Which Texans will notice if the 2021 Texas legislature reflects the worst of 2020?

With the Texas Legislature poised to convene next month, the mixture of enthusiasm and anticipatory dread among the direct participants in the process — elected officials, staff, professional advocates, political reporters, to name a few of the usual suspects – is mounting right on schedule. The added uncertainty created by the likelihood of fundamental changes to the legislative process to accommodate the pandemic injects a further dose of anxiety into the usual anticipation. But as the tortured politics of 2020 slouch towards the 2021 legislative session, two related dynamics seem likely: Relatively few Texans will be paying much attention, and if there is an increase in interest, it may well be from corners likely to make the session a very contentious one that reflects the politics of recent months. 

Based on a decade of polling data, we know that once the electorate, such as it is, elect their representatives, most of them don’t pay much attention to what they do during the actual session. In five University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls conducted at the end of the 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 legislative sessions, no more than 13% of Texas voters admitted to following the legislative session “extremely closely” (2011), while no more than 45% have said that they followed the legislative session even “somewhat closely” (2015). This implies that 40% to 45% of the electorate regularly ignores the legislative session, with only a distinct minority (you’re probably included) following the session closely. It is also very likely that this is even an overstatement of attention, as some survey respondents will feel a social desirability to claim that they are paying greater attention to the legislative session than they actually are. 

Loading chart...
Extremely closely12%
Somewhat closely37%
Not that closely31%
Not at all closely17%
Don’t know3%

On average, there has been a slight partisan difference in attention paid to the legislature, with Republicans slightly more attentive than Democrats, and independents more likely to be not at all attentive. The largest divergence between the two parties is evident in 2011, when Republican interest was significantly higher than that of Democrats: 15% of Republicans were watching the legislature extremely closely and 50% somewhat closely, while the corresponding shares among Democrats were 10% and 39%. The GOP pushback at the national level against the Obama presidency that fueled the Tea Party movement appears to have also translated into more attention to the state legislature among Republicans. The level of interest among all voters, however, while the highest of the 10 year period, doesn’t differ significantly from the overall trend in which significantly less than 20% report following the legislature closely.

How closely have you been following the current Texas legislative session?
(May/June University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling)
  Overall Republicans Democrats
  Extremely closely Somewhat closely Total Extremely closely Somewhat closely Total Extremely closely Somewhat closely Total
2011 13% 44% 57% 15% 50% 65% 10% 39% 49%
2013 7% 36% 43% 8% 38% 46% 7% 35% 42%
2015 12% 45% 57% 13% 46% 57% 10% 46% 56%
2017 11% 44% 55% 11% 46% 57% 11% 41% 52%
2019 12% 37% 49% 13% 42% 55% 10% 34% 44%

The uptick in interest among GOP partisans in 2011 does invite tentative speculation about 2021 as those of us who do follow the legislature closely ponder the tone and focus of this legislature as the session nears. The 87th legislature differs from the 82nd in significant ways, most importantly in that it comes directly after a partisan change in the White House in which the Republican incumbent was the loser – not, as in 2011, in the wake of a huge GOP surge in the prior midterm election. In 2011, the Republicans bounced back at the state level after significant victories in elections for statewide office and a resounding win in legislative races, where they gained a whopping 25 seats in the house of representatives. By comparison, 2020 was a holding pattern in the legislature, despite the hyped expectations raised by Democrats and now being exploited by Republicans. 

However, one key similarity may be expected to stir GOP interest in the legislature, which many regular folks otherwise view as a minor sideshow to national politics. The Tea Party surge of the early 2010’s expressed a strong anti-systemic bias among conservatives, primarily if not wholly within the GOP, that was triggered by Obama’s election but that tapped into deeper grievances festering among conservatives aimed at social and cultural change in the country. (While polling shows an early focus among these groups in Texas on economic grievances, their attention clearly shifted to immigration and border security, among other, familiar issues that tapped into cultural identity.) 

Donald Trump’s election, and then his handling of his defeat for reelection, have fed this sense of grievance and even made it more publicly evident and seemingly acceptable. Tea Party consciousness was growing through the social mobilization mounting between 2008 and 2010. 

The next legislative session will be a leading indicator of if we should expect a similar resurgence from the party’s more reactionary forces now that the GOP is much more broadly defined by Trump’s anti-institutional, nativist pose. As the reaction to Trump’s loss of the presidential election among some share of the GOP rank and file, the response their new allies like the Proud Boys, as well as reams of state and national polling data all suggest, shifts in consciousness and mobilization are well under way, weeks prior to the inauguration of Trump’s replacement.

