Immediately after he signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson turned to his staff and said, “I’m afraid we’ve just handed the South over to the Republican Party.” He didn’t realize how prescient a statement that was. Many White southerners and their elected officials were appalled. How dare Johnson, a fellow southerner, wreak such havoc on a system that – in their minds – had worked just fine for nearly 200 years. After the tumultuous 1964 election season, in which people were beaten and sometimes killed for helping people register to vote or marching in favor of comprehensive voting rights, the 1965 Voting Rights Act ensured that every eligible U.S. citizen could cast a ballot, as promised by the U.S. Constitution. It struck down two key stumbling blocks: the poll tax and the so-called “grandfather clause.” It’s tough to imagine now, but until 1965, people actually had to pay a special tax to vote. In the Southeast, the “grandfather clause” was designed by Whites primarily to keep non-Whites from voting; if a person’s grandfather could vote, it declared, then that person could vote as well. But, since many people – mostly Blacks, Hispanics and Indians – were forbidden to vote in years past, their grandchildren couldn’t vote. It was a deliberately vicious cycle that prevented the most oppressed members of society from having an impact on elections.
Southern Democrats weren’t quite like their New England and West coast counterparts. The southerners referred to themselves as “Dixiecrats,” once the name of an actual political party. They associated the Republican Party with those pesky northerners who had destroyed southern society and trampled on their precious “state’s rights.” But, as the Democratic Party became more progressive in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many southerners found it distasteful. It mostly centered on race; some older Whites simply didn’t consider Blacks and other non-Whites as equals and couldn’t stand the thought of an integrated society. It went against their cultural values and how they viewed America. The Democratic Party had lost its way, as far as they were concerned. And, the Voting Rights Act pushed many over the edge and into the Republican camp.
Slowly but surely, however, southern Democrats began abandoning the Democratic Party. Some of the most famous Republican leaders actually had started out as Democrats: Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and even Ronald Reagan. Current Texas Governor Rick Perry first ran for public office in 1984 as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican Party in the 1990’s. The great southern Democratic exodus actually didn’t begin, however, until after Reagan won the 1980 presidential election. Reagan had surprised the nation when he won the 1966 California governor’s race. California already had become a bastion of liberalism and progressive ideology, so it was shocking that a conservative Republican – even if he was a former actor – could actually take the mantle of the state’s highest office. Reagan won reelection four years later and sought the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1976. But, incumbent President Gerald Ford wouldn’t relinquish the helm of the GOP to Reagan. The Republican Party fractured over that trite battle and lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Besides, after the disastrous Watergate affair, political pundits declared the GOP practically dead; claiming it wouldn’t recover any time soon. When Richard Nixon departed the White House in 1974, he didn’t just leave his career in tatters; he left the entire GOP in the same state. Or, so it seemed.
The Carter administration proved disappointing. Even with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, Carter couldn’t seem to get a grasp on national issues. The various energy predicaments, coupled with the Iranian hostage crisis that erupted in 1979, only solidified Carter’s ineptness in the minds of many Americans. In fact, the entire decade of the 1970’s seemed like an utter and dismal failure; a massive stain on our nation’s history.
But, Ronald Reagan almost single-handedly changed the national mood. He brought a sense of renewed optimism and an infectious degree of patriotism. Using his charm and personal wit, he made Americans feel proud; a sentiment that had been absent for years. But, Reagan also reinvigorated faith in the Republican Party – a faith that spread like the evangelical fervor to which it was often linked. Reagan often told southern Democrats they were really Republicans at heart; “they just hadn’t figured it out yet.” Thus, commenced that mass pilgrimage into Republican arms, especially in the Southeast. And, just as Lyndon Johnson had insinuated, much of it was due to race.
In January of 1999, when George W. Bush was sworn in to his second term as Texas governor, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said that the state was becoming “increasingly conservative.” I looked at my TV screen and asked, ‘When was it ever liberal?’ But, as I muse over Texas politics, I have to ask an even more important question: why has the Democratic Party abandoned us?
When he first ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush took 59% of the Texas vote; not surprising since he was then governor and had a somewhat stable management record in the state. Four years later, he took 61.1% of the Texas vote; again not necessarily surprising. Bush was so certain he’d take Texas, he didn’t even campaign here in 2004. By then, the Texas political landscape had turned crimson red. Yes, pockets of blue stubbornly persist, mainly in the far southern and far western regions. But, without a doubt, the Republican Party dominates.
Yet, while Johnson felt that signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act practically handed the South over to the Republican Party, it looks now like the Democrats have done much the same thing with Texas. It seems they’ve practically ceded the state to the GOP. People like me who’ve voted mostly Democrat our entire lives feel equally forsaken. Recent events, though, might explain why.
When he sought the Texas governorship two years ago, Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, not only failed to invite President Obama to campaign for him here, he refused to accept an offer from the White House for the President to visit the state on his behalf. White didn’t even want Joe Biden to drop by – which, in some ways, I can actually understand. But then, White criticized Governor Rick Perry for referring to President Obama as only “Barack Obama” in a campaign ad, noting that the term “President of the United States” was a special designation and commanded the proper respect. So, while White openly respected the Office of the President of the United States, he still didn’t want President Obama down here. Therefore, Obama stayed away. White lost with 42% to Perry’s 55%. Not that Obama’s presence would have helped White. But, it’s always the thought that counts.
Texas has always played a pivotal role in presidential elections. For every election from 1872 to 1924, and from 1928 to 1948, Texas voted mostly for the Democratic candidate. Dwight D. Eisenhower won Texas during his two presidential runs, but that may have been, in part, because he was a native son and a World War II hero. Texas returned to its Democratic obsession throughout the 1960’s. But, in 1976, Carter became the last Democrat to win Texas in a presidential race.
When he became chairman of the Democratic National Party in 2005, Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, launched his “50 State Strategy” to get more Democrats elected to office, starting with the 2006 mid-term elections. Critics dismissed Dean – whose 2004 presidential run was known for a primal scream amidst a speech following the Iowa caucuses – and denounced his plan as crazy. But, it worked; the Democrats gained control of both houses of Congress in 2006 and, of course, the White House two years later. But, the premise of the “50 State Strategy” was to broaden the DNC’s reach across the nation, instead of concentrating its resources and energy on the East and West coasts. It was a noble and ambitious effort to rebuild the party that had let itself be defined by the more radical voices of their Republican counterparts. The DNC had gone too far to the left; even shutting out moderates and alienating independents. Now, just the opposite is happening with the Republicans; they’ve moved so far to the right that the “Party of Lincoln” has made compromise a proverbial four-letter word.
But, as I – a technical writer, not a political scientist – analyze both the Democratic and Republican parties, I understand that ideology is the principal factor. Galvanized by George W. Bush’s defeat of Ann Richards in the 1994 governor’s race, Republicans in Texas launched concerted efforts to inject more of their ilk into the state legislature. With a reconfiguration of district lines in 2001, they succeeded; the 2002 elections allowed Republicans to take command of the state legislature for the first time in 130 years. Texas Republicans now like to proclaim they booted out the Democrats after decades of quasi-authoritarian rule. They make it sound as if Texas had been in the vice grip of extremist liberals; a barren wasteland where feminists, homosexuals, abortion doctors and other miscreants ruled fearlessly and ruthlessly, until a handful of brave Reagan disciples dared to stand up to them. But, when I look at those ancient “Dixiecrats,” I realize the Republicans of today are the Democrats of yesterday. There’s no real difference. The name has changed, but the conservative dogma remains. And, remember: it all goes back to race, or more importantly, the Democrats’ philosophy that race or ethnicity shouldn’t matter in a person’s success in this country. It’s really as simple as that; race is the central element of that change. And, from that, extends other issues, such as gender and religion.
Amidst the chaos, I ask again: why has the Democratic Party abandoned Texas? Several years ago, a cousin of mine noted that many Hispanics had forsaken their Roman Catholic roots and turned to Protestant denominations for spiritual guidance. Some had even switched to Baptist or Pentecostal churches, which – if you knew Roman Catholics, especially Hispanics – you’d understand how heretical that is. But, my cousin pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church apparently hadn’t addressed the needs of the Hispanic community, particularly its immigrant members. She claimed the Church just wanted their money and unmitigated loyalty. That, of course, is true of most any religious outfit. But, in reflecting how passionate people can feel about politics, the same scenario applies to Democrats and their glaring willingness to accept that Texas is a Republican stronghold. The late former House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, a Democrat, once said that “all politics is local.” That’s certainly true. But, when your national leaders don’t pay attention to the locals, they shouldn’t get upset when those votes end up holding hands with the opposition.