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Realistic Left Politics in Texas


AUSTIN—As left/progressive political organizers in Texas, we have for years listened to friends around the country ask, “How do you survive in such a crazy state?” 

It’s true that last week’s primary election results are cause for concern. Our likely next lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, advocates that creationism not only be taught but “heralded” in schools and has warned that undocumented immigrants bring leprosy. And crazy campaign rhetoric turns into regressive policies, such as the Legislature’s assault on women’s health now being felt as clinics close. 

But a basic aspect of Texas politics is familiar everywhere. Republican factions — the tea party and the old guard — slug it out in the primaries, sliding ever rightward. Democrats fill the centrist void, leaving voters with choices that skew further right with each election. 

The politics of the Obama administration ought to be called center-right, economically and socially. That President Barack Obama’s so often labeled a leftist is testament not only to this rightward shift but also to our political culture’s increasing detachment from reality.

To our friends outside Texas, we ask: Is it really so much better where you live? Where in mainstream politics in the United States — whether Republicans or Democrats dominate — is there much sanity? 

We spend little time decrying the ideological fanaticism of Republicans but instead highlight differences between our work on global justice at the Third Coast Activist Resource Center and the Democrats’ conventional wisdom. The reactionary right is more viscerally frightening — especially for immigrants, women and other vulnerable groups — but neither party has a coherent analysis of the cascading crises of our time or meaningful policy prescriptions. 

That’s why keeping alive a realistic critical politics is crucial, illustrated by examples from ecology, economics and empire. 

Climate change: Much of the Republican Party denies (or, to appease denial-driven voters and donors, ignores) anthropogenic climate change. Rejecting the overwhelming consensus of peer-reviewed science is ecocidal. Meanwhile, most of the Democratic Party accepts the science but continues to talk about “solutions” that deny the scale and scope of the problem, pretending that capitalism’s demand for endless growth is sustainable. This rejection of the implications of the science is ecocidal, too. 

Inequality: Much of the Republican Party is unconcerned about widening wealth inequality or the persistent racial wealth divide, preferring an unreflective commitment to allegedly free markets and whatever distribution of wealth results. Most of the Democratic Party expresses concern over this inequality and offers variations of traditional New Deal programs that, at best, only temper the worst of it. Neither party acknowledges that capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system at odds with our commonly stated theological and ethical principles, which put the inherent dignity of all people at the heart of a decent human community. 

Foreign policy: Since World War II, the United States has mostly pursued a bipartisan agenda of economic and military dominance, using overt aggression and covert crimes to solidify that control. As U.S. dominance wanes and domestic politics fractures, there is more mainstream disagreement over foreign policy. Libertarian isolationism (detached from the reality of the contemporary world’s complexity), conservative aggressiveness (imposition of U.S.-dominance through brute force) and liberal imperialism (a slightly more diplomatic effort at dominance) all share one goal: continue, to the degree possible, the United States’ dominance that makes possible our disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources, protecting the bottom line of U.S.-based multinational corporations. 

There are often important differences between Republicans and Democrats, and we do not hesitate to support saner politicians who run for office and policy proposals they put forward. We also support efforts to challenge ultra-right-wing Republicans who shut down women’s health clinics, ratchet up anti-immigrant rhetoric, and try to push public education back to the 19th century before they kill it off completely with vouchers. 

All these issues matter, but so does this long-term and big-picture observation: Republicans and Democrats today lack the moral courage and/or intellectual capacity to articulate a political program that deals with reality. When we organize around the issues of the moment, we should do it with an eye to challenging not only obvious opponents on the right but untrustworthy allies in the center. 

Is it unrealistic to pursue left politics in Texas — or anywhere in the United States? Quite the contrary: The ecological crises, economic catastrophes and immorality of empire lead us to conclude that mainstream politics is a dead-end. We remain committed to left politics because we are realistic. 

Jensen and Youngblood are co-founders and board members of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin: http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, http://www.amazon.com/Arguing-Our-Lives-Constructive-Dialog/dp/0872865738/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361912779&sr=1-10, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, http://www.amazon.com/Are-All-Apocalyptic-Now-Responsibilities/dp/148195847X/ref=pd_sim_b_1.  

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/abeosheroffinterview.htm.

Jensen can be reached at [email protected] and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

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