In Texas, demography has been far from destiny, and politics are mired in paradox. As one of the first "majority-minority" states, Texas experienced 105 percent growth in the population of people of color and 157 percent growth in the immigrant population between 1990 and 2010. But this population shift has failed to translate into changes in politics. In fact, in the last decade, Texas has become a stepping stone for federal- level conservative leadership, from former President George W. Bush to former Governor Rick Perry to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. State legislators have also passed significant regressive legislation, from abortion and HIV education restrictions to laws permitting concealed handguns on college campuses, as well as attempts to end in-state tuition for undocumented students.
Why this dominance of conservative politics? Part of the reason is the failure of Democratic and progressive groups to more effectively mobilize new populations, particularly Latino voters. But progressive disadvantage has also been embedded into the rules of the arenas specified in the States of Change framework. The Texas legislature has become the paradigmatic case for the dangers of gerrymandering, with conservative groups utilizing their considerable power (and the lack of any independent commission) to isolate voters of color into singular districts that at times span two or more cities. The state also installed what remains the most restrictive voter ID and registration laws in the country, which (rather unbelievably) allows concealed weapons cards but not college IDs to be used as proper identification. There are few alternatives for grassroots groups or individual citizens to intervene in such politics, with no ballot measure or referendum process and a part-time legislature that only meets 140 days every other year.
Texas has strict voter ID laws
Lower scores represent less compact districts indicating that they are more gerrymandered. Texas is ranked 15th among states with the most potential gerrymandering, based on this metric.
The average legislative session in Texas is 4.6 months over a two-year period. Texas is ranked 18th in terms of the longest state legislative sessions.
The constraints within the electoral and legislative arenas appear to limit progressive possibilities throughout the governance landscape. Special interest contributions to judge and district attorney races and gerrymandered voting maps have also polarized the judicial sphere, while conservative fear-mongering contributed to a skyrocketing mass incarceration rate. The legislative structure not only gives tremendous authority to the governor and his administration, but also to major corporate interests like those in the oil, gas, and (somewhat surprisingly) real estate industries, whose lobbyists become de facto legislative staffers and face no legal restrictions on pouring cash into campaigns and election.
Corporations have translated this power into what some call "The Texas Miracle," which hinges upon one of the most unequal tax codes in the U.S., dismantled labor regulations (including no requirements for worker’s compensation), and a polarized wage structure. The Texas Miracle is also a communications strategy, betraying a sort of nationalistic pride (yup, Texans think they are a nation) in an unregulated economy that creates an ideological anchor to which there can be no challenge (see text box within the "Communications Arena" for more).
One cannot discuss the economy in Texas without hearing about the 'Texas miracle.' Economic boosters and conservative politicians tout the fact the state's GDP grew by 96 percent between 1990 and 2010, outperforming national growth of 52 percent, or pointing to the large numbers of Fortune 500 companies moving to Texas. For them, the 'why' is simple: generous corporate tax breaks, dismantled regulation, and tort reform. In other words, Texas is 'business-friendly.' Of course, as research points out, labeling this a 'miracle' may mask some complex realities, including an over-reliance on oil and gas, the creation of low-wage jobs, and growing racialized income disparities.
Part of why the myth has gone so far is because it is a cohesive story. It is a concise framing that manages to draw to some degree from data but to a large degree benefits from repetition. As numerous interviewees pointed out, any long-term change in Texas requires tackling the communications arena. One advocate notes that many are converging on a theory of change of 'inform-engage-vote,' and the 'inform' requires robust communications and open media. Some organizations are focusing on online news sources and social media towards this end. Progress Texas' 'Crazy Uncle' series, for example, featured short blogs and memes that discussed how to talk to an imagined 'crazy uncle' about immigration reform, marriage equality, or other progressive changes. Such approaches allow people to spread these messages among each other, without simply passing talking points out to the public. And ultimately, progressives suggest that developing an alternative vision and narrative—not just a series of snarky cracks at conservative inanities—is key to shifting power and policy. Indeed, messaging and communications itself has become a battleground in Texas.
Yet Texas remains a tantalizing prize—all those electoral votes! All those Latinos!—and so national groups parachute in with the hope of swinging particular elections. But the terrain is complex and outsiders are looked at with bemused (well, sometimes frustrated) tolerance. Meanwhile, organizations like the Workers Defense Project are focusing on base building around key issues of equity in targeting specific industries for organizing. Cross-cutting bodies like the Texas Organizing Project are forging permanent, dynamic relationships between community-based groups and unions. Various coalitions and networks, including the well-known Industrial Areas Foundation, have also understood that just as conservative groups rewrote Texas’ map, so social justice groups must rework the political geography. There is increasing discussion of a metro strategy in which grassroots alliances focus on cities but start to better incorporate suburban and quasi-rural areas and empower often-ignored parts of the Latino and immigrant populations.
In general, organizations are helping create more unified initiatives that bridge community and electoral organizing toward long-term voter registration and mobilization, but also short-term gains in local and regional policy. One big issue is resources: A common complaint is that funders often send their electoral dollars out of the state, a practice that may be understandable in light of the conservative grip on state power but also one that impedes building a more effective base for change.
Progressive organizers in Texas do not have the luxury of such an outward-looking strategy and there is an intriguing return of Texans to work in a state they love. Some blissfully recall the hopeful days of Ann Richards and Jim Hightower but many note that circumstances have changes and so must strategies. As they also train a new generation of youth and immigrant leaders, Texas’ progressive leaders are proving that when you do not see a straightforward path to power (or if it has been degraded by years of conservative privatization and tax cuts, as is the actual case for Texas’ highways), you make a road by walking.