In May I received my review copy of “The Republican Party of Texas” by Wayne Thorburn the day after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8, otherwise known as “the Heartbeat Bill” banning abortion as early as six weeks. Feeling the heavy weight of the book in my hand, I hoped that Thorburn might provide some historical insights into why Texas Republicans — who value things such as private property, free enterprise and limited government — have no qualms about obstructing my right to choose what happens to my body.
As a transplant from Seattle, who’s lived in Austin for six years, I no longer see Texas’ capitol city as a “keepin’ it weird” liberal enclave — a Portland without the mountains—because I can walk three blocks in my neighborhood and see a red handmade sign that says Trump 2024. Amidst Austin’s current population growth spurt, I see a city scrambling to find its identity. I feel as though I’m scrambling, too, to understand my place in a red state that is deeply opposed to the equitable treatment of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
In selecting the book, I wanted to know how Texas’ particular brand of Republicanism has developed over time and what the GOP’s future looks like. Thorburn’s book starts in the 19th century and leads up to today. In presenting a long timeline with pivotal turning points, he offers a panoramic view of Lone Star politics. The former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, Thorburn aims for a deeply-researched take on how Republicans were for a long time the underdogs, striving for a definitive “two-party” state until they gained dominance.
Yet from page one, I didn’t trust that I was getting the full picture and was sometimes taken aback by the language. Take for instance the sentence: “When the Confederacy fell and the Union was preserved, these Unionist were to temporarily play important roles in the reconstruction of civil government in Texas in the creation of the Republican Party.” What trips me up is the verb “fell” — to my eye, it has air of wistful nostalgia. More unsettling to me is it sidesteps permanent defeat. To fall leaves the potential to get back up again.
For The Atlantic, Clint Smith wrote about how active organizations, such as Sons of Confederate Veterans, claim to pay “tribute to the sacrifices on both sides of the Civil War” clinging to myths that claim the war “was fought by honorable men protecting their communities, and not about slavery at all.” Fallen heroes is how an organization of about 30,000 chooses to see Confederate soldiers.
In high school in Washington state, I don’t recall taking a U.S. history course, but I do remember taking Social Studies. I don’t remember reading about and/or discussing the Civil War, but I do remember Indigenous history in our textbook took up a paragraph. There are other points in U.S. and Texas history — secession and reconstruction — that I’m woefully uneducated about. Perhaps, I’m not the only one. In January, Texas Monthly ran an article titled “We Need to Talk About Secession,” which highlighted two recently released books that cover what happens when states threaten to become un-united. Because Thorburn condenses 150 years of history into one volume of just under 400 pages, neither subject is expanded. But what I did grasp hold of was just how much the Texas clung to the Confederacy, white supremacists’ desires to maintain and “restore the preexisting order,” and how much racism is woven into the idea of state rights to self-govern. When I see confederate flag license plates locally, I understand now from Smith’s article this proud display can be traced back to the early 1900s which “saw a boom in Confederate monument building.” These bronze messages were intended to express domination, invoke fear, and bolster white supremacy, in a selective remembering of history.
Thorburn notes 1866 as a pivotal year when “the Texas legislature voted against ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment…and passed legislation to restrict the rights of newly freed former slaves. African-Americans could operate their own schools but only with taxes ‘collected from Africans or persons of African descent.”’ Other stipulations were added: “Laborers could not leave their workplace without approval from their employer. Laborers had a duty to be ‘especially civil and polite to their employer, his family and guests.”’
According to the Texas Politics Project, Texas didn’t ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment until 1870, thereby gaining readmission into the Union. For some reason, Thorburn doesn’t mention this, nor does he mention the “Texas Black Codes” which were approved by the state in 1866, and included laws such as being fined one dollar for disobedience.
The Republican Party began as “the party of Lincoln.” Early on the Democratic Party was made up of the landed elites who gained control by preventing—through tactics of terror and intimidation—the right for Blacks to vote. Richard Coke, an ex-Confederate captain, nominated for Texas governor by the Democratic party was inaugurated in 1874. White supremacy was a uniting force within the party, which would impose racial segregation and “election laws, including a poll tax enacted in 1903 and the Terrell Election Law of 1905,” ensuring white-only primaries. Known Ku Klux Klan members, such as Felix D. Robertson ran for Democratic Office in 1924. Democrats had the backing of oil companies, Texas business leaders, and maintained a stronghold on votes from rural counties. Thorburn writes that: “With a few exceptions in isolated parts of the state, Texas Republicans never offered serious competition for public office as Democratic candidates won nearly every election from 1900-1950.”
It struck me that there was very little difference between the parties. This prompted me to look up a quote by Noam Chomsky, who said “in the U.S., there is basically one party—the business party.” When I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, I learned quickly who I’d prefer having in management.
Later in Thorburn’s book, it become clears that Republicans love independent candidates because they split democratic votes. Thorburn notes the musician and author, Kinky Friedman’s run in 2006 as an example.
