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Preliminaries on the Dem. Party’s “Texas Question” and What Abolition’s Got to Do With It

The Democrats try again. Everyone has the story by now: Trump cleared in Texas by almost six points, Biden found new strength in the suburbs outside Austin and Houston, particularly in Fort Bend, Williamson and Hays County, but hemorrhaged votes all along the borderlands. Biden marched away with the cities: Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Austin – but dramatically lost the rural counties. Trump made inroads among racially oppressed and marginalized groups in Texas and the much-discussed-but-hardly-theorized ‘urban-rural’ divide is as sharp as ever in the state. 

Party operatives chalk up the disaster in the Valley to the region’s absence from the campaign schedule. No one actually believes this. If we’re serious about saying Latinx populations aren’t a monolith, then we should also say they’re as politically complex as any other racialized group and with more divisions than just ‘Cuban, Venezuelan and the remainder.’ The truth is Biden had nothing meaningful to say or programme to offer the poorest voters in the state like those in Starr County or the many communities in the Valley who are hardly migrants, because Texas really was stolen from Mexico. Social being determines consciousness. The Biden bus may have stopped in Laredo on October 31st, but there was no Joe Biden on it, actually or metaphorically. 

The story in South Texas and the Valley, as Mike Davis has already argued, is not simply a story of electoral neglect; it is a story of economic abandonment and militarization.  The flight of money from the border, once an important commercial trading area between Texas and Mexico, has meant that some of the poorest counties in Texas are in the South.  Decent jobs have been replaced with ICE detention facilities (as both a place of employment and a place of incarceration).  Webb (95% Latinx, though Texas counts them as “white”), La Salle (77% Latinx), and Frio counties (74% Latinx) were the South Texas counties that Biden lost the most ground in from the 2016 race.  Of these, Webb county is the largest by far, and Laredo is the largest population center by far.  The median household income of Webb ($28,100), La Salle ($21,800), and Frio ($26,500) tells the story of just how hard people have it here—and those are pre-pandemic figures.  The problem is not “message” but “money.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

But there are two other problems with this blame-the-Valley story.  First, every county in south Texas in and near the valley—except Zapata—Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Dimmit, Maverick, all voted for Biden over Trump.  The numbers may not have been as lopsided as the Democrats anticipated, but everywhere in the country the race was close.  Had Biden carried every vote in the Valley(~360,000) he still would have lost Texas.  Second, and more astonishingly, even in Zapata, every down ballot race was won by a Democrat, albeit at a smaller margin than before.   

The more glaring problem is the rest of the state, where the Trumpiest of Trump counties were greater than the most-Biden of Biden ones: Trump cleared 75% in 164 of Texas’s 254 counties; Biden accomplished that feat not even once.  Nowhere in Texas was there the same enthusiasm about Biden.  These are regions steeped in reaction and where many have been largely abandoned by capital since small populations don’t tend to support big profits.  Schools, universities, the city and healthcare administrations are often the largest employers and massively underfunded – a crucial part of how people living here experience and form opinions about the public sector.  Meanwhile, they’ve either been left to the conservatism of the cattle industry and agribusiness as well as the collateral disasters of some of the most nauseating sections of capital. Take the horror-map of fracking in Texas:

Source: Environment Texas

Or the violent conservatism and jingoism borne of living in military towns organized around racism, misogyny and militarism (look no further than the horrific murders of Vanessa Guillen and others at Fort Hood this year).  Texas is 3rd in the country for military bases, behind only California and Virginia.

Source: Dallas Morning News

Much of the current thinking, however, about how we got here is caught up in uncritically received wisdom. For most progressives, Texas is in the GOP’s pocket, because it has always been. The kernel in this otherwise questionable account is that Texas for much of its history was been a one-party state, first under a Democratic Party led by a fraught alliance of northern liberalism and southern segregation, then under a conservative Republican Party united by Christian evangelicals and neoliberals. The Democrats lost Texas, so the story goes, when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which provoked white reaction and party realignment. There’s certainly something to this. But if this were as true and uncomplicated as most believe, the Democrats would have lost Texas in the presidential elections of 1964. Only they did not. Or maybe in 1968, except they did not. In an otherwise lopsided victory for Nixon, Texas was one of the few states that remained loyal to a sleepy Hubert Humphrey against both Nixon’s anti-communism as well as a rabid segregationist, George Wallace (who carried almost all of the deep south). True, Texas went for Nixon four years later – but with basically every other state except Massachusetts. Carter would win it back against Ford in 1976. It’s only under Reagan’s Republican Party that Texas does an about-face in presidential elections and in the 1990s, one party rule within the state consolidated.

In the intervening years, the contradictory alliance of the Democratic Party’s national organization found expression at the state level as well. On the one hand, Governor Allan Shivers in 1956 wanted any member of the Texas Communist Party executed by firing squad. But by the 1960s, there were state-wide party leaders like Senator Ralph Yarborough who could win and get re-elected, while opposing segregation as well as the Vietnam War, and championing bilingual education, labor unions, greater public spending, and even Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in Texas of all places. After Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the leftwing of the Texas Democratic Party was remarkably popular and held a foothold in statewide office. Yarborough’s political career was deliberately sabotaged by the Democratic Party’s rightwing, chiefly a border-town capitalist named Lloyd Bentsen, who successfully primaried Yarborough in 1970 and later became senator and V.P. candidate for Dukakis. The party remained strongly competitive as the otherwise unremarkable Dolph Briscoe and Mark White claimed the governorship. And later, the party would see the ascendency of Ann Richards, an inspiring, unapologetic liberal (in Texas, work with us) and clarion champion of the Equal Rights Amendment to governorship. Notably, Texas was the only state in the South to ratify the ERA (its founding convention, the National Women’s Conference, held in Houston in 1977) – and, more notably, with little controversy. 

