Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa opens up the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention Friday, June 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)
AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez

Editorial: Texas Democrats Need to Throw Out the Political Rulebook

Politics isn’t about truth; it’s about power.


A version of this story ran in the July / August 2020 issue.

Above: Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa at the Texas Democratic Convention in 2018.

Maybe you heard it when Governor Greg Abbott critiqued local officials who enforced his pandemic executive orders. Or maybe it was when U.S. Senator John Cornyn said he would support a hypothetical vote on a Supreme Court nominee after spending 2016 blocking Merrick Garland. Perhaps it was over the past two legislative sessions as the Texas GOP discovered it actually didn’t like local control when the locals were turning blue.

I’m talking about the word “hypocrite.”

The accusation has become a go-to for Texas Democrats watching their Republican colleagues backtrack on stated values and positions the moment it becomes convenient.

Here’s an important lesson: Hypocrisy in politics isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no grand umpire or arbiter who punishes elected officials for inconsistency (besides the voters, and they usually don’t mind). Politics isn’t about truth; it’s about power. If past positions get in the way, change them.

I’d say that’s a lesson they don’t teach you in school, but actually they do. Rice University graduate student Matt Lamb told me it’s the first thing he teaches students in his Introduction to American Politics class: “Politics is about power.”

It’s the power to implement an agenda, impose one’s own morality on others, or distribute resources. It’s the reason people try to get elected in the first place.

Texas Democrats must’ve missed that class, because for the past 30 years or so they’ve acted as if noble intentions alone are enough to merit statewide office. Uphold the process. Act professionally. Do the right thing. Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said essentially that in a May conference call with journalists in response to the governor’s plan on ending COVID lockdowns. “The Democratic Party is not looking at the response through a political lens,” he said. “We’re looking at what is good for the public. If that costs us votes, so be it.”

There’s a slight flaw in Hinojosa’s plan: You can’t pursue the public good if you don’t get the public vote.

Texas Democrats used to understand this axiom. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro spent four books documenting Lyndon B. Johnson’s unique ability to identify, acquire, and use power. “If one characteristic of Lyndon Johnson was a boundless ambition, another was a willingness, on behalf of that ambition, to make efforts that were also without bounds,” Caro wrote in Means of Ascent.

Hypocrisy in politics isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There’s no grand umpire or arbiter who punishes elected officials for inconsistency.

Today’s Texas Democrats often have nothing but bounds, restrained by their own expectations about what is and isn’t acceptable or possible. Instead of touting what they’d do with power if voters gave it to them, too much Democratic rhetoric remains focused on a political rulebook only they seem to care about.

Texas Republicans use the pandemic as an excuse to pursue tort reform, ban abortions, or undermine cities and counties, and Democrats remain certain that this is no time to play politics.

But things are starting to change. A few Lone Star Democrats are finally beginning to explain what, exactly, they’d do if elected. Some of it is structural (expand Medicaid) and some of it is symbolic (eliminate Confederate Heroes Day), but it’s all more substantive than the vague promises about “bipartisanship” or “problem-solving” that you’d typically hear from Democratic candidates over the past few decades.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an actual opposition party in Texas, consider the only person who seems capable of taking down Republican politicians—Michael Quinn Sullivan, the right-wing political activist who secretly recorded Speaker Dennis Bonnen insulting local officials and legislators of both parties. In May, Sullivan wrote a critique of the governor’s response to COVID-19 that focused not on hypocrisy, but on his use of political power, and laid out a plan for legislators to reclaim it.

Texas Democrats could try thinking like that, too. If they really do care about all the things that supposedly motivate them—strong neighborhood schools, higher wages, and an economy that works for everyone—then they need to be willing to chart a path to power. And if they’re not willing to do what it takes, then it kinda seems like they care more about defending their own personal reputations and political comfort than actually helping school kids and working families.

Gosh, I hope nobody thinks they’re hypocrites.

Editor’s note: The editorial misstated the original publication date for Sullivan’s critique of Governor Abbott. The commentary was published in May. The Observer regrets the error.

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