In the midst of excoriating both the 5th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court for their dreadful decisions, I am encouraged by several bits of news.
1. Charles Kuffner Reports A Huge Upswing In Voter Registration Numbers
As some columnists and academics have speculated, more restrictive voter I.D. laws may have contributed to a surge in voter registrations. Among other things, fear (of the loss of voting rights) and anger (towards the officials and institutions responsible for these restrictions) may have energized a kind of immune-system response by the body politic – Mr. Kuffner reports a tweet by the Texas Secretary of State that voter registrations in Texas have topped 14 million, a substantial and relatively recent increase following a decade of more-or-less stagnant growth (Texas voter registration has bobbled around 12 million since 2004, with predictable surges before presidential elections, and gradual declines immediately afterwards).
This is very good news, and (as Mr. Kuffner notes, is a testament to the hard work being done by volunteers across the state in this election cycle).
2. Even An Apologist For Voter Suppression Thinks that Texas Photo I.D. Requirements Are Doomed
I don’t have much use for J. Christian Adams or his generally awful pandering to the extreme right-wing. He’s like my evil twin (my much higher-profile evil twin) – like me, he’s an election law attorney, and like me, he lost a government job for political reasons (in his case, the Department of Justice). Also like me, he reacted to his termination by starting a blog.
As a representative of the Mirror Mirror Universe, Mr. Adams (who confusingly lacks the goatee that is more-or-less mandatory for male residents of the evil alternate reality) does a fair job of collecting and republishing various defamatory rants and screeds (Ebola-Infected Taliban Prayer Rugs Found In Preschool! North Korean Troops Massing In The Florida Panhandle! Biden Caught Drinking Blood In Sewer Lair!) He shares Greg Abbott’s view that the trial court decision in Veasey v. Perry is a deplorable accommodation of the peasant class, and a terrible miscarriage of justice that must be remedied at once, before the lower caste rabble get swept up in revolutionary zeal.
But Mr. Adams is still a lawyer, and his professional training obligates him to inform his audience that while the decision is an outrageous attack on right-wing efforts to purify, sanctify and cleanse the democratic process of any lingering secular humanism, that there are no valid legal grounds for an appeal by the defendants, and no likelihood of the decision being overturned by an appellate court.
On this point, Mr. Adams and I are in complete agreement.
3. A New Group of Scrappy Underdogs Are Emerging In Local Races
Another thing that Mr. Kuffner has pointed out is that there are new entrants to local politics who are challenging safe Republican seats in heavily conservative areas.
This suggests a new sociopolitical benchmark, the Quixote Index, which would be an abstracted measure of persistence by liberal candidates running in long-shot local elections.
Persistence pays off – candidates with staying power who are not discouraged by long odds (1) drain resources from their opponents, (2) place themselves to take advantage of unexpected vulnerabilities, (3) gain organizational experience, (4) increase brand visibility and name recognition, and (5) benefit from tectonic shifts in the political landscape.
“Bottom-up” strategies for gaining political power are nothing new, and I don’t generally think of myself as a proponent of “bottom-up” coalition-building to the exclusion of other strategies – I’m more of a “whatever works” supporter – actual shifts in political momentum come from both the top and the bottom of the ballot, and the only reason why any distinction is made in the first place is because even though the underdogs should spend their money everywhere, they are constrained by their underdog status and lack of resources to pick their battles.
What I suspect is that as momentum and pressure builds towards a more profound political realignment, more and more long-shot candidates for local offices leave off worrying or caring about the supposed impregnable strength of their opponents, the trite, timid, reactive advice of their advisers and consultants, and all the other obstacles in their path.
In part, candidates run in impossible races because they are gambling that the tide is turning in ways too subtle to be seen or understood by the smart money (And by the way, the smart money is often stupid about paradigm shifts). In part, the mere act of running is both the cause of and the reaction to that turning of the tide of public thought.
Ross Ramsey wrote a piece recently for the Texas Tribune, interviewing conservative political consultant Wayne Thornburn about the 2014 election, and discussing “Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came To Dominate Texas Politics.”
Mr. Thornburn is understandably dismissive of Democratic Party candidates’ chances, given his background and expectations. Nevertheless, he does see a parallel between the fall of the once-monolithic segregationist Texas Democratic Party and the waning prospects of the current Texas Republican Party.
In Mr. Thornburn’s view, the 1950s-era Texas Republican Party was organizationally stronger and better situated to take advantage of openings than the Democratic Party is now.
