The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues
JUNE 2014 Issue
Field Notes

This is What Oligarchy Looks Like

Oligarchy is a term we’ve been hearing more frequently to describe the future of the United States—whether it’s the patrimonial capitalism predicted by Thomas Piketty, based on his comparative historical income statistics which support an interpretation that the huge wealth of the top 0.1 percent creates a dynamic of heritable privilege for a tiny and powerful set of our fellow citizens, or whether it’s the feared consequences of the Supreme Court’s several decisions to gut the laws governing campaign finance and voting. But in truth, hasn’t it already arrived? As was once said, perhaps by Walter Dean Burnham, everything that has happened anywhere in the modern era in Western politics has happened in the United States: revolution, civil war, coup d’état, military dictatorship, mass popular mobilization, race war, and apartheid, as well as the normal politics of elite agreement on the fundamentals of government so that nothing unorthodox can get represented. For a taste of oligarchy, one need only examine Texas.

Our run at electoral democracy has been episodic over the last 125 years. There were a few years in the late 1880s and 1890s when the Knights of Labor organized all productive workers (not including lawyers and bankers, but including African-Americans), and the People’s Party was founded in East Texas. The People’s Party was on the verge of becoming the leading party in the state, but the Democrats played the race card and made fools of the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) and Railroad Brotherhoods. There were a few years in the late 1930s and 1940s when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.)—with the backing of national Democrats—created competition with the A.F.L. and both contributed to a more liberal state party. Texas became the Southern state with the largest labor movement. But anti-labor employer violence, a relentless legal strategy designed to bankrupt unions, and a campaign by anti-New Deal Democrats led by Governor Allan Shivers to whip up anti-black sentiment in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which included banning the N.A.A.C.P., all halted the advance of working-class power. There were a few years in the 1980s and 1990s when the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the 1975 amendments to it that extended coverage to language minorities, created the opportunity for Blacks and Latinos to actually vote and elect representatives. Ann Richards, a liberal feminist, was elected governor in 1994, but she was the last Democrat to occupy the governor’s office. No Democrat has held statewide office in 10 years. There is virtually no working-class organization as such in Texas: turnout in elections is among the lowest in the nation, as is union membership. Public policy overwhelmingly privileges the elite behind rhetoric of low taxes, reasonable business regulation, a hard-working workforce, and state’s rights. What is the cause of the latest collapse of fledgling democracy in Texas? Why are people disconnected from their government?

The promised Latino vote, or rather its absence, is one answer. On the one hand, Texas gained four new Congressional seats because of its booming Latino population, but on the other hand the Republicans managed to draw districts to deny Latinos the ability to select their choice and adopted restrictive rules for voter identification and voter registration. Turnout among Latinos is especially low. Although the exact rate is disputed, it was about 35 percent in 2008 and 25 percent in 2010; in 2012 two million eligible voters did not vote. Might Latinos be mobilized by another Ann Richards such as Wendy Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth and the current Democratic gubernatorial candidate? Davis won her primary election easily, but turnout was low. She earned little support from South Texas, where an old Chicano activist, Ray Madrigal, had strong appeal. Davis beat Madrigal by just 700 votes in Brownsville, home of the Democratic Party chair, but lost to him in 9 out of 16 counties along the border from Brownsville to El Paso. In a two-party system, competition is supposed to drive the parties to the voters to gain their support, but the Democrats in Texas are like most Democrats elsewhere: pro-business and focused on the vindication of cultural pluralism, rather than class justice. Davis’s hopes in November depend on her feminist appeal to Republican women. Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio has ambitions for higher office, but the low rate of voter participation for the foreseeable future is out of sync with his career. Many believe that he has leadership capacity and broad appeal, but without voters he can’t win, a fact Castro seems to have acknowledged by accepting President Obama’s nomination for U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Another factor in Texas politics is oil, which, with the shale oil and gas boom, is generating enormous profits and thousands of jobs. The state’s oil production has doubled in five years to over 700 million barrels per year, according to the Texas Railroad Commission. Just in the Eagle Ford Shale south of San Antonio, production has quadrupled to 200,000 barrels a day. Although the oil companies are likely to pump profits out of the ground—just as the auto companies pumped wealth out of their factories in Detroit, leaving the local people to manage the detritus of environmental destruction and underinvestment in community development—the same economic bounty creates political reinforcement for the status quo in public policy. The Republican legislature wouldn’t even pass a bill to pave the roads in the shale counties that were torn to bits by heavy oil-truck traffic. 

Finally, Texas’s long international and penetrable border has become a valence issue, which has led to militarization and lawlessness. The Border Patrol operates with virtual impunity, as attested by the recent American Immigration Council report on hundreds of unaddressed complaints about it, including alleged murders, rapes, and other physical assaults. These cases involve not just foreigners who wander near or over the border, but American citizens who live there and who “look Mexican.” The Texas A.C.L.U. filed suit last winter on behalf of an American woman who was subjected to multiple increasingly invasive body searches for several hours before being released without charge; the hospital that cooperated with the Patrol sent her a bill. A Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, talk show host Dan Patrick, warns against “third world diseases” and corruption coming across the border, as if the impoverished American communities on the border haven’t always been run by oligarchs who control peoples’ labor and, consequently, the people themselves. Beyond the notorious “Pass Laws” in rural areas and the refusal of urban employers to hire Mexicano men during the 20th century, we should remember the ignored history of lynching Mexicanos—currently recalled by Vincent Valdez’s in his show The Strangest Fruit of images depicting contemporary Latinos at ArtPace gallery, San Antonio. The brutal past lives on in the lives of young Latino men who Valdez characterizes as “caught … between … remembrance and erasure … struggling to remain in focus and straining to exist.”

One might say the same about Texas democracy. The disconnect between the storybook democracy that is taught in schools and the actual practice of government in the state saps political meaning from the lives people are leading and never brings into focus the power of self-government.


Stephen Amberg

STEPHEN AMBERG is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He authored "Reconfiguring Industry Structure: Obama and the Rescue of the Auto Companies" in Political Creativity: Reconfiguring Institutional Order and Change (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) edited by Gerald Berk, Victoria Hattam, and Dennis Galvan.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues