There’s No Apathy Problem in Texas Politics
By Andrew Dobbs
I wrote the first part of this as a Twitter thread following Tuesday’s primary runoff results. I had to cut some of this up to make room on the thread, so here’s the full draft plus an additional section delving more into the practical consequences of this perspective for Texas politics. Enjoy!
There is no such thing as apathy. Really. Our problems in this state or in this country are not a function of people not voting, and even if they were people don’t refrain from voting because they are apathetic. The people who do vote don’t do so because they are wiser or better people than the ones who don’t vote. They do it because they are part of some sort of organized constituency with interests one or more candidates are seeking to serve in some way. The folks that don’t are either not organized or no candidate wants to serve their interests.
The really important part of all of this: organization. People aren’t organized by ideas or hopes and dreams (or even thoughts and prayers!). They are organized by institutions — material things that bring people together in time and/or space and coordinate their subjective experiences to social phenomena. People can belong to multiple institutions, and what emerges then are networks of overlapping institutions clustered together around specific class interests — roles in production and ultimately the reproduction of our social order.
So people that are part of the managerial/commercial middle class will belong to evangelical churches, the NRA, suburban PTAs, homeowners associations, maybe a small Chamber of Commerce, etc. Other institutions may be less formal — parent groups online or other social media networks. Still others are essentially one-sided — they watch Fox News, read the same publications, listen to the same radio stations, etc.
Each of these institutions can be thought of as a conversation between participants and the institution itself that creates a certain subjective experience for all of the folks involved in them. For my nerd friends — this is what Althusser calls “interpellation.” People could — and often do — belong to institutions that have dissonant messages and that speak to them with conflicting assumptions about their identities, but over time folks will tend to gravitate towards those that avoid provoking such discomfort. They also allow debate and dissent, but within boundaries that actually reinforce the basic identity.
Again, this happens because institutions that conflict with people’s role in producing/reproducing our social order will either make those people feel bad or act against their immediate material interests. Either the social order will be undermined by these institutions or the social order will force these institutions into falling into line with specific class interests. As you can imagine, the larger social order is far more powerful than any single institution within it, so they tend to flow towards specific class fractions, overlapping with other institutions popular among those same populations to create those constituencies as organized elements of society.
Political parties, the movements that arise within them and the candidates that seek to represent them all appeal first and foremost to those constituencies. They offer to be accountable to those institutions. Election campaigns are competitions either between class fractions or between candidates/political elements vying to be the representative of a fraction (or fractions). Liberalism is a system where political power is organized through strategic compromises between fractions of the class that owns everything and elements of a broad middle class and privileged workers. The poor and proletariat are exploited by all of them.
Many, maybe most Texans are among these exploited elements. They either have no institutions or very weak institutions speaking for them. They are part of no organized constituency. The reason for this is simple: more powerful classes have aggressively suppressed any institution that has sought to organize these folks. What they’ve been given instead are what other countries call “comprador” leaders — middle class or bourgeois figures from their geographic or demographic “community” selected for them by the more powerful classes to broker compromises that will keep them pacified without threatening the power of the ruling elements. So no one is really asking for poor folks’ votes, and the people formally standing for them are actually working for antagonistic elements. Is it any wonder they don’t vote? Even if you get populist/progressive type candidates out there, they have no institutions they can appeal to, no established mechanisms for reaching out to and mobilizing the people they need to move. Hell, they don’t even really have a SUBJECT they can speak to.
And perhaps most important of all: the entire political order here is ordered by two uber-institutions that are the sum of all of these pro-status quo, anti-proletarian, comprador (at best) constituencies: the Republican and Democratic Parties. They will suppress, marginalize, co-opt, dilute, or distract any element that arises in their midst to upset this order, and so while the obvious task at hand is to build institutions of working class — specifically proletarian — subjectivity, this can no more be done within these parties than you can build a campfire at the bottom of a swimming pool. You are precisely as likely to win the Democratic Party over to proletarian politics as you are the Republican — it is formally impossible.
