Texas is the Laboratory of Fascism: On Vote-By-Mail Apps, the Concentration of Capital and the Texas GOP

The presidential race is actually quite tight in Texas, and this is very important. Biden is solidly in the margin of error, sometimes trailing Trump, sometimes ahead. The Texas Democratic Party is doubling down with probably their largest voter registration effort ever. The outrageous and grim possibility of another anti-choice bigot and apologist for fascism on the Supreme Court is galvanizing Democratic fundraising and GOTV efforts, while the RNC sends seven figure sums to Texas which they innocently claim is just “insurance.”  There’s an opposition in Texas, a state that is not as white and conservative as it used to be, though you would not know this looking at the state’s political leadership. This is one of several developments taking place nationally which are all converging in Texas in exaggerated form.  Another is the chilling trajectory of the already odious Texas Right as its grip on power has grown less and less secure. If Biden manages to take Texas (and it would be a real breath of fresh air if he does) and especially if he doesn’t, we’ll need every Texan who voted for him ready to fight on November 4th and after in the most literal senses of the word, because the Texas GOP will not win or lose nicely.

A very particular crisis is currently unfolding within the Texas Republican Party. A state party so tied to the oil industry was never going to weather an economic crash (plus pandemic, plus hurricanes) without looking squarely at empty coffers.  But the state leadership is also doubling down on the national elections and the Trump strategy. They have now locked the state government into a battle against municipal leaderships, hoping to block local authorities from sending vote-by-mail applications to the electorate during a deadly pandemic. The Republicans are extremely well-versed and practiced in the racist dismantling of basic democratic rights, though they’ve never had to do it in the face of an active rebellion for Black Lives and the risk of infecting and killing thousands. They are only now realizing this could jeopardize their loyal voting bloc amongst retirees, one of the reasons the Texas GOP is trying to sabotage what they have historically relied on. Not everything is going to plan. In fact, the ongoing conflict between the Texas Attorney General’s office and Harris County is the latest installment in a long series of improvised battles by the GOP; as cities have become more important arenas for corporate profits to be realized, the state has to depend on its relationship to national questions.  Austin has Facebook and Google and Apple; the people in the Capitol do not.  

Moreover, the Republicans are not even united in Texas on the question of early voting and vote-by-mail ballots.  State GOP party chair Allen West and Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller have filed suit against Governor Greg Abbott, who used emergency powers to add six days to the early voting period in Texas because of the coronavirus pandemic.  West and Miller, who are usually supporters of Abbott, are arguing that the move is unconstitutional, because the election laws state that early voting must begin 17 days before the election.  Setting up yet another Trump-style election challenge, this maneuver is not only another attempt to gum up the works, but also demonstrates how the farther-right wing of the Party is slowly taking over (oddly making Abbott appear rational by comparison).  For instance, one of the major backers of the suit is Houston-based conservative influencer, Steve Hotze, who in June, immediately after the police killing of George Floyd, left a voice mail for Abbott’s chief of staff, urging the Governor to crack down hard on protestors:

“I want you to give a message to the governor,” Hotze told Abbott’s chief of staff, Luis Saenz, in a voicemail. “I want to make sure that he has National Guard down here and they have the order to shoot to kill if any of these son-of-a-bitch people start rioting like they have in Dallas, start tearing down businesses — shoot to kill the son of a bitches. That’s the only way you restore order. Kill ’em. Thank you.” 

The stage has now been set for a confrontation between the most reactionary of elements of the Texas Republican party and the rest of the state.

But the trend towards fascism is not the only dynamic underway in the state.  Texas is the second largest economy in the U.S., just trailing California. Behind Texas are New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey (which one of these is not like the others). Since the neoliberal era, most of these strongly tend Democratic or are the very swingiest of swing states. Moreover, the U.S. ruling class tends to leave its biggest concentrations of capital in the political hands of Democrats – except, it seems, when it comes to Texas. 

Even here, though, the national pattern still works itself out within the state’s political economy, albeit in contradictory ways. Not a lot of solidly GOP-aligned states have as many big cities as Texas does. And, if the Texas GOP could wish them all away, they absolutely would. Unfortunately for Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, the biggest geographical centers of capital accumulation in Texas are unsurprisingly its major urban centers. This is also where so many of the state’s oppressed communities are concentrated. And it so happens that Dallas, Houston and Austin are actually controlled by Democratic mayors, while San Antonio is led by a progressive Independent. Fort Worth, granted, is run by a Republican (but it must be said that Mayor Betsy Price has been seen several times wearing a mask during this pandemic). While oil remains an influential but increasingly dire feature of Texas politics, industries like healthcare, tech, transportation and services/consulting, which do best where the working class is most concentrated, have grown markedly in the past few years. In the main, Texas capital, like its counterpart nationally, is still left in the custodianship of Democratic managers. 

