No longer just a product of the fringe, the proposed platform of the Republican party of Texas signals the anti-democratic turn in Texas politics

As in years past, the party platform committee report adopted at the Republican Party of Texas’ state convention last week is a Frankenstein assemblage of up-to-the-minute GOP hot topics, from namechecking the threat of “Drag Queen Story Hour” to “parental rights” to critical race theory to vaccinations, sewn together with well-worn fringe politics – plank 273 contains 14 positions related to threats posed by the United Nations. (There is also much more in the platform committee report, which runs to 40 single-spaced pages of small type that bolt on the preoccupations of a wide range of causes.) The resolution that triggered the most headlines and, as the week wore on, a handful of op-eds, echoed the most high-profile assault on the national democratic process: “We reject the certified results of the 2020 Presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

To anyone who has paid attention to past party platforms, or, more proximately, has watched Republican politics in Texas for even the last year, none of this will come as a surprise. The activist factions that have long dominated the organs of the state party have always been able to insert their pet obsessions into the party platform. But a look at even the headlined features in conjunction with available public opinion polling illustrates that they now have more influence than ever on the party’s actual, public agenda, as the output of the 2021 legislative session demonstrated in stark terms.

Media coverage has been almost as predictable, particularly among the national press, in emphasizing the “look what those crazy Texans have done NOW!” trope, provoking the usual pushback from ostensible Texas political insiders reminding that convention attendees make up a tiny share of the GOP electorate and so on. While the math is right as far as it goes, public opinion polling over the last decade illustrates plenty of convergence between the cadres at the convention and the party’s voting base on the most salient issues this cycle – and not a lot of daylight on some of the issues considered on the fringe. (For example, item 19(f) calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution “making English the official language of the United States”; in October 2019 UT/Texas Tribune polling, an amendment to the Texas Constitution making English the official language was favored by 69% of Texas Republicans.)

It’s a time-honored tradition for candidates in Texas as well as the United States to pick and choose among the platform items they support, so no one should expect any party candidate at any level to be bound to anything and everything in a platform. It’s an equally tried and true tactic for rival candidates to hold their opponents’ feet to the fire for either being associated with a platform (in general elections) or for being apostate (in primaries), though it’s a largely ineffectual tactic in most cases (particularly in general elections). A party entity (usually at the county level) might use a lack of adherence to the platform to admonish or censure a current officeholder (see e.g. Joe Straus).

Loading chart...

While there are plenty of boutique items in the Texas GOP platform that many Texas Republican voters neither agree with or find important, or have any opinion on at all, some of the items most prominently flagged in the press do enjoy widespread support among Texas Republicans, as is evident in our polling, and are unlikely to be disavowed by GOP candidates in 2022. For example, The platform proposal declares “we oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity” (item 144), that “homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice” (143), an affirmation that “America is ‘one nation under God’ founded on Judeo’ Christian principles,” followed by four related policy demands (205). The lengthy section on government and election integrity urges that “the Voting Rights Act of 1965…be repealed and not reauthorized.” In April 2022 polling, for example, 87% of Texas Republicans said that “ the sex listed on a person’s original birth certificate should be the only way to define a person’s gender,” while only 9% said that gays and lesbians face “a lot” of discrimination in America today, compared to 31% who said the same of Christians and 34% who said the same of white people

Loading chart...
Not sure4%16%11%

Many of the items where one can find congruence between prevalent GOP attitudes captured in polling and particular planks in the platform express the reactionary orientation that increasingly defines core attitudes and political priorities in the state’s Republican Party. Anti-democratic and/or nativist positions on issues of fundamental importance include the legitimacy of the current president’s election, a commitment to equality under the law, to political participation, and the response to the inclusiveness in an increasingly diverse America (and Texas). February polling found only 22% of Texas Republicans acknowledging the legitimacy of Biden’s victory (67% say it was illegitimate), while only 25% agree that protesters who entered the capitol were trying to overturn the election results (62% disagree). In February of 2021, 73% of Texas Republicans rated the official results of U.S. elections as inaccurate (with a majority, 52%, saying “very inaccurate”). In February of this year, 63% said that democracy is working poorly in the U.S. today. In the platform document, item 240 would limit early voting to “a single period of time of no more than three days with no time gap between the first day of Early Voting and Election Day.” Item 242 proposes various limitations and new means of vigilance on voter registration, including repealing all motor voters. Another provision calls for “Expanding the Attorney General’s staff for investigating election crimes and restoring the ability of the Attorney General to prosecute any election crimes,” among dozens of provisions, most of which would increase vigilance and procedural hurdles in voting and elections.

The platform document calls for a "change to the 14th Amendment to eliminate “birth tourism” or anchor babies by granting citizenship only to those with at least one biological parent who is a US citizen." In November 2015, as Donald Trump was illustrating the political potency of unabashed nativism in the GOP presidential primary, 66% of Republicans favored the repeal of the birthright citizenship provisions of the 14th Amendment. More recently, in April 2022, a majority of Texas Republicans, 52%, say that population growth has been bad for Texas, while only a third believe that the state’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a cause for optimism, with an almost equal share saying it’s a cause for concern, and the plurality, 40%, unable (or unwilling) to offer an opinion.

Loading chart...
A cause for optimism57%23%32%
A cause for concern27%30%29%
Don't know/No opinion16%46%40%

If the nativism evident in the 2022 GOP platform document has deep roots, the widespread denial of the validity of the 2020 election and thus of the legitimacy of the Biden presidency has metastasized a familiar rejection of federal government authority from a wariness of central government into a much more fundamental rejection of institutional legitimacy.

The lack of regard for the federal government among Republicans has long been evident in polling. GOP party platforms in Texas have long rejected the policy interventions of the federal government and railed against its Constitutional supremacy. The roots of this reach back to the Civil War, of course, but more directly relevant, to the experience of reconstruction and the successful resistance to it prior to the Civil Rights era. At the end of the Obama administration, in February 2015 polling, 78% of Texas Republicans expressed an unfavorable view of the federal government — 52% very unfavorable. While not terribly surprising, more surprising is that in June 2019, with Donald Trump in control of the White House, negative GOP opinions of the federal government remained at 50%, while only 31% offered a positive opinion. February 2021 polling found Texas Republicans, asked which branch of the government they trust the most leaning on the, now very conservative, Supreme Court, chosen by 50%, tellingly followed by no opinion at 39%.

The spreading devolution from begrudging federal authority to rejecting the legitimacy of the results of the presidential election represents a significant decay in the regard for the Constitutional order. As unlikely as Texas actually seceding may be (and it is, in our view, VERY unlikely for a range of practical and cultural reasons), the platform’s statement that “Texas retains the right to secede from the United States, and the Texas Legislature should be called upon to pass a referendum consistent thereto” has a resonance beyond the novelty of such rhetoric and bumper stickers in the past. 

In important ways, the party platform, effectively limited as its impact has been historically, is yet another indicator of the decay within the Republican Party of Texas of its regard for the national constitutional regime, and the emboldened rejection of more recent national commitments to a more inclusive democracy. These developments have national causes of course, most significantly Donald Trump’s activation of nativism and other forms of cultural revanchism among conservatives amidst increased ideological polarization and negative partisanship throughout the national political system. The mutually reinforcing decay of support for democratic institutions and practices, and, more specifically, the legitimizing of a widespread rejection of a more culturally expansive model of national identity (along the mutiple lines of race and ethnicity, sexual identity, geography, and even ideological orientation), were first exploited, then amplified by Donald Trump for his own purposes, as we’ve also illustrated with polling data in previous writings.  

But however powerful and significant the impact of the national politics that elevated Donald Trump, the Republican Party of Texas platform also strongly reflects the trajectory of state-level politics, and the ways in which the current balance of political power in the state is shaping political institutions. There is no consistently effective check on the anti-democratic impulses that have become orthodoxy, particularly if party leaders choose to embrace those impulses – or simply stay silent as other public figures reinforce and legitimize them. In the absence of any such figures, the Republican Party’s entrenched monopoly on government, buttressed by their continuing dominance in elections, is fundamentally changing the nature of politics and governance in the state.

The convergence of the party platform with the dispositions and sentiment of Republican voters on fundamental issues of democracy and civil society reflects an environment in which Republican elected officials and opinion leaders are largely indifferent to the interests and preferences of Texans with whom they are not aligned. The result is an increasing acqueiense by incumbents and other party elites to the activated reactionary element of the GOP, and the introduction and advancement of new elites, cadres, and voters socialized to view anti-democratic commitments like those littered throughout the platform as defining their partisan affiliation – and, more broadly, their social identity. The frequent nostalgia among political insiders for the ocassional bipartisan cooperation of the Bush governmorship points to selective memory that works to mask the key role political leadership plays can play in shaping partisan attitudes. The political leadership during the Bush govenership responded to a political system in a transition in the partsian balance of power by signaling to their voters and operatives that compromise was necessary. This irritated but curbed the more idological wings of each party. In the current system, in which Democrats are only intermittently able to mount any effective electoral competition, the Republican political leadership has neither found an incentive nor appraently felt any idological or normative commitment to moderate the long existing but kept in check anti-democratic and reactionary impulses within the party. Instead, they have encouraged their increasing power and influence – and, consequently, the legitimacy of their views among a growing share of the base. (This tendency was foreshadowed by the passive support for the Tea Party evident in the 2010's.) 

Since the election of Donald Trump, it's been widely argued that the increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic nature of the national Republican Party poses a serious threat to national democratic institutions. The Republican Party of Texas has demonstrably followed the pattern of the national party, further empowered by the effectively institutionalized absence of a consequential opposition party. The GOP monopoly on state power makes the threat to democratic institutions and governance in the state much more immediate. The 2021 legislative session provided hints of such a threat on multiple fronts, from election laws and other measures meant to bolster Republican incumbency to attempts to roll back women's rights (now abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court), as well a general willingness to cater to primarily to activated Republican constituencies – likely only the leading indicator of what is yet to come when, as widely expected, Republicans leverage their advantages to retain a lock on political power in the state in the 2022 elections, and set about legislating their agenda in 2023.