The 2010 wave led to accompanying legislative dynamics in which fealty to the grassroots, the constitution, or both was used as a justification not only for criticism of already quite sufficiently conservative Republicans, but of the institution and body of government as a whole. While the grievances expressed in some corners of the electorate reflect the events of the last decade, if especially the last year, the coalitional politics in the Texas GOP feel familiar, from the politics (and the resources) surrounding the run off between Shelly Luther and Rep. Drew Springer for Senate District 30 to the state Republican party chair Allen West’s hyperbolic attacks on Governor Greg Abbott and presumptive speaker Dade Phelan, to Attorney General Ken Paxton and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz joining the dead-enders in Trump’s Quixotic fight to the bitter end of his presidency — at the hands of what Republicans increasingly regard as an ostensibly conservative Supreme Court. 

There is, of course, a wealth of self-interest, grudges, and sheer opportunism of all stripes at work in all of these conflicts. Yet there can be little doubt that the effects of Trump’s commandeering of the Republican party by inflaming the most reactionary grievances among his base, demonstrating the yields of that approach to other GOP officials and hopefuls, and then refusing to accept his loss, has reenergized some of the same forces in the Texas GOP that surged in the party a decade ago. 

This resurgence could yet remain only the sounds of distant thunder when the legislature convenes next month, given the significant and very immediate problems they face — and in terms of public attention, the degree to which the manifestations of those problems are front and center in people’s lives in ways that may not connect to the atavism that animates the Proud Boys-wing of Trump’s GOP. The session will mark the first time that the legislature will be making decisions in the public eye to address the very real problems of the last year — most immediately the COVID-19 disaster, including the very practical responses around issues like spending on the array of the pandemic’s effects (like public health, but also education, liability protection, and business support, to name just a few). With a vaccine on the horizon and, ironically, an administration in the White House poised to take the pandemic much more seriously and competently than their predecessors, some of this pressure may decrease, along with a reversion to the norm of minimal public attention to what the legislature is doing beyond the usual direct participants and interested parties. 

But if the politics of 2011 are any guide, there is a lot of potential for a familiar ugliness fueled by an activated reactionary base to creep into the legislature next year. Everybody sees the potential for partisan conflict in the clearly foreseeable tasks before the legislative bodies — dealing with the budget amidst a shortfall, pandemic response, redistricting, a COVID-inflected legislative process yet to be fully determined and subject to the vicissitudes of the poorly handled pandemic.  

With such a daunting agenda in addition to the usual business of the legislature that involves narrower groups, how will legislators interpret the 2020 election, and extrapolate from the results what their constituents want, what they expect, and how much energy and attention will be paid to holding them accountable?  It’s an article of faith in the Capitol that legislators interpreted the surge of turnout, the unexpected closeness of some races, and the defeats of many previously safe incumbents (particular Republicans) as a mandate for a more practical, less inflammatory agenda during the 86th legislature. While the 2019 session was not without its contentious moments on issues including Confederate monuments, voting rules governing third parties, hamstringing municipal governments, anti-discrimination ordinances, and women’s health, by and large the session was defined by the push to pass a big education bill and to wave in the direction of property tax reduction.  

The 2020 election results provide significantly less clarity going into the 2021 session. For all the talk of paying attention to what legislators heard the voters saying in 2018, voters were neither more attentive to the legislature in 2019 nor were they particularly enthusiastic in rating what they accomplished. The agenda that both parties might extrapolate from the voters in 2020 provides little additional guidance. One might look at the voters’ preservation of the 2019 status quo as a request for more of the same practical approach. But the agitation among Trump voters who make up a significant share of the Republican base and the mood of institutional discontent expressed in the rejection of the legitimacy of Biden’s victory could fuel a more ideological thrust by conservatives, or at least, those in the governing majority claiming to speak for them.

While the path the leadership will take remains as unclear as the basic rules that will govern the process, the issues that have defined 2020 in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic will provide incentives and opportunities for the most divisive of politics, both between the parties and within them. These issues still loom large, including social justice politics and criminal justice issues (which many Republican legislators campaigned on, one way or the other) and voting and election measures inspired by the election politics of 2020 (if not it’s actual conduct). Even if most Texans are paying only scant attention, the potential for a session that reflects the worst of 2020 — in short, a deeply partisan denial of the fundamental reality of the public health disaster posed by the pandemic, a resurgence of white nationalism as mainstream discourse, and the continuing erosion of trust in the legitimacy of elections in particular and the political system writ large – seems more and more likely.