Monday, December 05, 2011

The cowardice of the Texas Democratic Party (or how I turned Bluish-Green)

This is the post some of you have been asking me about. Casual political observers uninterested in the inside-baseball nature of internecine state party politics can skip to the end if you want the larger message.

Two weeks ago the Senate District Executive Committee of the Texas Democratic Party met in quarterly plenary session and cast some votes for resolutions to be placed on the March 2012 primary ballot. Those resolutions included the adoption of casino gambling in Texas (which was the only one the SDEC approved), support of marriage equality, abolishment of the death penalty, decriminalization of marijuana, and passage of the DREAM Act. You may read Karl-Thomas Musselman's live-blog of the session here for background and discussion prior to the voting. Most of you who have made it to this point are likely quite familiar with the proceedings, so I'll skip the details. As more backstory, I used to attend these meetings regularly and even live-blogged them myself a time or two before the rise of Twitter made such efforts obsolete. I long ago tired of the meetings, observing them as a glorified kaffeklatsche for retirees, sycophants, starfuckers, and budding politicos who were mostly uninterested in actually advancing Democratic policies or even helping Democrats get elected. It became apparent that election to the SDEC was more of a resume' enhancement or a legacy-burnishing or some similar ego stroke to the individual committee person; most of whom are in their dotage, some of the younger ones in a quest for actual political office.

That's not to say that the SDEC is entirely useless. Just mostly. What they are entirely is irrelevant (thanks for that observation to my friend Tom G).

A little historical digression is in order.

Feuding between the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party is as old as the hills. It's why Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat for President in 1948. It's one of the reasons why John F. Kennedy came to Texas in November of 1963; to mitigate the quarreling between Gov. John Connally (another Democrat better remembered as a Republican these days) and Sen. Ralph Yarborough (an actual progressive). Many of these squabbles had their roots in civil rights. Here's an excerpt from Thurmond's Wiki page:

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. Army, proposed the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, supported the elimination of state poll taxes, and supported drafting federal anti-lynching laws. Thurmond became a candidate for President of the United States on the third party ticket of the States' Rights Democratic Party (aka Dixiecrats). It split from the national Democrats over what was perceived as federal intervention in the segregation practices of the Southern states, which, among other issues, had largely disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites by constitutional amendments and electoral requirements from 1890 to 1910. Thurmond carried four states and received 39 electoral votes. One 1948 speech, met with cheers by supporters, included the following (audio at the link above):

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.

Continuing on the timeline and moving back to Texas, Yarborough -- the most progressive politician ever elected in Texas IMHO (RIP Jim Mattox and Oscar Mauzy and Ann Richards) -- was defeated by a conservative Democrat named Lloyd Bentsen in 1970. Bentsen a conservative, you say, with mouth agape?

The campaign came in the wake of Yarborough's politically hazardous votes in favor of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Bentsen made Yarborough's opposition to the war a major issue. His television advertising featured video images of rioting in the streets at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, implying that Yarborough was associated with the rioters. While this strategy was successful in defeating Yarborough, it caused long-term damage to Bentsen's relationship with liberals in his party.

Bentsen's campaign and his reputation as a conservative Democrat served to alienate him not only from supporters of Ralph Yarborough, but from prominent national liberals as well. Indeed, during the 1970 Senate race, the Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith endorsed George H. W. Bush, arguing that if Bentsen were elected to the Senate, he would invariably become the face of a new, more conservative Texas Democratic Party and that the long-term interests of Texas liberalism demanded Bentsen's defeat. Nevertheless, later that year, Bentsen went on to win the general election when he was pitted against Congressman and future President George H. W. Bush. On election night, Bentsen beat Bush convincingly.

Closer to modern times, in 2006 and with a slate of populist statewide Democratic candidates almost unmatched in Texas Democratic Party history (mostly because none of the conservative, establishment Dems wanted to risk losing) a group of us like-minded progressives set out to transform the SDEC by electing some of our own and others screened by our group to the committee. That effort got sabotaged by several turncoats whom we supported. Yes, we progressives got played by a bunch of schemers who about-faced on their progressive not-so-bonafides. Among the evidence was their support for Boyd Richie, a small-town conservative as chairman of the TDP. And making sure he got re-elected in subsequent years and so on.

