by Richard Parker
Even before 2020 really gets underway, you can see it in all the ways the normally lockstep Republican Party is in trouble. You can see it in all the offices Republicans lost last year, even as Ted Cruz held on to his scalp. It’s visible in John Cornyn’s shaky bid for re-election.
And it is painfully obvious in how Republicans in Austin are divided over gun control. Gun control. There is panic in Austin that scandal could hand the state House of Representatives to Democrats. Democrats. Beto O’Rourke could beat Donald Trump in Texas, say the polls. The Lone Star State has gone from deep red to bright purple in what was seemingly a flash.
In talking about politics, we too often cut straight to strategy, tactics and mechanics. Those have their place. But culture precedes politics — always. And the very social and cultural change that made Texas red is being precisely undone. It’s being undone demographically, as whites are a minority. It’s being undone generationally as millennials verge on becoming the largest voting cohort. And this social change is being reflected politically: Today’s Texas Democrats are more liberal than ever.
There have been, essentially, two popular theories about historic change in Texas. T.H. Fehrenbach made the argument in his landmark book, Lone Star, that the story of Texas was the story of the land. Texas in the 19th century was a harsh, sparsely populated land, a place where a rough natural law prevailed. Human existence was a tenuous and solitary pursuit. This led, in the mid-20th century, to his conclusion: The land was what shaped the rugged individualism of Texas and, by logical extension, a conservative outlook.
Yet another 20th century writer, the great folklorist Frank Dobie, relished in the tales of the land, too, retelling the bygone years of the great ranching era. But Dobie, too, noticed the Mexican population, industrialization and increased urbanization in the 20th century. No one loved Texas or romanticized it more than Dobie. Yet he saw new arrivals changing the nature of Texas: “The Texians are the old rock itself. The Texans are out of the old rock; the others are wearing the old rock away.”
Yet Fehrenbach’s tale prevailed — in his hugely popular, classic, historic work and ultimately in the mythos of the state. Younger, he outlived the cowboy-poet, Dobie, by decades. Some 50 years after the writing of each, Dobie has turned out to be right. The real story of Texas is not the land anymore — it is a story of people. Lots of people on the move. And people aren’t fixed in history or some map. People change.
So did Texas. Dobie died in 1964. Just four years later, another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act and lamented to an aide that in doing so he had cost Democrats their power base for a half-century. “We have lost the South for a generation,” he said. Of course, he was astute enough a politician to read what was happening in the South, and in Texas. In just two years, Texas would officially go from being a state where most people lived in rural areas and small towns to living in big cities and sprawling suburbs.
This was the Texas where the pioneers of the Republican Party — such as John Tower and George H.W. Bush — would make their gains. The availability of cheap land and, frankly, the desire of many whites to live apart from African Americans and Latinos would create vast suburbs. These suburbs were fertile grounds for a Republican Party that was in a backlash against the Great Society of LBJ, for greater defense spending and against more and more spending on domestic programs to fight poverty and illness
As a result, in 1980, Texas became the must-win state for a Republican headed to the White House. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this version of the Republican Party swelled with the arrival of refugees from the Rustbelt, the collapsing, industrial Midwest. In contrast, Texas had jobs and dirt-cheap real estate. And the party’s ranks welcomed Midwesterners. This coalition reflected nearly 30 years of social change.
In 1992, during George H. W. Bush’s re-election, I went from Washington — where I lived — to Austin on a reporting trip and met with a bright pollster. We talked about the numbers over lunch.
“And then,” she said, “I asked them about barbecue.”
I looked up and saw that my pollster friend was smiling.
“What?” I asked.
“I asked them about barbecue,” she said.
She said she had decided to have some fun with the poll and probe people’s eating habits and even their fashion preferences. It turned out that the most conservative Republicans were not old-line Texans who had been here for generations. It was the newest arrivals from the Midwest.
They had no idea how to be a Texan. So, they were also more likely than native Texans to wear cowboy boots in public. We each stuck out a foot; hers a woman’s pump and mine a size 10 ½ penny loafer. These new Texans were likelier to order barbecue for lunch. We glanced at her salad and my sandwich. They liked their chili with beans.
Seen through the prism of barbecue sauce then and hindsight now the election of George W. Bush was the culmination of a big cultural shift. It had consequences beyond Texas. The country’s politics lurched sharply rightward. The consolidation of power was absolutely ironclad by the time Rick Perry ran for president himself.
Yet it carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Republicans in Texas had grown complacent. They were entirely reliant on an older, nearly all-white, group of voters. The party increasingly was dominated by its donors even as Texas’ population was becoming bigger, denser — and profoundly different.
By the time of the Democratic upsets of 2018, Johnson’s words were a generation old. And their prophecy has been fulfilled. Now, on the eve of 2020, when we talk about change in Texas today, we talk about demographics, namely ethnicity and race, which is more useful than strategy and tactics.
But even more useful is to think in generational terms. What we had from the 1970s through the 1990s was the baby boom reaching its apogee. Now the millennial generation is reaching its peak — it now outnumbers every other generation in American history. Far more than half of the people who have recently moved to Texas from other states are under 40, according to a 2016 report by the state demographer.
Born after 1990, millennials make up half the New Texans. So now, Texas ranks 7th in the country for its share of these young people who are — right about now — in their mid-20s, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. Plenty of millennials, of course, are native born and they’re Latino. Two Texas cities, Austin and El Paso, have among the highest share of young people in the entire country.
Our suburbs are diverse, like Fort Bend County. And those legendary wide open spaces? They’re filling up fast. Our cities and suburbs are densely populated, no place where Republican politicians have ever thrived in contemporary America. In just 30 years, the Texas Triangle will be as densely populated as the Northeast Corridor is today — from Washington to New York and Boston.
In less than 10 years, according to data from the Gallup Organization, Texans are less conservative than they once were. Where once Democrats were split between liberal and moderate wings, two in three now proudly wear the label that once could not be worn in Texas: Liberal.
For years the big knocks by Republicans were these: Latinos don’t vote. And young people don’t vote. Wrong on both counts in 2018. And as we saw, these people are not your father’s Republicans. Nor, frankly, are they Greg Abbott’s.
“Attitudes are not a fixed quality,” Josh Blank, a pollster with the University of Texas Polling Project told me. “But yes, when you inject a new population into the state it’s going to have an impact.”
Look, I’m as proud a Texan as any Texan. But I know the difference between history and horse feathers. And the worst thing Republicans have done — to themselves — is load up on the latter. They have relentlessly fostered the idea of Texas exceptionalism, and the derivative nonsense that their low-tax, no regulation philosophy brought millions of people here. The reality is far different. Economics drove migration. Period. Texas is just like anyplace else in America, another writer, Molly Ivins, used to say, only more so.
This is the profound cultural and social mistake Republicans made when they sowed the seeds of power, which took root as monopoly. And political monopolies are just like economic ones: unhealthy. So, now a new era dawns. We Texans are not a caricature. We are not monochromatic. And we are not frozen in time.
Texas is a place where change lives. Political realignment is not, as Johnson knew, a singular event. It’s an historic process. Failing to embrace that will prove to be the fatal mistake the Republican Party made in Texas — with national consequences.
Richard Parker is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”