Texas Democrats must get back to their progressive roots

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

As the results rolled in Tuesday night, one fact became clear: Contrary to many polls, Texas remains red as ever. Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 9 percentage points in the state, a margin that shrank compared to 2012 but remained far from competitive.

Pundits will parse the data for months to come, but for the Texas Democratic Party, the results already present an opportunity for reflection. Many political operatives will look at exit polling and conclude that the party must moderate its message to make inroads among white voters in suburbs and rural areas, particularly among the white working class. Others will look at the ongoing demographic changes and conclude that Latinos will inevitably turn Texas blue.

Yet a hidden chapter of the state's history invites a third interpretation that, in turn, suggests a different road forward. Looking to the past reveals that the present Democratic Party already possesses a path to victory in Texas, but only if it assembles an unabashedly liberal, multiracial coalition that connects high politics with robust social movements.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Texas remained part of the Democratic Solid South and was therefore already blue. Still, the battle lines were clear. New Deal liberals of all colors fought to wrest the party away from conservative segregationists who had dominated it since Reconstruction.

It was in that context that between the 1930s and the 1960s, African Americans, Mexican Americans, organized labor, and white liberals gradually came together to form the Democratic Coalition, a group that paired electoral politics with grassroots struggles for racial and economic justice. Bringing in protestors and politicians alike, the coalition was deliberately democratic, led by four co-chairs elected from each of its four legs. After struggling to bring activists together across the color line, the Democratic Coalition took off in the mid-1960s because its members talked openly about their internal disagreements, prioritized the struggles for civil rights (broadly defined), supported union organizing, and combined rhetoric with action — most boldly, by organizing mass demonstrations and the state's largest ever voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns among black and brown Texans.

And their strategy worked. The coalition elected and re-elected the liberal Ralph W. Yarborough to the U.S. Senate, marched together in the streets to win and then implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and launched the first revolts of the Chicano Movement for self-determination in South Texas. The diverse activists forever expanded the Texas electorate and transformed its political map, providing Lyndon B. Johnson with a constituency as he and his party grew more liberal and more committed to civil rights. In the process, coalition leaders trained a generation of rank and file activists at both the ballot box and in the streets. Their work underwrote the left wing of the state's Democratic Party for the next half-century, up to the present.

Yet beginning in the 1970s — when Hillary and Bill Clinton famously came to Texas to work on the McGovern campaign — Texas Democratic Party officials responded to the threat of an ascendant Republican Party by turning away from the civil rights movements and the stalwart local leaders recruited by the coalition. Instead, they muted their commitment to social justice in an attempt to retain white swing voters in the state's rural areas and ballooning suburbs. And they lost.

It is clear that Democrats have thus far failed to learn from this history. In 2016, Clinton made only token appeals to Texas voters, and like her predecessors, she focused on cultivating donors rather than the grassroots. The party struggles to field credible candidates for statewide office. Turning Texas blue remains a distant dream. At this critical juncture, the party will again be confronted with calls to retreat from present-day struggles for racial and economic justice, to become the centrist alternative to the GOP. Such an approach is doomed to failure.

The Democratic Party will return to relevancy in the state — and nation — only when it recommits to an unflinching progressive agenda, to frank and open discussions about race, to prioritizing present-day civil rights and labor issues, and to forging a broad, multiracial coalition at the grassroots. Texas Democrats must do the hard work of door-to-door, precinct-level organizing and of forming uneasy alliances with diverse social movements.

In short, they must return to their roots.

Max Krochmal

Assistant professor of history, Texas Christian University; author of "Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era"