The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the nearly simultaneous enactment in Texas of the far right’s legislative wish list of banning abortion and suppressing voting rights invited comparisons across social media. Half-joking memes about airlifting women out of the Lone Star State competed with more earnest expressions of outrage about the sudden eruption of reactionary policy out of Austin.
However tongue-in-cheek the comparisons between Greg Abbott and Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada might be, the analogy is not the laughing matter one might think. The two developments half a world from each other have more than a little in common: they both represent a minority faction’s imposition of political will against the desires of a greater populace.
The Taliban got its way through firepower, exploiting popular ambivalence prompted by decades of government corruption and American aggression into an opportunity to impose retrograde religious doctrinaire on a largely unwilling people. The Texas political right, on the other hand, adopted its extreme politics through the legislative process. How could that be undemocratic?
Simple — through voter suppression, gerrymandering and a compulsion to cater to the Trumpian base of the national Republican Party rather than to represent the wishes and needs of most Texans.
Don’t be fooled by thinking the Texas GOP is merely carrying out the democratic will of the state’s voters. The anti-abortion law was deeply unpopular, with a recent poll showing 51% of Texas voters opposed and only 36% in favor. About 60% opposed the gutting of the state’s gun laws — and opposition was even greater among, no surprise, police officers.
The nation’s attention had been fixed on Texas for months, as Democrats in the state legislature walked out to deny the Republican majority the quorum needed to push through its new, restrictive voting laws. The Democrats were stalling for time in vain hope that Congress would enact nationwide voter protection legislation that never would have survived a Senate filibuster.
But the voting restrictions adopted in Texas were only the warmup. Next came the repeal of already-weak gun restrictions that allowed the carrying of guns, concealed or open, virtually anywhere by anyone, with training or without. Pivoting from enacting the least restrictive gun laws, the legislature passed the nation’s most draconian abortion restrictions. Abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy, when many are unaware they are pregnant, are now prohibited. The bill contained the added twist that enforcement would be carried out not by any state agency but rather by private citizens who would, in a throwback to the Soviet Union under Stalin, be encouraged to snoop on their neighbors and sue anyone providing an abortion or assisting a woman in getting one, such as providing a ride to a clinic — including taxi or ride share drivers. The first such suit against an abortion provider was filed on September 20 by a convicted felon in Arkansas.
The trio of regressive bills passed in a state with a Republican-majority legislature and a Republican governor — even though Texas has been drifting from red to purple politically. While Republicans have a more than two-decade winning streak in statewide elections, the Democrats have increasingly been carving into their margins in both state and federal elections. Additionally, people of color have been a majority in Texas since 2005, yet 61% of the state legislators are white (and only 27% are women). The state’s generally robust economy has been attracting new residents, many of them bringing liberal views with them. The GOP knows this and is trying to hold back the left-running tide as long as it can.
While a bill passed by a state legislature and signed by the governor might seem like the essence of democracy, the Texas bills are a denial of it. The Republicans hold their 18 – 13 lead over Democrats in the state Senate and 82 – 67 lead in the House through years of extreme gerrymandering and voting laws that were among the most restrictive in the nation even before the new suppression measures. And with post-census redistricting scheduled before the 2022 election, the Texas GOP can use its edge in the statehouse to draw state legislative and congressional districts to further its advantage.
The abortion bill has gotten the most ink recently, but it is the voting suppression that underlies everything. Keeping people of color and liberal-to-progressive voters of all ethnicities from voting is the key to Republicans holding onto power for at least a few more election cycles, giving them years to force reactionary laws down the people’s collective throat. This applies not only to Texas; as reported in the Washington Post, this year 18 states have passed laws restricting access to voting.
As I argued in an article in the March Washington Socialist, much of the South is moving politically leftward — even as the region’s state governments, lagging behind their evolving constituencies, tend to be Republican-controlled. These governments, rather than adopting policies to appeal to more voters, are trying to squelch progressive voices through rigging the system.
Nevertheless, like a river slowly carving out a canyon, the hold of Jim Crow politics in the South is eroding. Virginia was the first domino of the former Confederacy to fall, flipping within the last two decades from deep red to solid blue. The recent removal of Confederate monuments in the state, the most recent and most prominent being the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, symbolizes a state in the process of repudiating its racist legacy. North Carolina is edging in the same direction. Georgia has become a battleground, with progressive Democrat Stacey Abrams nearly capturing the governor’s seat in 2018, followed by Democrats taking the state’s presidential vote and both Senate seats two years later. Florida, also a battleground, joined Texas, Georgia and other Republican-led states to exploit Donald Trump’s baseless charge of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election in order to make voting harder — mostly for voters of color and others who might support Democrats.
The growing left tide in the South can be counted in the number of DSA locals there. Prior to 2016 there were barely a handful of Southern locals; today there are 60, with representation in all 11 of the former states of the Confederacy — 14 in Texas alone.
In recent decades, Republicans have magnified their control over Southern states through aggressive gerrymandering. The GOP has tended to be better at this than the Democrats (although not everywhere; Maryland is an example of extreme gerrymandering that benefits Democrats). In the case of Texas, the Guardian reports:
A decade ago, Republicans had complete control over the process of drawing the boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts. It allowed them to distort the lines to help Republicans win elections and guarantee their election in the state legislature over the past 10 years. This year the lines will be redrawn again and Republicans once again will have complete control of the process. It’s a power that allows Republicans to make laws without having to worry about alienating Democratic voters.
Nationwide, Republican gerrymandering has helped the party gain control of more state governments than Democrats — the GOP controls both the governorship and legislature in 23 states, compared to 15 for the Democrats — out of proportion to the actual support for Republicans among voters. Meanwhile, more and more voters are rejecting what the Republicans have to offer. They realize the GOP is the party of the rich and corporations, and its capture by the Trump base of white nationalists, nativists, religious bigots and misogynists is repelling them even further.
In the short term, Republican voter suppression laws give the party an edge in retaining control of state governments. But in the face of changes in those states, for how long?
It will take a genuine political uprising for the people in those states to overcome the advantages that the Republicans have built for themselves — but it can be done. And it needs to start now in order to affect the 2022 elections. Massive voter registration, education and turnout are essential to get voters onto the rolls and to the polls. And this is not just a fight for Texans, Georgians and Floridians — the entire nation has a stake in the outcome. These states need out-of-state activists and donors to help them fight the good fight.
But should the Democratic Party, as currently constituted, reap the eventual benefit of changing demographics and politics in the South? Replacing the Republicans with another pro-corporate party, albeit one that is more humane and less racist, will inspire no uprising. Left activists in the states must promote viable candidates of the left to contest Democratic primaries and, when it makes sense, especially in local races, to run independent progressive campaigns. Voters disgusted at reactionary Republican policies need real alternatives, not corporatism with a smiling face.
Since the end of the Civil War, the South has been ruled first by Jim Crow Democrats and, since the 1970s, Jim Crow Republicans. It’s time for the rising tide of voters of color and others of progressive leanings to break the reign of Jim Crow and at last bring the South fully into the United States — and help move the country as a whole in a more humane and progressive direction.