The disconnect between Texans and their elected officials

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

“A violent, lawless, backward state, a hang-’em-high kind of place that relishes the death penalty, that’s obsessed with guns, that’s anti-education, anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-environment.”

That’s too often the image Texas presents to the outside world, as the Houston Chronicle editorial board described it in May after the Waco biker shooting. It’s not an image that our elected leaders run away from, but it’s far from the one that most Texans would embrace.

In Houston, the largest city in the state and the fourth-largest in the country, residents consistently express personal views that would be described as left of center. The annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, now in its 34th year of interviewing successive representative samples of Harris County adults, has found that area residents are firmly opposed to laws that would further restrict abortions, decidedly in favor of granting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and clearly rethinking their support for the death penalty.

So why is there such a large disjuncture between “public opinion,” which the surveys measure by asking people in the privacy of their homes how they see the world, and “politically effective opinion,” the views that actually get translated into public policy? Why is public opinion in Texas so often at odds with public policy?

We see that discrepancy everywhere. Here are just a few examples from the Houston surveys:

  • Gun control: In 2013, 81 percent of Harris County residents said they were “strongly” in favor of “requiring universal criminal background checks for all gun sales,” with only 11 percent either slightly or strongly opposed.
  • Minimum wage: In the 2014 survey, the respondents were presented with these opposing statements: “Some people say the minimum wage should be raised to help low-income workers get by. Others say raising the minimum wage will lead to fewer jobs.” After hearing the arguments, 71 percent said they favored raising the minimum wage, with just 28 percent opposed.
  • Immigration: In this year’s survey, conducted in February and March, 72 percent of area residents were in favor of “granting illegal immigrants in the U.S. a path to legal citizenship, if they speak English and have no criminal record.”
  • Death penalty: This year, only 56 percent of the survey participants supported the death penalty for convicted murderers, down from 75 percent in 1993 and no different from today’s national average of 58 percent. Yet Harris County continues to be the “death penalty capital of America,” with Dallas County close behind. Both regions have executed more people since 1976 — when the Supreme Court reinstated the practice — than any other counties in the nation.

Why the disconnect? Social scientists point to a variety of converging forces that have markedly weakened this state’s democratic institutions. They include:

  • Differential voting: Registered voters who are less affluent, younger and disproportionately non-Anglo are considerably less likely to vote than older, more affluent Anglos. The demographic revolution that is rapidly transforming Texas will be seen first in the schoolroom, then in the workplace, and only later at the ballot box.
  • Redistricting: The gerrymandering of voting districts has contributed to the state’s low overall voter turnout by making a win in the primaries virtually tantamount to getting elected. Primary voters usually hold more extreme views than the electorate as a whole, and most of the latter feel little incentive to vote in general elections, since the outcomes are seen as foregone conclusions. No wonder Houston and Dallas consistently have lower voter turnout rates than most other major cities in America.
  • Single-issue voting: People who are intensely pro-gun rights, anti-abortion or anti-gay are more likely to vote on the basis of those issues alone than are the voters who support gun control or gay rights, but who also hold a variety of other views with equal conviction.
  • The power of money: The “donor class” is generally able to define the policies that are considered politically acceptable, regardless of the views of the general public. Louis Brandeis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the 1920s (the last time there was as much inequality in America as there is today), said it well: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

In other words, “ordinary Texans” — the ones the surveys reach through representative samples of area residents — are simply not the same as those who today are in a position to shape the state’s public policies and to determine its political leadership. The democratic institutions in Texas must be strengthened if the narrow image this state presents to the world is to grow into a more faithful reflection of the expansive spirit of its citizens.

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Stephen L. Klineberg

Founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research