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Texas saves Progressivism

The left can learn plenty by looking at what Lone Star State voters don't hate: oil, religion, police, America – not to mention Zionism
Texas, the Lone Star State (Christine Kohler / iStock)
Texas, the Lone Star State (Christine Kohler / iStock)

Driving through South Texas, one could be forgiven for thinking one is in the Holy Land. The rolling, arid hills resemble parts of Israel, and the coast feels almost Mediterranean.

This is not where the 2020 presidential election was decided, but it may be where the next one will be. In the wake of a tense and tumultuous week, America proved that it still has a functioning democracy. And to the consternation of some on the right and left, that Democracy gave verdicts on both Trump and Progressivism.

Those answers were: No, and Maybe.

Trump’s brand of populism had some appeal in South Texas, a traditionally Democratic stronghold, but he was repudiated in the nationwide vote. Not as soundly as other incumbents who have been sent packing, such as Carter and the first Bush, who lost by greater margins, but still, it was clear that America told Trump to go home.

What shocked many on the left is that Trump’s pandering to White Supremacists did not seem to wound him very much in places like South Texas, which is heavily Latino. Some very good journalism has done the work after the fact that polling failed to do before the election: To listen to people who are not living in wealthy suburbs.

The bottom line is that Progressivism’s greatest asset is its rejection of politics as usual; that’s why people like it. But the 2020 election proved that Progressivism must look at its own movement more carefully. Politics as usual may be bad, but it has some good qualities, and one of them is that it tests your message in the market. If you’re a leftist party running against a man who celebrates racism, and you don’t get votes from the economically strapped Rio Grande Valley in Texas, something’s wrong.

Progressivism has several tenets:
1) Women should have autonomy over their own bodies
2) The rich should be taxed more heavily
3) Health care should be as close to free as possible
4) Zionism is bad
5) Climate change must be addressed
6) Religion is questionable
7) The police are bad
8) America is bad

Interviews are consistently showing that the voters in South Texas who went Republican this election, for the first time in decades, did not generally do it because they are anti-abortion. Some see themselves as “pro-life,” but like many people close to the poverty line, they do not believe abortion should be illegal — indeed, it is legal in much of Mexico. Contrary to what Republicans would have liked to see, those voters didn’t seem particularly upset about taxing the rich, and Obamacare is likely to thrive in areas like Texas if it is strengthened by Biden, as it probably will be. The discomfort that Progressives have with Zionism means little in Texas, though it is certainly a thorn in the side of a movement that presents itself as inclusive. The primary objections voters in South Texas had are the final four items on the list above. People in Texas who work in the oil industry do not want to lose their jobs to support environmental idealism, they do not view police as their enemy, they value their faith, and they believe in America as an idea. Oil may be a deal-breaker for many, but Democrats need to at least try to move on the other issues.

Whether the progressive movement survives or not will depend on how it responds to this feedback. It will have to accept compromise on some issues and refuse it on others. Some of those compromises should be easy: funding health care will be a compromise no matter who is in charge, so if Progressives push for more access, they will only win allies and influence policy. Other positions were always in need of compromise, on moral grounds as well as electoral ones. Anti-Zionism is deeply entwined with anti-Semitism, and the secular scorn of religion comes off as snobbish and elitist in communities that value it deeply. And although America is long overdue for a more honest version of its own history — including the violence that gave birth to Texas itself — to cast that history as purely shameful is to speak from a position of privilege. America needs fixing, but it still helps people. Many people from South Texas join the US Military as a path to a better life. Scorning that may feel righteous from the point of view of a comfortable, secular environment, but it does not go over well in counties near the Rio Grande.

Time will tell if Progressives are willing to listen as well as they give speeches.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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