Not electing Glen Maxey TDP chair in 2006 was, in retrospect, another pivotal turning point missed; one more opportunity lost to move the TDP back from the right and more toward the left. To draw the distinction between the two parties clearly enough that the lowest of low-information voters could understand: that only one party was interested in helping the little guys and not the fat cats (or as we say today, the 99% and not the 1%, messaging the Occupy movement has helpfully provided).

Except that the Texas Democratic Party, as represented by the majority of the members of the SDEC, really aren't interested in doing that. Not if you're homosexual, or Latino, and rarely and only occasionally if you're African-American. Not so much if you oppose the death penalty, believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, or refuse to participate in the demonization of the economic refugees of our southern neighbor, or even enable their children to attend college as the residents of Texas and US citizens that they are.

The vast majority of the SDEC in short are moral cowards. They are too scared of Republican backlash against rural and conservative Democratic office-holders and candidates to stand up for the principles of social justice that the party platform has continually espoused. In other words they talk good and walk lousy.

When the game is on the line, the Texas Democratic Party's so-called leaders turn tail and run into the locker room to take a dump, missing the game-changing play on purpose. Because they are too afraid to risk losing, they keep losing. And they just don't seem to get that.

Now to be clear, it's easy to support progressive Democrats; I just organized a meeting yesterday in Houston for one. It's not so easy -- and growing increasingly difficult -- to support a party, and some of its candidates, who aren't.

This kind of institutionalized timidity just drives me farther and farther away from the Democratic Party as a 'member of the tribe'. Which is why it's a good thing there's a political party on the ballot in 2012 that stands for something and is willing to stand up for it when push comes to shove.

I encourage Texas progressives and independents who feel as disgusted with those Texas Democrats who refuse to go on record supporting progressive values to consider supporting a party and its candidates who will. Supporting Green Party candidates is, at this point, perhaps the last chance that progressives will ever have in order to get the Democratic Party's attention with respect to making progress in Texas. In the proper direction, not the right one.

Related reading:

jobsanger: Texas Democratic Leaders Vote to Have No Beliefs

Juanita Jean -- whose husband serves on the SDEC and voted in favor of all of the resolutions: The Resolutions (UPDATED) (REUPDATED)

Mean Rachel: What Texas Democrats Can Learn From Aaron Pena

Collin County Democratic Blog News: The Texas Democratic Party Needs a New Direction. Besides its other cogent observations and suggestions, this post has an excellent summary of the history of the conservatives in the Texas Democratic Party.


Unknown said...

Just a word of warning: when someone DOES decide to express support for the Green Party, they will be attacked, insulted, and all-around hated by Democrats.
It doesn't matter whether you have good reasons or not (reasons like the Democrats not being progressive, ignoring what got them elected, etc)...

It also does not matter that the Democratic Party and the Greens have won the same number of races for statewide offices since 1996 (ZERO)...

In 2001, I marched with the Green party in the Houston Art Car Parade. This was right after the Nader debacle in Florida. We were booed. I head a kid ask "Mom, are those the people we hate?" Et cetera.

It has not gotten any better.
Two decades of complete failure by Texas Democrats has not made them reconsider their approach.

PDiddie said...

My opinion is that Democrats are in no position to dictate terms to progressives, Katy. If they lose any more voters, the Greens will pass them by in this decade.

The Occupy movement isn't political -- yet. But it most certainly isn't ever going to be Democratic. Richard Trumka has warned Congressional Democrats to stop taking his union's support for granted. Their intention is to focus on statehouse races, where public employee pensions are most threatened.

The trend is inexorable.

Texas Democrats are on a generational losing streak, and when they take actions like they did two weeks ago, it only drives more and younger voters away ... who, once burned by Obama, aren't likely to fall back in line in 2012. See 2010.

I'm unconcerned about scorn from my former Democratic brothers and sisters, mostly because that would be coming from an anachronistic point of view.

There's a place -- currently it's all but a void -- for a progressive party in this state and nation. Whether it will be the Democratic Party is up to them.