Realistic left politics in Texas

By Robert Jensen

with Pat Youngblood

Published in Truthout; also published in Austin American-Statesman · March, 2014

As left/progressive political organizers in Austin, Texas, we have for years listened to friends around the country ask, “How do you survive in such a crazy state?”

It’s true that last week’s primary election results are cause for concern. Our likely next lieutenant governor – considered by many to be the most powerful statewide office – advocates that creationism not only be taught but “heralded” in schools and has warned that undocumented immigrants bring leprosy into the state. Even more disturbing is crazy campaign rhetoric turned into regressive policies, such as the 2013 legislative assault on women’s health now being felt across the state as clinics close.

But a basic aspect of Texas politics is also familiar across the country. Republican factions – let’s call them the Tea Party and the Old Guard – slug it out in the primaries, sliding ever rightward. Democrats step in to fill the centrist void created by Republicans’ shift, leaving voters with choices that skew farther right with each election.

By objective measures, the politics of the Obama administration ought to be called center-right, economically and socially. The fact that he’s labeled a leftist by so many is testament not only to this rightward shift but also to our political culture’s increasing detachment from reality.

To our left/progressive friends outside Texas, we ask: Is it really so much better where you live? Where in mainstream politics in the United States – whether Republicans or Democrats dominate – is there much sanity?

We don’t spend much time pointing out the ideological fanaticism of Republicans but instead highlight differences between our work on global justice at the Third Coast Activist Resource Center and the Democrats’ conventional wisdom. Our logic is simple: Republican politics – from conventional conservative to scary reactionary – is a dead end, and so is the Democratic Party’s politics. While the right wing is more viscerally frightening – especially for immigrants, women and other vulnerable groups – neither party has a coherent analysis of the cascading crises of our time or policy prescriptions to address those crises.

In such a political moment, keeping alive a realistic critical politics is crucial. Examples from ecology, economics and empire illustrate this point.

Climate change: Much of the Republican Party denies (or, to appease denial-driven voters and donors, ignores) anthropogenic climate change. This rejection of the overwhelming consensus of peer-reviewed science is ecocidal. Meanwhile, most of the Democratic Party accepts the science but continues to talk about “solutions” that deny the scale and scope of the problem, pretending that the endless growth demanded by capitalism is compatible with ecological sustainability. This rejection of the implications of the science is ecocidal, too.

Inequality: Much of the Republican Party is unconcerned about widening wealth inequality or the persistent racial wealth divide, based in an unreflective commitment to allegedly free markets – whatever the resulting distribution of wealth, that’s the way it should be. Most of the Democratic Party expresses concern over this inequality and offers variations of traditional New Deal programs that, at best, only temper the worst of it. Neither party acknowledges that capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system at odds with our commonly stated theological and ethical principles, which put the inherent dignity of all people and a loving solidarity at the heart of a decent human community.

Foreign policy: In most of the post-World War II era, the United States pursued a bipartisan agenda of economic and military dominance, using overt aggression and covert crimes to solidify that control. Today, as US dominance wanes and domestic politics fractures, there is more mainstream disagreement over foreign policy. Libertarian isolationism (which is detached from the reality of the complexity of the contemporary world), conservative aggressiveness (still trying to impose a US-dominated reality through brute force) and liberal imperialism (pretending that reality can be imposed more diplomatically, with force used judiciously). All these positions share one goal: continue, to the degree possible, the United States’ dominance that makes possible our disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources, protecting the bottom line of US-based multinational corporations.

There are, of course, often significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, and we do not hesitate to express support for saner politicians who run for office and policy proposals they put forward. We also support efforts to challenge ultra-right-wing Republicans who shut down women’s health clinics, ratchet up anti-immigrant rhetoric and try to push public education back to the 19th century before they kill it off completely with vouchers.

All these issues matter, but so does this long-term and big-picture observation: Republicans and Democrats today lack the moral courage and/or intellectual capacity to face reality and articulate a political program that deals with reality. When we organize around the issues of the moment, we should do it with an eye to challenging not only obvious opponents on the right but untrustworthy allies in the center.

Is it unrealistic to pursue left politics in Texas – or anywhere in the United States? Quite the contrary: The ecological crises, the economic catastrophes and the immorality of empire lead us to conclude that mainstream politics is a dead end. We remain committed to left politics because we are realistic.