Over the last two articles, we looked at the good and the bad from the 85th Texas Legislative Session; first, how legislators from all sides came together to build a budget agreement, and then how a fight over differing political agendas brought the session to a stand-still that necessitated a special session this July.
Now that I’ve given you the good and the bad, it’s time to face the ugly truths that set the stage for both. We have come to a place in our politics where persuasion isn’t even considered anymore, where cooperation is a dirty word, and where defeat of the opposition is the only option considered.
One of the advantages of being a “freshman” legislator is that it enabled me to be just that, a fresh-man, one coming into this system from the outside, viewing it with fresh eyes, unaffected by its culture and history.
No stranger to politics in the Department of Defense or on Capitol Hill, I saw the legislative process as one where you work with your colleagues, regardless of party or caucus affiliation, to craft good legislation for the people we represent. This meant taking good ideas where I found them, and trying to make them better, even if it meant pulling one good idea out of an otherwise bad bill.
As the legislative session developed, I found it interesting that most other legislators shared that same overall goal and thought process individually, but the layers of distrust, division, and partisanship had made many lose sight of the possibility that we could work together to manifest a better vision for the future of Texas.
There is a culture of fear in the legislature; one that blinds legislator, constituent, and interest groups alike from being able to trust, communicate, and work with one another. An inability to effectively communicate makes everything worse, as it forces people to work off their own assumptions.
When so much is on the line, and information is limited, human instinct kicks us into survival mode. When people operate in survival mode, as ridiculous as it may sound, everyone and everything is treated as either predator or prey, a threat to our existence or something to be exploited for our own ends.
I saw this over and over again during the 85th session, with no example so clear as the debate surrounding the first budget vote in the House.
I wrote two articles outlining my reasoning for voting for the original House Budget, over 1,500 words of detailed policy explanations and political strategy. I had some constituents express concern for how I voted, and I sat down and talked with every one of them. We always came to an understanding, with liberals, moderates, and conservative minded people alike seeing where I was coming from and finding my reasoning acceptable.
However, with those who did not feel like they could communicate, or simply did not care to, my vote became a declaration of war. One prominent political activist group, in fund raising mode and needing to do some saber rattling, chose to send a form letter condemning everyone who voted for the House budget as a full supporter of the establishment, an enemy of the conservative cause. These attempts to rile up emotions in order to open the wallets of potential supporters speaks to the cynicism and lack of care for real discussion that pollutes our current system.
No attempt was made to communicate or understand, no thought given to the possibility that there may be more to our votes than a binary question of food or foe. We were either acting as food for their enterprise, or we were a threat to it. With these kinds of groups, you must either kowtow to their demands, or be labeled as an enemy. Enemies cannot be negotiated with nor persuaded, the only option is the complete annihilation of all opposition.
Legislators struggle to vote for the majority of their constituents’ needs, without becoming a target of such activist groups who need to keep emotions high so you will open your check books, pay their salaries, and sustain their influence within the capitol. This never-ending war of money and influence clouds the ability of those in office to meaningfully communicate with one another and find solutions to the needs of their constituents.
Without the desire to meaningfully communicate with one another, there can be no progress. This is the ugly truth. It is impossible to grow a movement without persuasion, and when we assume out of fear that persuasion is off the table and resort to coercion and blindly attacking each other, we stop growing and start cannibalizing.
As Texans, we should be better than this; our very name comes from Tejas, meaning “Friend”. If we want to grow our state, bring in jobs, and build a better future for our children, it must start with a new vision for our politics. We must treat one another as Tejas. Even if we agree on little, we must desire to persuade, discuss, and understand. Only when we admit the ugly truth of our current politics and try to communicate can we begin to grow in a better direction. This solution will require structural changes to our system; changes like campaign finance reform and term limits, which I will touch on in future articles.