The point is there’s a story here. Gavin Wright, who has done some work on the South, has called attention to two things.[1] First, the Civil Rights Act, and crucially the Voting Rights Act in 1965, did quite a bit to strengthen the southern Democratic Party organizations as it opened up an entire electorate of long disenfranchised Black voters.  Black communities elected Black representatives (e.g. in Texas, Barbara Jordan) and mayors, who led crucial initiatives for greater public spending and infrastructure, which benefited and drew the support of working-class whites.  Second, working class whites, far from transformed into anti-racists, nevertheless still voted with the Democratic Party given its association with opposition to big business and authority. Wright ultimately dates the real shift in the South’s party politics to the Clinton administration’s passage of NAFTA in 1993 and the associated collapse and restructuring of the manufacturing industry that made working class white voters more susceptible to the social conservatism of the Republican Party. Dramatically in Texas, the Republican wave in 1994 sweeps Ann Richards from her governorship and the Democrats haven’t held statewide office since. 

This analysis, however revealing, is only half the story. Wright’s telling one particular story of neoliberalism, its expression in party realignment and a shift in how class was happening in the US. Arguably the most fundamental of all class relations within American capitalism is that of racist prisons and policing. It’s unfortunate that less than a few months after the greatest anti-racist uprising in a century and all the hand-wringing over the “urban-rural divide,” no one has bothered to mention the name, Ruth Wilson Gilmore.[2] In her pathbreaking book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, Gilmore showed how neoliberalism reshuffled the links between urban and rural counties in the state of California by a pipeline of racist prisons and policing.  The wartime economy and the postwar boom transformed the state’s economic architecture as well as its public capacities. The latter became increasingly violent and repressive as the post-war boom concluded (went into crisis) alongside historic defeats for the social movements of the working class, led by its oppressed leaderships. Rural areas, with surplus and otherwise unprofitable land, were reorganized around prisons (though never receiving the promised economic benefits) while racialized city convicts, criminalized by poverty and unemployment in cities up to their neck in austerity and policing, were sent to do time far from home. 

Like California, Texas capitalism was also massively reorganized by the wartime economy, as military and other linked industries (to say nothing of bases) were concentrated there.  There’s no space for a full analysis here, but it’s possible to suggest the bare outline of a story. The rural counties of Northeast and Central Texas today are all solidly GOP. In 1990, though, Ann Richards carried them to the governor’s office (as did Mark White in 1983). What happened? These and surrounding counties, during the violent constitution of neoliberalism and party realignment, were the subject of the largest prison expansion of any state in the entire country. Over half of all those sentenced came from four cities but less than four percent were sentenced there.[3] It was a strikingly rural phenomenon that speaks directly to the spatial polarization and expression of class relations in Texas as well as the US today. Whatever the precise timeline, the state with the country’s largest and deepest history of prisons has everything to do with its racist, stubborn conservatism today. 

Top Left: Mark White’s successful gubernatorial run in 1983, by county (Wikipedia). Top Center: Ann Richard’s successful gubernatorial run in 1990, by county (Wikipedia). Top Right: State results in the 2020 presidential election by county (Wikipedia). Bottom Center: Prison expansion between 1979-2000, by county (Travis and Lawrence 2004, see footnote).

Texas Democrats collaborated with this mutation in racial capitalism from top to bottom. Their “Texas Question” is not our “Texas Question.” And that’s why it’s impossible to talk about ‘winning Texas,’ this election or whatever activists think comes next (Green New Deal (GND), Medicare-for-All, etc.), if we simply pretend the summer didn’t happen. Every enduring attempt to establish the most basic social democratic institutions in the U.S. to date has required the revolutionary torque of the Black freedom struggle – from the First Reconstruction of emancipation and ‘abolition democracy’ to the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Movement and the Long ‘68. The Floyd Rebellion has raised the question of a Third Reconstruction – physically, in the tens of millions, and not only in the cities (just look at how fast the cop who murdered Jonathan Price in Wolfe City, TX was charged). Should the Left fail to produce fighting forms of political representation for the Floyd Rebellion – an Abolitionist Coordinating Committee, a SNCC for the 21st century – it risks turning back on its best weapon against the forces massing on the right, all hope of a GND and the only political force historically proven capable of remaking the South and the country with it. 

S.U.


[1] Wright, G. (2020) Voting Rights, Deindustruialization, and Republican Ascendancy in the South. INET Economics: https://www.ineteconomics.org/uploads/papers/WP_135-Wright-VOTING-RIGHTS.pdf

[2] Gilmore, R. (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[3] Travis, J. and Lawrence, S. (2004) The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America’s Prison Expansion. Washington DC: Urban Institute Justice Policy Center. http://webarchive.urban.org/UploadedPDF/410994_mapping_prisons.pdf

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