers to brainstorm ways to simplify health care, expand access, and reduce costs. The passage of Senate Bill 1264, which limited the use of surprise medical billing, was a good start.
But there’s more that conservatives can do. We should look for reasonable ways to accept our fair share of federal Medicaid dollars and champion preventive care, especially for lower-income Texans. And we should make the prices of drugs and medical procedures more transparent. It shouldn’t be impossible to determine how much an MRI costs before you get in the machine.
We need to recognize that different communities have different ideas about how to govern themselves. Conservatives have long believed that the family and the individual—not the federal government—compose the core of society. That principle resonates strongly in a state like Texas, which is known for its independent spirit. But we also need to recognize the importance of community and civil society.
Waco’s municipal codes don’t need to be identical to Dallas’s. And as a state, Texas should welcome that diversity of local flavor. It’s the genius of federalism played out at the state level, and it’s something that Texas conservatives used to champion: government closest to the people is best.
But lately it seems the only trick in the Texas GOP playbook is to leverage Republican majorities in the Lege to preempt local ordinances passed by Democratic city councils that offend the party’s conservative base. These fights don’t serve statewide interests. If you live near Abilene, why should you care about Austin’s sick-leave policy? Or whether Laredo bans plastic shopping bags? You shouldn’t. And yet sometimes it seems that these sorts of issues are all that Republican legislators and Governor Abbott want to discuss. It’s a blatant violation of our longtime belief in the importance of local control.
That’s not to say state preemption never makes sense, but there needs to be a neutral principle for when it’s appropriate. For example, if a local ordinance will have significant effects throughout the rest of the state, the state is well suited to taking up that issue. But if legislators are simply offended by whom Houston allows to use which bathroom, they should get over it instead of second-guessing the choices of Houston voters.
If the polls are correct, Texas will, after this election, be a deeply purple state. Though many Republicans are terrified of this possibility, they should welcome the challenge. It’s never healthy for one party to maintain a lock on power. That’s how parties grow corrupt and complacent; without the risk of losing power, they stick by old ideas and old ideologies and ignore the fact that a changing world requires a reexamination of dated orthodoxy. That apathy has gripped our party in recent years.
It would have been nice if we had managed to change on our own, without the pressures of electoral politics. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we’re now engaged in a political fight for the state’s future. And it’s one we can win, if we enter it as happy warriors with an inspiring vision. Fear is the only thing holding us back.
East Texas native Heath Mayo is a management consultant and the founder of Principles First, a grassroots organization committed to renewing conservative politics.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A New Conservative Manifesto.” Subscribe today.