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Is the Lone Star State Moving Left?

The surprising success of Beto O’Rourke’s Democratic campaign for the Senate is not the cause of Texans moving leftward.

Republican US Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic US Representative Beto O'Rourke in their first debate for Texas U.S. Senate in McFarlin Auditorium at SMU on September 21, 2018, in Dallas, Texas.

To the delight of millions of people in Texas and across the country, the odious Republican Sen. Ted Cruz finds himself in in a close race against his Democratic challenger, US Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

In Texas, where Republican zealots have dominated every statewide office for more than two decades, O’Rourke’s promotion of Medicare for All, endorsement of anti-racist protests among NFL athletes and participation in marches on child detention centers are a welcome sign that Democratic politicians feel the need to address the grassroots social movements that have extended across the state.

If Cruz is out of a job following November’s midterm elections, socialists and progressives will have plenty to smile about.

His defeat would serve a long-overdue humiliation in the southernmost bastion of US conservatism to a loud, bigoted clown who both constituents and non-constituents have come to know too well.

It would also register the desire of millions in Texas for a progressive break with not only the past two years of Trumpist terror, but also decades of having a state government completely in bed with Gulf Coast capitalism.

Liberal organizations have flocked to O’Rourke’s campaign, which has been amassing donations that far surpass Cruz’s fundraising.

But for all the enthusiasm that O’Rourke has generated among progressives, there is less to his platform than meets the eye, and his campaign threatens to shift the attention and resources of activists away from the union drives and protest movements that are truly responsible for creating this opening.

* * *

O’Rourke’s surprising success to this point reflects two social changes underway in Texas.

First, the state’s working class is undergoing rapid transformation. From 2010 to 2016, Texas experienced the largest population growth among all 50 states for six straight years. An annual average of 140,000 people migrated to Texas from within the US, and 82,000 people arrived yearly from abroad — most heading for the state’s four major metro centers.

Nearly 70 percent of Texans aged 19 or younger are Black or Latino, and only 38 percent of the 62 percent of the population that is between 20 and 40 are white.

As the personnel in political office turns over, the state’s “majority-minority,” border-crossed working class continues to grow, and its activity and organization will determine the political terrain on which the state’s ruling class maneuvers.

This transformation has pivoted on the state’s economic derrick in the petrochemical industry, surrounded by research and development investments and financial pipelines to the US armed forces — which have historically buoyed the state through otherwise more destructive financial volatility.

Texas has also used its feeble corporate tax rate to court several multinational companies to decamp in the state. This strategy for capital accumulation and relocation enables the state to perform as the final destination for migrants on either side of the border.

Those new arrivals find themselves in an intensely anti-worker environment.

Texas has been an anti-union “right to work” since 1993. While the state’s 13 million-strong labor force is among the largest in the US, its unionization rate is below 5 percent — less than half the national average.

Meanwhile, the rich enjoy not only low corporate taxes but no income taxes — part of a strategy designed to transfer wealth back to the wealthy and leave behind cash-strapped state and local governments primed for imposing austerity measures.

The second-largest economy in the US, Texas ranks among the 10 most unequal states in the country and is home to the third most billionaires behind New York and California.

The resilience of the so-called “Texas Miracle” is explained less by natural resources than by political agreement among Texas Democrats and Republicans for preserving the state’s location and position.

* * *

The weakness of the public sector aggravates a crisis of social provision among the state’s teachers and nurses.

The state’s 212,000 nurses — nearly 45,000 of whom are concentrated in the Houston metro area alone — confront a severe staffing shortage that has both lengthened and intensified the work day. This is exacerbated by weak unions and a state government that has refused federal funds to keep pace with expanded coverage.

As in other states across the country, the struggles of Texas’s 351,000 teachers have increasingly been making the news. Massive spending cuts in the decade since the Great Recession have resulted in salaries falling behind rising costs of living, declining state contributions to health insurance and increasingly privatized retirement plans.

The other sleeping giant in Texas’s labor force is the construction sector, which employs nearly 1 million workers, almost half of whom are undocumented.

The state of the industry currently poses unique opportunities for labor organizing and action. The housing crisis created by Hurricane Harvey continues to plague Texas, as the construction industry reports chronic labor shortages.

The state’s intense social polarization, anti-Trump whiplash and tight labor markets in shipping, manufacturing and mining have spurred a new wave of organizing, both inside the workplace and out.

Texas added 81,000 new union members in 2017 — the largest increase in three decades — including advances in the state’s construction, hotel, food and airport industries. In addition, campaigns for paid sick leave made significant advances in three of the state’s four major metro centers, winning passage in Austin and San Antonio and still in progress in Dallas.