I disagree with his historical assessment – Texas Democrats have a number of organizational strengths that the “honorable opposition” lacked in the 1950s, including (1) a geographic power base with unassailable safe districts in South Texas and the major cities, (2) mature fundraising and campaign networks, and (3) a restive population of still-living and relatively young current and former officeholders who have personal experience in holding elective office in state government. In comparison, Texas Republicans of the 1950s had (1) no geographic power base, (2) no campaign networks or mentoring, and very little in-state fundraising, and (3) no living cadre of current or former officeholders.
While I might disagree with Mr. Thornburn’s (understandably partisan) dismissal of Democratic Party chances, I do note that Mr. Thornburn, a staunch Republican political veteran, nevertheless believes that the state Republicans are on the losing side over the long term (“six to eight years”) if the Texas Democrats make a sustained effort.
The Texas GOP is divided, bickering, and ideologically adrift. As it turns farther and farther to the right, it loses moderate votes. Eventually, those lost votes will translate into lost elections. I think it’ll happen in 2014, Mr. Thornburn thinks it’ll happen in 2020 or 2022, but we agree that it’ll happen.
Out of curiosity, I took a look at one of the earliest successful congressional elections of a Texas Republican after Reconstruction – that of Representative Bruce Alger, who represented the Dallas area from 1955-1964. Representative Alger was the sole Republican in the Texas Congressional delegation until 1963.
What’s interesting is that Representative Alger’s 1954 election presaged the tactics that would eventually lead the Texas Republicans to triumph. Alger was not expected to win in 1954, but defeated the former City of Dallas mayor Wallace Savage by about 6%. Mayor Savage’s political weakness among Southern Democrats was that he had pushed generally for additional housing for blacks and fair treatment of black workers in Dallas, and he had desegregated the city ambulance service.
Bruce Alger was unusual among pre-Civil Rights-era Republicans in that he broke with his party on segregation (which at the time the Republicans were still against) and civil rights issues (which the national Republican Party still championed), was vehemently opposed to any civil rights legislation, and was solidly in the bosom of the (traditionally Democratic Party) white Dallas segregationist elite.
His success and personal mentoring helped John Tower win LBJ’s Senate seat in 1961, thereby planting the seeds of the Southern Strategy (i.e., the Republican Party’s strategy of opposing the Civil Rights movement and appealing to Southern segregationists), and he only fell from grace after JFK’s assassination as the result of matters unrelated to race, when his obstructionism on regulatory matters, his inability to negotiate, and his unrepentant virulent hatred of JFK began to look insensitive and unseemly. In short, he was the proto-Ted Cruz.
Today, all the factors that had worked for Bruce Alger and made the Southern Strategy successful work against the Republican Party in Texas.
A commitment to the ideal of racial equality is now much more solidly incorporated into our national culture than it was in the 1950s, and segregationist leanings are much less useful politically than they once were. (Racism remains a powerful motivating factor among a core group of voters, but must be communicated elliptically and with muted rhetoric, except in private).
Additionally (and thanks to the same Civil Rights movement that so effectively changed the tenor of cultural discussions of race), minority voters have more leverage in elections today than in the 1950s, and can therefore exert at least a tenuous influence on election outcomes.
Finally, by yoking its party platform to the concerns of radicalized poor rural whites, the Republican Party has had to adopt unpopular militant policies regarding abortion, gay marriage, resource management, education, housing, religion, government, health care, immigration, the environment, and so on. The party is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
If the Republican Party was able to successfully embrace segregation and pull a complete 180-degree reversal on civil rights within the space of a decade in the 50s and 60s, it certainly has the organizational capacity to change course again, just as violently, and outdo the Democratic Party on social justice issues.
Because of the overall homogeneity of American political discourse (which is always aimed at the mainstream centrist voter), and because the national Democratic Party is currently quite conservative, there’s plenty of room for a completely unrecognizable leftist Republican Party (maybe it would look like some hybrid of Netherlands-style social welfare and extreme libertarianism). But the problem is that such a radical alteration would be the end of the Party – it would lose its shrinking voter base completely, and would not be able to court a leftist voter base fast enough to make up for the losses.
The Texas Republican Party is sitting on an ice floe that is starting to melt and crack. The party membership is angry, cold, and uncomfortable, and (maybe) regrets having picked this particular ice floe back in the day, but sitting on the ice is preferable to the inevitable dunking in the freezing water. They can’t run, and they can’t stand still, and so they just have to close their eyes. Political maneuvers like redistricting, picture I.D., limitations on voter registration, and so on, are just the involuntary anticipatory muscle-clenches that come immediately before the dunking.
Tomorrow (October 20), early voting starts. Go vote!