Texas Republicans are a preview of national GOP rule

The party is putting a dark twist on the "laboratories of democracy" concept

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

It's just like Texas to out-Texas itself. That's exactly what the Lone Star State's Republican-dominated legislature has done this spring. On Monday, the latest Texas' legislative session came to a close, pulling off, as The New York Times described, "one of the most conservative… sessions" in recent history.

That session included a bill that ended the state's handgun permit and training system and another that effectively banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a time when most women do not know they are pregnant.

Only a last-ditch political maneuver by Texas Democrats kept the legislature from passing one of the most restrictive voting bills in the nation. On Sunday, enough members of the legislature's Democratic minority used a walkout to break a quorum, thereby forcing the chamber to miss its deadline for voting the bill through. The proposed legislation included a raft of provisions that most experts acknowledge were designed to disproportionately impact voters of color in the state, including outlawing drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, new restrictions on mail voting, and increased punishments for local election officials who violate the new rules while, at the same time, granting alarmingly expansive authority to partisan poll watchers.

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The Republican push to dramatically suppress voting rights has already triumphed in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Iowa, where, in addition to other restrictions, bills have shortened voting hours and ended early voting. Other states, like Ohio and Michigan, may soon follow suit.

And Texas may too. The state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has said he'll call the legislature back to a special session this year to get the repressive elections bill passed. He has also promised to veto the portion of the state budget that funds the legislature, including the salaries of legislators. "No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," Abbott tweeted on Monday.

Abbott, and his Republican lawmakers in Texas, certainly know about abandoning responsibilities. As COVID-19 raged in Texas this spring, Abbott decided it was just the moment to lift the mask mandate in his state. "It is now time to open Texas 100 percent," he declared.

At the same time, Texas' Republican legislators were busy passing laws that weakened the state's ability to control the pandemic, including a bill that prohibits government entities and businesses from requiring proof of vaccination in order to enter or use their services. COVID-related bills that the legislature declined to pass included proposals that would have improved the state's vaccination database, created a mass vaccination and distribution emergency plan, and provided funding for investigating how racial inequities in the state contribute to health disparities. As the Texas Tribune headline accurately summarized the situation, "Texas lawmakers responded to the pandemic by limiting what the government can do in response to a pandemic."

Their response to the other major crisis Texans faced this past year – the blackout of the state's power grid which left hundreds dead and millions freezing in the cold without drinkable water after winter storms hit the state in February – was only mildly better. Once again, the energy proposals that state legislators voted down or failed to even consider, including bills to raise energy efficiency standards and to link Texas' isolated power grid to other states as a backup, say more than whatever legislation they were willing to pass. However, it is worth noting that one of the energy bills passed will likely result in higher utility bills for the state's residents, money that will then be used to bail out the state's electricity companies.

But Texans who lost their jobs or experienced devastating financial consequences from the pandemic can expect no similar rescue. The state legislature refused to extend direct relief to its citizens. They can fend for themselves.

The inattention and inadequate response to both the pandemic and the energy crisis in Texas stands in stark contrast to how state Republicans have zealously pursued enacting voter suppression laws. In one red state after another, Republican politicians have framed these laws as "election security" measures, a specious claim given how secure our voting system has repeatedly proven to be. These bills, along with anti-transgender legislation, the outlawing of critical race theory in public education, and the expansion of gun rights by statehouses across the country, show that Texas is hardly alone in prioritizing an extreme right-wing agenda at the expense of dealing with the most important issues facing everyday Americans.

For much of the history of American political life, states have been held up as the "laboratories of democracy," the place, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1932, to "try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." But as Texas and many other red states are showing, they can also be incubators of illiberalism.

They are also chilling proof that although Trump may be out of the White House, Trumpism is thriving at the state level. And those anti-democratic advances could very soon have national ramifications. Should Republicans regain Congressional control in the 2022 midterm elections – a prospect made more likely by these new voting restrictions in so many states – they'll be perfectly positioned and, more importantly now, politically predisposed, to steal the 2024 presidential election. As The Week's Ryan Cooper rightly observed back in April, what Republican lawmakers have been attempting in Texas and other red states "is just the opening tactic in a long-term strategy to abolish American democracy and set up one party rule."

Don't mess with Texas, so goes the old saying. But Texas could very well be a preview of the Republican Party's plans to mess with American democracy.

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Neil J. Young

Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He writes frequently on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.