People are so eager to tell us why we are lucky to live in Austin. They tell us about the live music, the tacos and, of course, how friendly and welcoming people are around here.
“After living here for one month, you're considered by law to be a Texan,” a furniture salesman told me on my first day in the Lone Star capital. “At that point you have all the rights of a Texan.”
I didn't want to delay the purchase of my couch, so I didn't challenge a claim I found dubious on a number of levels. First off, there are millions of immigrants (both legal and undocumented) in Texas who can tell you that it takes a lot more than one month of living here to gain all the rights of other Texans. In addition, since I am an American citizen, what uniquely Texan “rights” did this guy believe I was denied during my first few weeks here?
Considering the things Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said and done in recent months, you can't blame some Texans for believing that people moving here from Wisconsin are citizens of another country.
In April, the governor, at the urging of tea party activists in the GOP, directed the Texas Guard to monitor U.S. military training operations “to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans,” from an alleged Obama-backed conspiracy to impose martial law.
And while some Republican governors across the country grumbled about the Supreme Court decision enshrining same-sex couples' right to marry, Abbott was one of only a few who suggested that officials in his state need not heed an order of the nation's highest court. He and Attorney General Ken Paxton both claimed that county clerks and judges would not be required to confer marriage licenses to gay couples if they opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
"No Texan is required by the Supreme Court's decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage," Abbott said at the time.
Even as politicians across the South have been forced to take down the Confederate flag—the symbol of “states’ rights” and racism—Texas Republicans continue to rally around the mythology of Lone Star nationalism to oppose federal initiatives aimed at protecting marginalized groups.
“They are trying to deny Texas our sovereign rights,” said Abbott last year, referring to the Obama administration's legal challenge to Texas' Voter ID law, which, like similar laws in other states, have been shown to depress minority voter turnout. Abbott's justification for the law was premised on his claim as attorney general that Texas was suffering from an “epidemic” of voter fraud. The investigation he launched to validate his claim resulted in about three dozen instances of alleged fraud, all but two of which were brought against black or Hispanic voters, and two-thirds of which were shown to be innocuous technical violations committed by eligible voters that did not result in illegal votes.
Republicans once again raised the states' rights banner to suggest that federal law –– including from a Supreme Court order –– could not force Texas to respect LGBT marriage rights.
“The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to overturn the rights of states and issued a nationwide law mandating same-sex marriage,” announced the Republican Party of Texas in a statement urging activists to sign a petition to tell the court, “Don't Mess with Texas' Rights!”
The Democratic Party of Texas quickly put out a statement denouncing Abbott for “vying to be the George Wallace of our generation,” referring to the former Alabama governor, whose futile “stand in the school house door,” to prevent black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama is forever ingrained in the American consciousness as an iconic turning point in the push for civil rights.
Just as Jefferson Davis and Wallace were doomed to fail, so is Abbott.
“They’re pushing the same argument they lost 150 years ago, I don’t know why they think they’ll win it this time,” said Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal political group. “No state has the right to discriminate against individuals.”
While all progressives are similarly dismissive of Abbott's prospects of triumphing legally, many are not optimistic that the rhetoric will soon change. While primaries in most states force politicians to play to the base, in states such as Texas the general election does little to pull them back to the center.
“For more than 20 years the only thing a Republican has to do in order to take statewide office is to win the Republican nomination, and avoid being hit by a bus before election day,” quipped Harold Cook, a veteran state Democratic politico and blogger, noting that only about 6 percent of Texas voters participate in non-presidential GOP primaries. “Doing the math on that, it means that 3 percent of Texans control the entire electoral process.”
That affects all policy arenas, but is particularly visible in issues dear to the religious right, such as abortion. The aggressive abortion restrictions approved by the legislature, which, if upheld by the Supreme Court, will result in the closure of most of the state's abortion clinics, were passed at the same time that a poll showed that only 36 percent of Texans believed the state's abortion laws should be more strict.
As a result of gerrymandering, said Heather Busby, head of NARAL-Pro Choice Texas, legislators feel little pressure from public opinion. The heat they fear, she said, comes from “these confederate flag waving, frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy theorists” among the GOP primary electorate.
In fact, the first article of the 2014 platform of the state GOP urges the state legislature to ignore, oppose, refuse and nullify any federal mandated legislation which infringes upon the state's 10th amendment right.” The same platform also called for restoring confederate plaques that were taken down from the Texas Supreme Court building 15 years ago and affirmed a belief in “withholding jurisdiction from the federal courts in issues involving family law, especially in any changes to the definition of marriage.” That was followed by an article declaring homosexuality to be a “chosen behavior” that “must not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.”
Indeed, how else to explain Abbott's bizarre action on the military training? For better or worse, the great majority of mainstream Republicans in Texas likely do not see the U.S. military as the enemy.
While gerrymandering has shifted politics in many states, Texas progressives (and moderates) also have to contend with a worst-in-the-nation voter turnout, a phenomenon that is most pronounced among low-income and minority populations who don't typically support Republicans. Efforts that will likely keep voting low include a recently-implemented Voter ID law and registration requirements that are more burdensome than in high-turnout states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon.
Many political analysts have pointed to the rapidly changing demographics here to predict Texas' eventual political shift from solid red to purple or even blue.
But in the near future, Texas legislators making their way into the Capitol will continue to walk past a memorial to Confederate soldiers which credits the southern troops for being “animated with the spirit of 1776 to preserve their rights.” 150 years after the Confederacy was defeated, there are finally plans to build a monument honoring the contributions of African-American soldiers, who are finally getting their recognition as full Texans.
Still, millions of other Texans, including Latinos and LGBT citizens, are still waiting.