While the book is focused on Republican candidates, Thorburn does mention the name of Ralph Yarborough as an individual who marked a shift both for Republicans and for Democrats. He writes, “[i]n a historic breakthrough Yarborough won the election and gave new hope to liberal dreams of taking over the Texas Democratic Party. This shift in the late 1950s would see the rise of Barry Goldwater, “the candidate around whom most Texas Republicans would rally in the next few years.” The Democratic Party slowly began to purge conservatives who — once Republicans began to win regularly in elections—decamped willingly, switching sides with a certain amount of public fanfare and a regular mention of being bound by a moral duty.
One fascinating feature in Thorburn’s historical overview is the role women played in laying the foundation for and expanding the Republican party. The 1950s saw a rise in the number of homemakers who were willing to volunteer and organize for Republican candidates. The Texas Federation of Republican Women was formed and remains active today. (He doesn’t mention race, but it seems likely white women were/are the majority.) Republican campaign manager Peter O’Donnell, noted that women worked hard, were dependable, and got the job done. “We knew they could perform,” he states, and that they would “do 95% of the work.”
And they did so for free. Thorburn doesn’t analyze why women suddenly kicked into high gear during this time but women’s clubs were “ideologically committed” according to one member, Beryl Milburn of Austin, “freer economically to join and be Republicans than their husbands were.” While the Civil Rights movement isn’t mentioned, I wondered how much this historic period led Texas Republican women to rally behind candidates who promised to keep segregation and discriminatory laws firmly in place.
A book jacket blurb by Karl Rove praises “The Republican Party of Texas” as “[a] richly informed, crisply written story of the Texas GOP’s emergence, long isolation, and then rise to dominance.” Adding that it’s a “great read for any Lone Star political junkie.” (Rove is mentioned several times in the book.)
I found Thorburn’s writing style a dry line-by-line slog through what felt like a mind-numbing game of musical chairs. An example: “Although Nolte was flirting with Dewey but ended up supporting Taft, and Hopkins was indeed a Dewey backer, the claim certainly did not apply to Creager, who maintained, ‘The Texas delegation will support the candidate whom we think can win. That is the objective. To win.”’ Support, support revoked, it’s a lot of dense material to take in.
For me, reading the book was a reminder how much politics requires a certain fluency. There are clubs, committee meetings, campaigns, delegations, conventions, rump conventions, petitions, pledges, court orders, the old guard, the new guard, precinct chairs, electoral votes, gubernatorial elections, and an event called a “peacemaking barbeque.” It’s no surprise, amidst all the gavel banging, chairs and co-chairs, I felt bemusement set in.
In a chapter titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” Bill Clements becomes Governor, breaking a 100-plus year losing streak for Republicans. Years of volunteer involvement and a clear strategy led to sweeping victories. The next move was “to crack the local courthouse as part of a systematic approach to changing the state’s politics and creating a two-party state.” By the 1980s, the GOP had a “plan of action centered on four priorities: building a strong grassroots organization, attracting new support, recruiting and training candidates, and promoting winning campaigns.”
The chapters that follow address the Reagan-Bush years and the rise of what one conservative woman called “philosophies.” In the 1990s, a strong rightwing movement “called on a total ban on abortion except to save the mother’s life.” Pro-life Republicans started challenging pro-choice Republicans, and wielded endorsements like carrots over candidates’ heads. It’s startling to see that the laws laid out in 2013 were less restrictive than today. Senate Bill 5 prohibited abortions after twenty weeks. Democrat Wendy Davis laced up her sneakers and undertook an 11-hour filibuster on June 25, 2013. In July, the bill was signed into law.
State Senator Wendy Davis during her filibuster in 2013.
As the book moved closer to November 2016, my stomach tightened. Thorburn makes some unforgettable observations. After Trump won the rural counties in Texas, he states that this was because the “Republican brand was more popular than the Trump brand.” A few paragraphs later he writes: “Overtime, however, with Trump in the White House, the image of the brand of the Republican Party nationally, as well as in Texas, became closely associated with the Trump brand.”
In 2020, Texas stayed red. Thorburn states that “it remains to be seen whether Texas Democrats will be able to retain the financial and voter support to mount a serious challenge to the state’s Republican domination in 2022 and beyond.”
What I walked away with is the knowledge of how unified Republicans are ideologically under the banner of what they are against, and how Democrats need a strategic plan and a supersized boost of community involvement to clarify what they stand for.
Like the heaviness of the book I held in my lap, I felt fatigue set in. During the writing of this review, Gov. Greg Abbott ended federal pandemic-related employment benefits, which I was using to buy food and keep my lights on. Like many, I felt the impact right away. The message from the Governor to me was clear: “get your lazy butt back to work.” I hear these punishing thoughts from myself enough. I feel in the air the push to pass as much restrictive legislation as possible, while people feel weak and tired. Republican domination may have been “hard won” but the cost of domination is high.