But if Texas Democrats clean up in large urban areas and the borderlands, the Texas GOP holds onto state power and senate seats by dominating the wider suburbs that surround the cities, the rural counties, and still by retaining a stubborn minority of the vote in urban ones. The result is that city-state relations become the scene of intense antagonisms, antagonisms that their years of redistricting and gerrymandering have unwittingly nurtured. Moreover, any time the Texas GOP tries to impose a serious element of its agenda (from besieging sanctuary cities, to punishing the homeless, to terrorizing trans people), it has to fend off a fightback from all of the major cities.  

When Rick Perry’s administration tried to steward the passage of Senate Bill 5 in 2013 (banning abortions after 20 weeks, along with new regulations to close every abortion clinic in the state), a massive urban protest movement, which would ultimately go national, sparked by socialist and Occupy groups certainly wasn’t the plan – nor was being defeated on the front page of every newspaper in the country.  It’s a problem for the GOP, again, when Abbott has to threaten budget cuts to the state’s capitol or simply the state’s flagship university (down the street from where he lives and works; and the primary motor of accumulation in the city), when they declare themselves a sanctuary city or campus. It’s a problem for the GOP, when Abbott can’t hold his party’s biennial, six thousand-attendee state convention in Houston because Mayor Sylvester Turner, in probably his best and most hilarious move in office, simply cancels is it less than two weeks before in the midst of a deadly pandemic.  When Abbott tried to be savvy and placate both his COVID-denying constituency and a public health agenda by devolving pandemic measures to municipal authorities, the assertive distancing and mask-wearing policies of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo provoked his deranged partner in crime, Patrick, into yet another one of his frenzies and he backpedaled. The result of which was even wider protest from city officials and county judges. The governor is now promising to financially blockade cities that defund their police departments, as police chiefs in Dallas are resigning, and demands to defund are making advances in the very city where he works. Abbott has yet to find stable terrain this year, and it’s not likely he will in the near future either.

This isn’t to say municipal Democrats with real power in the heart of capital in Texas never pass the political buck onto state government (they do it all the time; as do too many activists). This is to say that the Republican Party in Texas has a problem. The state’s centers of profit-making are also the center of opposition to the GOP; and all attempts to disenfranchise this opposition actually end up displacing it onto more explosive terrain. The GOP’s odious ruling class base in Texas is primarily in oil and financialized real-estate capital (the same industries most loyal to Trump), whose forms of accumulation are struggling to hold their position and remain least amenable to long term planning; and one of the reasons that Republican politicians make for such poor state managers. 

This, however, hardly means a gradual rise of a progressive Texas and a political retreat of the Texas GOP. On the contrary, the shameless breakdown of US’s ostensibly democratic institutions will continue (expressing a global trend) and make laughless jokes out of progressive strategies that substitute the state’s changing demographics for a socialist politics that arms and champions them. Even as each passing day exposes the Texas of rightwing imaginations as the absurd fiction it always was, the state’s very real leftwing potentials have yet to take the form often promised. Whatever genuine electoral opportunities may arise, they will likely appear in unexpected ways and with unconventional goals, remaining secondary to real sources of power outside the theaters of electoral competition – in the mobilization of neighborhoods, wards, barrios, apartment complexes and workplaces. 

If not, the Republican Party will continue to rout yet another generation of leftward Texans and have its way. There is no time to wait for a majority to constitute itself electorally – if its even allowed to in the first place. The Texas GOP will resolve its weaknesses not just with more grandstanding disenfranchisement (while nationally fortifying the federal courts like a castle with life-long appointments for reactionaries and fascist agents) but also by looking to I.C.E., the state troopers, local police departments, the armed far right and even further for help. They already are. At least in Kenosha, law enforcement was bullied into charging Kyle Rittenhouse with the murders of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum and attempted murder of Gaige Grosskreutz. In Austin, Daniel Perry, the murderer of the anti-fascist activist, Garrett Foster, has yet to even be arrested. Its constituency nationally is already heading in this direction, while the Texas GOP itself increasingly flirts with ‘QAnon conspiracy’ filth along with the utterly demented likes of InfoWar’s host and Austin’s very own, Alex Jones. All of this is how they’ll dominate the borderlands and the cities they don’t control – the concentration camps in McAllen and I.C.E. raids in Texas cities under Trump are an exact preview of this. They may not ask the Democrats for help in repression – but be rest assured they will ultimately get it all the same, with the well-studied sophistication and unparalleled talent that their Republican counterparts could never possibly supply. They were left in control of these capital-cities for a reason, after all.  

Even so, working people and their crucial oppressed leaderships hold a tremendous amount of power to defeat the fascists and challenge the whole of Texas capitalism in its very guts. If the 2013 uprising against the Texas War on Women showed what was possible in the state, the horizons have only risen since. Look no further than the Movement for Black Lives, which in Texas turned the entire state upside down, producing some of the largest demonstrations ever witnessed in the metropolises (including strikes at its major ports), while radiating outwards into the mid-cities (Odessa, Tyler, Midland, Edinburgh) and small towns (even Vidor!) and school districts, where nothing like it had ever been seen. This is a new standard for the streets. And if we’re to win the fights ahead, its one we’ll have to meet – and then surpass.

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