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September 22, 2003

Blogburst: Moving On

By Jim Dallas

This is a late entry for Charles Kuffner's Blogburst on the future of the Democratic Party in Texas. I had some family errands to make today, and I wanted to think this out in detail and do my homework before posting.

The Democratic Party is Dead. Long live the Democratic Party.

Some would argue that appealing to rural voters is a key to winning back power. While this will be an important short-term objective in some legislative district races for next year and possibly in 2006, it is not a viable basis for long-term planning.

Texas ceased to be a rural state decades ago; we are no longer a state of farms and ranches, but rather a state of cities and suburbs. Sixty percent of Texans live in the 15 largest counties and over 40 percent live in just six counties (to wit, Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, El Paso, and Travis). These counties have been - since the end of Reconstruction - core constituencies of the Republican Party in Texas. This urban concentration of formerly-rural Texans and mostly-conservative immigrants from the North have been the driving force of partisan change in this state since the 1950s.

That is not to deny the racial, religious, and other social and political reasons why Republican power increased over the years; and Lord knows that there certainly were a lot of Democrats who made conscious decisions to become Republicans (just as many Republicans, like Molly Beth Malcolm, switched parties to become Democrats!). But as a professor of mine once noted in a lecture, there are two forces of change at work -- long-term, passive replacement (whereby white-collar suburbanite Republican kids simply replace their rural parents, who die off or retire to Boca Raton, and in either case no longer exist as voters in Texas) and actual conscious party-switching.. It is my theory that replacement had a lot more to do with where we are today.

Let's do ourselves a favor and discard the logic that there are "liberal Democrats" and "conservative Democrats" and "Republicans" which all exist as monolithic blocks and that 1+1=2. This is an important point I wish to make -- the Republican Party is not dominant in Texas today simply because conservative rural Democrats found a better suitor; it is dominant today because rural Texas is gone with the wind and the Texas economy now revolves around the industrial capitalism which made the Republican Party dominant in many parts of the North in the last century.

For many years, rural Texas wielded a disproportionate amount of influence over state politics; in another time (before the era of "one person, one vote" and equally-sized districts came into effect in the 1960s) rural Democrats gerrymandered state and congressional districts to effectively disenfranchise urbanites by the bushel.

What has happened in the last thirty years is that economic and demographic change finally gave Big Business, city-slicker Republicans the votes they needed to turn that order on its head. The deadlock was broken in the 1980s and 1990s when the GOP rallied behind captivating personalities such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, bringing them enough "Reagan Democrats" and "Bushocrat" votes to hand them an electoral majority.

And even while Democrats were able to hold on and even strengthen our hold on big city politics -- in 1980, for example, Reagan got nearly 60 percent of the two-party vote in El Paso County; in 2000, Gore carried it by over 60 percent -- by appealing to liberals and the growing base of minorities, suburban voters in the Big Six counties and their satellites (e.g. Montgomery, Collin, and Williamson Counties) were wholly integrated into the Republican juggernaut, often with little effective opposition. Generally speaking, the fastest growing counties (with the exception of South Texas) were the most Republican, and became even more so between 1980 and 2000.

There is some evidence to believe that these long-term trends have slowed; and much hay has been made about the fact that the growth of Democratic-leaning minority groups may change Texas politics in the near-future.

All of this suggests to me the following strategy:

  • Work to improve turnout in the urban core counties (turnout has slipped slightly in recent decades) and South Texas. This has been conventional wisdom for some time;
  • Court rural Texans -- but not at the expense of city-dwellers;
  • Find a strong leader who can clearly articulate our agenda; and
  • Finally, but most importantly, join the Battle for the Soul of the Suburbs.

The Battle for the Soul of the Suburbs

Let's face facts -- no matter how white, upscale, or conservative the Houston and Dallas suburbs are, there is simply no excuse to let the GOP win 70 to 80 percent of the vote there. And here is why: not every one in the suburbs, is white, upscale, or conservative.

In general, I strongly feel that Democrats nationally and in Texas especially are doing a poor job of working with apartment dwellers -- a group which tends to be overwhelmingly Democratic if you can just hunt them down. Finding these "other" suburbanites has got to be an important project. And giving them a reason to vote needs to be part of our message. In the last statewide campaign, we heard a lot about homeowners insurance, but what about the millions of Texans who don't have a home? Why aren't renters issues ever talked about?

Women voters are often underappreciated as well. I wrote a paper several years ago about Democratic strategy in countywide races in Galveston County, and in the process interviewed former county chair Mary Ellen Brennan. It was her opinion that outreach to upscale suburban women was a key part of success there in Galveston County, and I am inclined to agree.

We need to develop an over-arching message which really does resonate in the suburbs as well as in the big cities. And while education is usually thought of an issue that spans the gap, it has been, in my opinion, bungled by failing to really address the fundamental problems of school finance in this state. But that is another lecture. Moreover, there needs to be a real dialogue about higher education funding -- because it's ultimately people in the middle that are squeezed the most by creeping privatization.

But before these things can be really effectively accomplished, there needs to be organization, on the ground, in all of these places. And we need more activists that are really active; that is, involved in other aspects of community life. This also requires money; and I think Charles hit the nail on the head on this. But I'd also note that Harris County still has a $50,000 annual budget, which is a lot more than ever gets spent in the neighboring counties.

As a final thought, I suspect that the same economic realities that created Republican Texas will eventually subside. My inner marxist reminds me that the current situation tends to hold within it the seeds of its own destruction.

But my inner God-fearing, red-blooded American also tells me that the future is what we make of it. Let's roll, Democrats!

Posted by Jim Dallas at September 22, 2003 06:37 AM | TrackBack


I really like Jim's analysis and comments.

My suggestion for the suburbs - small business (or as we might say "jobs"). Clinton was right, "It's the economy stupid". It always is. There are plenty of business people in the Democratic party who know that they are being killed by multinational corporations.

Charlie Jackson
somewhere in San Antonio today.

Posted by: charlie jackson at September 22, 2003 02:37 PM
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