Texas Identity and the Forces of Polarization

From the Editors | Is the Lone Star State Falling into Line? | Issue 12 | March 1, 2022

The Purple Principle enters its third season focusing on state level polarization against the backdrop of our 2022 primaries and with the following identity-based questions in mind:

  • Is the paralyzing zero-sum nature of our national politics & governance creeping, if not rushing, down down to the state and local level? 
  • Will the extreme hyperpartisanship that nearly blocked the peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s capitol become part and parcel of state elections? 
  • Are the historically more cohesive identities of citizens within states being eroded by the  zero-sumness of our politicized media and media-driven politics? 
  • Or– and this is an important or – is there more bipartisanship and civility in state and local level politics and governance than we realize or appreciate?

There’s no better launching pad for this series than the Lone Star State, home to NASA and now the budding commercial space industry. And, historically, Texas is certainly one of the  strongest state identities of them, y’all. 

Courtesy of Ballotpedia.

A healthy democracy should, like a pendulum, naturally swing back and forth between the major parties, the major positions of more or less government. But an increasing number of American states have become entrenched single party “trifectas” with one party holding the legislature and Governorship for extended periods.

Texas, for example, has been a Republican trifecta for 20 years and counting.

With only primary  battles to worry about, single party governments can tend toward extremism.  And this most recent Texas legislative session has passed several bills at odds with positions expressed by a majority of Texans in numerous polls. These bills included a virtual ban on abortion rights and authorization of unlicensed open carry of fire arms.

On our upcoming Texas series, we asked our “Texperts” whether this “red meat” legislation would swing the pendulum back toward the Democratic Party, more moderate Republicans, or Independents? 

Dan Goodgame, Editor in Chief of Texas Monthly

Dan Goodgame, Editor in Chief of Texas Monthly, told us that “people who don’t like Republican policies are very quick, of course, to place all the blame there. But Democrats here similarly play to their base rather than to centrists. You would think after 27 years of losing, you’d try something different. But they remain unable to frame a message that might appeal to a majority of Texas and they’re content to appeal, most of them, to relatively liberal Democrats in the cities and the urban counties that the Democratic party controls.”

And according to Dr. James Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project, “this is legislation that is promoted by Republican legislators who do not want primary challenges from the right and are not afraid of the general election electorate….I think, as we look at polling and we look at the electoral environment, I don’t expect that this is going to work to the Democrats advantage extensively.”

 Texas Demography: Growing and Diversifying

Before Covid-19, Texas was one of the fastest growing states in the U.S. and was already very diverse and densely populated. Texas has the largest rural population in the country, yet most Texans live in urban areas. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, Texas’ population continued to grow more than any other state by raw numbers. Most of the population growth has been driven by people of color, Hispanics specifically.

Partisan Breakdown of Texas Districts: Before and After

Texas Districts in 2021
Texas Districts in 2022

Maps courtesy of FiveThirtyEight

In upcoming podcasts, TPP asks several notable “Texperts that very question: Is the powerful, long-held Texas identity weakening under hyperpartisanship and polarization?

Jason Whitely 

“Absolutely no question… Politics is this massive team sport. But the federal offices are the ones that get the most attention at the end of the day. The state offices, the local offices, the mayor and city council, these are the ones that have the most impact on people’s lives… But no attention is given there. Instead, people go back to one side or the other, right or left, and just bash each other for reasons that they either might not understand, or that they just feel they can rally around.”

Jason Wheeler

“If I can add one more thing there, I’ll bring up the “G” word because I think that’s a big part of this in Texas and everywhere else. And that’s gerrymandering. We just heard in one of our podcasts recently from a Republican County judge in Tarrant County, which is right next to us here in Dallas… how before the last redistricting that was done he could count one, maybe two districts in the entire state of Texas for the Texas Senate that was actually a toss up. Everything else is safe Republican or safe Democrat.”

Dan Goodgame

“We do suffer from polarization in Texas… but less, I think, than the rest of the country. And the identity that Texans hold as Texans is stronger than in any other state. If you ask someone who grew up in Lubbock whether she identifies first as Republican or as a Texan, she’ll say Texan, and a Democrat from San Antonio will say the same.”

Dr. James Henson

“I think there is no doubt that the nationalization of politics writ large and the way that national politics are playing such a large role in state level politics and state level political discourse in the interlude that we’re in now has probably had some corrosive effect on the durability of this Texas identity and its ability to bind people together in a sense or create a social identity apart from partisanship. That said, the notion of a Texan identity has always been kind of contested here and continues to be contested.”

What We’re Reading This Month

Is the nation’s polarization transforming Texas? In God Save Texas the distinguished author, Lawrence Wright, argues that some causality runs the other way: not Texas increasingly turning red like other conservative states, but other conservative states turning red like Texas.

“The fact that ‘American’ can contain two such assertive, contrary forces as Texas and California is a testament to our political dynamism, but more and more I feel that ‘American’ is being compelled to make a choice between the models these states embody. Under the Trump administration, Texas is clearly the winning archetype. The wave of conservatism that rolled through so many statehouses and the three branches of the federal government makes the entire country look more like Texas.”

Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and close friend of Lawrence Wright’s, spent nine years researching his history of Texas. He concurs that in many respects, Texas is big and wonderful enough to shape the world around it.

“The State has nation-sized measurements: 268,000 square miles in all, 827 road miles from its westernmost city, El Paso, to Beaumont, near the Louisiana border. But it’s insistent and imposing sense of itself has created a vast mythical mindscape as well. Because it looms large in the world’s imagination and in fact is large, Texas has a history that is of consequence not just to itself, and not just to the nations it was once part of, or the nation it briefly became. It sits at the core of the American experience, and its wars, its industries, its presidents, its catastrophes, its scientific discoveries have never stopped shaping the world.”

According to The Texas Politics Project, a whopping 83% of Texas Republicans now view Democrats very unfavorably and 77% of Democrats feel the same right back, up considerably over the last five years.

Independents express much lower levels or antipathy toward each major party.

Partners in Purple

RCV for Texas
Austin passed a rank choice voting proposition in 2021, which is being challenged by the state of Texas.
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Texas Policy Lab at Rice University
By providing scientific independent, timely evaluations of current social and economic programs and new initiatives,, the Texas Policy Lab increases the state government’s capacity to provide critical public services.
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Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation at Rice University
A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding existing and emerging social, political, and commercial trends within the Texas Hispanic community.
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Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life
Committed to providing students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions needed to make constructive and impactful civic contributions.
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Center for Texas Studies at TCU
Celebrating the distinctiveness of Texas culture by sponsoring public history events, organizing teacher workshops, collaborating with related state and local organizations, and publishing books on Texas in partnership with the TCU Press.
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