Beyond these two institutions is the overarching institution of liberal democracy which is fundamentally, explicitly designed to reproduce a specific social order by channeling popular sentiments into ruling class-approved expressions: state-run elections subject to the institutional controls laid out here. One of the ways it does this channeling and controlling: convincing people that anyone that doesn’t trust or participate in this process is lazy or stupid or just doesn’t give a shit, and that subjecting yourself to it in and of itself makes you a good, responsible person. When you shake your head at the “apathetic” hordes and wag your finger at the lazy non-voters you recreate this order, probably because your social position and material interests benefit from its perpetuation.
If you call yourself a radical, a socialist, on the left, etc. then you have chosen to side with those whose interests benefit from its overthrow, and expecting elections, the Democratic Party, or better voter turnout to solve these problems is a profound error. Even if you don’t consider yourself part of these movements it shouldn’t be hard to admit that the choice between Andrew White and Lupe Valdez is hardly the stuff inspiration and excitement are made of.
Bottom line: if you want Texans to give a shit about politics, build institutions that give a shit about them. It’s my contention that these will necessarily perpetuate circumstances bad for most folks here, but I’m eager to be proven wrong. Until then, let’s not pile on to people already seriously screwed by this state and its leaders in both parties.
On a more mundane level, this analysis can actually help us to identify the most likely means of breaking up the Republican monopoly on Texas politics. There is a major contradiction in their class alliance that has yet to be resolved.
First things first, there is a conflict between competing fractions of their class base — between patriarchal, land-based, essentially pre-capitalist elements of the Texas ruling class and its commercial, modern, urban capitalist elements. This conflict has been going on for decades, however, and is in fact the defining struggle of Texas politics. It’s something I’ll elaborate on some other time.
(Actually, it’s something I want to write a book about, and if I get enough Patreon support I’ll be able to do just that — no pressure though).
The reason these two competing elements are able to get behind a single party, however, is that they ultimately have some basic shared interests that are the core of the GOP program. Namely, they both seek to block any attempts to capture and redistribute their wealth or otherwise interfere with any of their profit-seeking for the sake of any public interest. Low taxes and weak regulation are their common interests, and the basic class prerogative of the GOP.
The core of their middle class mass base, however, is in the suburbs, and their ideological institutions are clustered around certain patriarchal identities that stress conventional nuclear families. They thus have a distinct interest in quality public education. This is a major demand made by these families in the process of deciding on a community in which to live — schools are the tentpole around which the rest of their social identities are organized.
Paying for such schools without taxing the wealthy has proven an increasingly difficult task, and the upshot is that the state’s public education system is now overwhelmingly dependent on residential property taxes. This is the core of middle class wealth, while the ruling class has far more at stake in other assets and commercial real estate — all of which is either untaxed or disproportionately undertaxed. These suburban voters likewise want low taxes, but they are getting screwed by the very folks they elect to deliver them.
Texas politics is ripe for a figure that focuses on suburban voters and promises to fix public education finance by shifting tax burdens away from homeowners and towards big business. This would allow tax “relief” for these families while delivering the major service they demand. This figure will almost certainly not be a Democrat, however, as the party’s mass base — communities of color under the control of comprador politicians — poses a threat to the other, even more fundamental class interest of the suburban middle class, white supremacy. Gentrification and other forces have pushed more people of color into the suburbs, but this proximity has made this hostility harder, not weaker — hence Trump’s abiding popularity in Texas.
Much more likely would be an independent candidate, likely a self-financed billionaire (watch for Mark Cuban if he doesn’t skip directly to seeking the presidency instead). The basic message of Lupe Valdez’s nomination is that the Democratic Party is incredibly weak and without any leadership or hope of returning to power; such an independent would be able to make a claim for many of their votes along with a sizeable chunk of the suburban GOP base. They would likely need a Lieutenant Governor candidate to run with them as a sort of ticket, but could count on the Straus-aligned wing of the GOP legislature plus almost all Democrats there to carry through their agenda. Accomplishing this would be a powerful step towards a successful presidential run and the annals of world history.
Breaking the spell of GOP domination and demonstrating the value of taxing wealthy interests for the public good might create space for a Democrat after all, but it will only be because the partisan character of the institutions organizing and mobilizing a plurality of Texas voters will have been undone. Certainly there is no force running today capable of doing this, and the idea that Lupe Valdez might be it would be laughable if it weren’t so pitiful too.