While the membership rolls of the Democratic Socialists of America flourished across the country following the 2016 election, some of its largest chapters nationwide are now in Austin and Houston.

These and other independent political forces could be a strong base of solidarity if teachers decide to bring the wave of educators’ strikes to Texas — a once-taboo subject that is now at least being talked about by the state’s union leaders.

* * *

With November approaching, however, the space to pursue these questions has grown narrower as leading organizations have postponed providing answers in order to focus on the elections.

The AFL-CIO, whose affiliates include the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Nurses United (NNU), endorsed O’Rourke in September, which will likely produce three outcomes.

First, it will divert the energies and financial resources of union members away from expanding unions and their relevance to the lives of members and towards block-walking and phone-banking for O’Rourke and others.

During the teacher’s revolt in May, the only rally initiated by the AFT in Texas deflected teacher indignation away from a more disruptive agenda and toward electoral support for the Democratic Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Mike Collier.

This fall, as the teachers’ strikes and unrest has spread to Washington Stateand Los Angeles, Texas AFT leader Louis Malfaro says that his main priority is the election “as a test of how much his union can mobilize public support for teachers.”

Second, it will mean earmarking millions of union dollars for O’Rourke or other Democratic candidates, which demand use elsewhere.

In California, the United Teachers of Los Angeles reserved $3 million in preparation for their recently authorized and upcoming strike. But in 2012, 2014 and 2016, Democratic candidates in Texas received $1.2 million, $1.6 million and over $2 million from public-sector unions to finance their campaigns.

How different might Texas schools have looked in April if those resources in prior years had been directed towards expanding union membership, fortifying cohesion among locals and establishing community relationships in preparation for a fight at the state level?

Third, having committed resources to the Democrats’ electoral agenda, the state’s unions and grassroots organizations will naturally feel compelled to stand by their investments and, even worse, substitute them for action.

The one major metro area in Texas not experiencing a paid sick leave campaign is Houston, where the popular but embattled mayor is Sylvester Turner, the state’s leading Democratic politician and potential gubernatorial candidate in the future.

Yet the forces behind paid sick leave in neighboring cities have not initiated a campaign in the nation’s fourth-largest city, saving the Turner administration from having to untangle its contradictory alliances with those above from its promises to those below.

* * *

The weakness of the state’s labor movement has placed serious limits on the O’Rourke campaign, which has to canvas Texas’ 254 counties without being able to rely on the statewide infrastructure that strong unions might provide. On the other hand, this historical weakness of progressive infrastructure has spared O’Rourke from facing a high degree of political accountability.

While many progressive voters identify O’Rourke as a southern iteration of Bernie Sanders, many in his El Paso congressional district know him as a “middle-of-the-road, conservative democrat.”

O’Rourke can offer a charismatic critique of political corruption with his rejection of PAC money — an increasingly common pledge among Democrats that can be easily obviated by laundering through bundling individual contributions — without having to explain the enthusiasm of El Paso’s landlords for financing his political rise.

He can lead marches on child detention centers while at the same time lobbying Congress for more federal funds towards Border Patrol personnel and hardware on the border.

He can defend athletes protesting racist police violence but without having to answer for his own support of “blue lives matter” laws that increase criminal penalties for attacks on police officers. He can promote the pursuit of affordable higher education and health care with a platform which fails to include more taxes on the wealthy, but succeeds in writing a blank check to the armed forces.

It should also be noted that O’Rourke is not so popular among El Paso residents who have been displaced by his gentrification projects, or among Palestinian constituents outraged at his solidarity with Israeli apartheid.

As the left in Texas begins to grow and a working-class fightback struggles to advance, both remain without a party organization of their own to challenge those at the top. Promising as they are hazardous, these conditions put a premium on all progressives to discern between candidates and parties that seek to build our successes and those that seek to ride them to electoral victory in order to contain them.

O’Rourke’s campaign carries the hope of many that a “blue wave” in November will finally reach Texas. But its electoral promise shouldn’t be confused with its alleged political rewards.

What distinguishes this political moment from others in the past is not the arrival of charismatic candidates like O’Rourke, nor even a Democratic Party with an energized center-left, but the presence of a militant audience for progressive change, increasingly armed with socialist ideas.

Whether this fighting audience develops an independent agenda of its own will determine the fortunes of progressive politics in Texas — whether left-wing priorities are mere lines on a ballot or they become the conditions all Texas politicians are forced to accept.

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