By JOHN SCHWARTZ
You might think that Texas, as a Southwestern state, has always been deeply politically conservative. After all, the Lone Star State has had solidly Republican leadership in both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office since before many current UT students were born.
But as recently as 1994, all three of those branches were controlled by Democrats, and Texas produced some of the nation’s most progressive politicians. President Lyndon Baines Johnson steered major civil rights legislation through Congress, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. Other renowned Texas progressives included United States Senator Ralph Yarborough and Governor Ann Richards. The state itself is built in many ways on strong populist principles — and some regressive ones — that can still be felt in our politics. Let’s start with a little history, and we’ll come up to the present.
RACE AND SLAVERY
Texas was, of course, claimed from indigenous lands, and its racial history is fraught. Nowhere is that more troubling than in the state’s history of slavery.
When the land now known as Texas was controlled by Mexico, one of the things that attracted white American settlers was the promise that they would be able to own slaves. Stephen F. Austin, who had personal reservations about slavery but hoped to build a cotton economy, said, “Texas must be a slave country.” Mexico initially agreed to the condition but worked to abolish slavery; When Texas won its independence in 1836 and became a republic, a big part of the conflict was about preserving slavery. When it later joined the United States in 1845, it came in as a slave state. And when the Civil War began, Texas sided with the Confederacy. And after the North’s victory in the Civil War, Texans fought the principles of reconstruction. Yet there were progressive strains in the state’s origins, as well, such as constitutional provisions that protected people with debt from losing their homes.
For much of the 20th Century, Texas was overwhelmingly Democratic — but the Democrats were divided. There were conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats. Republicans weren’t a presence in the state until the second half of the century, as the Democratic Party embraced the Civil Rights Movement. Bill Moyers, today a journalist and political commentator, was an assistant to President Johnson when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The president, Moyers would recall in a memoir, looked depressed despite his legislative victory. When Moyers asked why, Johnson replied, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”
By the 1970s the divisions over civil rights, if anything, deepened as parts of the South, including Texas, were refashioned as the economically booming Sunbelt. President Richard Nixon ran on a “Southern strategy” that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways inflamed the nation’s racial divisions.
The Republican Party recognized that many people who called themselves Democrats actually had conservative values. The GOP appealed to those values with campaigns that called Democrats “tax-and-spend liberals” and argued that government was the problem — not the answer to many problems.
Ronald Reagan, the Republican president who ushered in a wave of conservative politics in the United States, often joked that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’” Texas was a part of that wave, and over time conservative Democrats became Lone Star State Republicans.
SWING FROM 1982 to 1986
The departure of many conservative Democrats left the remaining party moderate to liberal, and Democratic lawmakers came to reflect national political positions of the Democratic Party. Their high-water mark was the midterm election of 1982, when the party took top statewide offices. But by 1986, Republicans were ascendant. As Republican lawmakers gained greater control over the legislature, they were able to redraw electoral districts for the legislature and congress after each 10-year census, and the long-established process known as gerrymandering consolidated power in the state’s Republican party.
Texas Republicans have reflected their party’s further shift to the right in recent years. Until fairly recently, a pro-business center of the Republican party, represented by such figures in state leadership as Speaker of the House Joe Straus would blunt the most extreme conservative efforts of their GOP colleagues whose strong anti-LGBTQ efforts made state and national business leaders uncomfortable. Since Straus stepped away from the legislature in 2019, social conservatives have taken over the Texas Legislature. The Republican legislators who control the state Senate, House of Representatives and executive branch have passed bills aligned with the national party’s culture-war battles over such issues as transgender children playing sports and which bathrooms they can use, multiple laws restricting abortion and laws penalizing financial companies that take climate change into account in their lending decisions. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has called for families who support their trans children in gender-affirming treatment to be investigated for child abuse. The state now has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation after the United States Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision earlier this year.
While Republican influence in the legislature remains strong, the state still has a substantial Democratic population in its urban centers, with progressive politicians running Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
Looking to the future, one of the biggest questions for Texas’ political future is the Hispanic and Latinx vote: with more than 40 percent of the state’s population, Democrats have long predicted that this population would have a hand in turning Texas blue. In recent years, however, it has become clear that there is no voting homogeneity among Hispanic voters, with indications that many in the community vote Republican. So the “sleeping giant” of Texas politics might not prove as potent a force for Democratic politics as conventional wisdom suggested.
John Schwartz, a University of Texas professor and former New York Times and Washington Post reporter, is the son of the late iconic Texas statesman Babe Schwartz.