A Letter to Rep. Talarico (and all Democrats in the Texas Legislature)
Recently, Texas State Representative James Talarico wrote a fairly long piece for the Texas Signal, explaining why he chose to come back to Austin after breaking quorum, thus allowing the Texas GOP to, among other things, pass their voter suppression bill.
The short version? He (and his like-minded colleagues) came back because:
Lincoln, MLK, Mama, Democracy, and Hope.
The long version is here: Op-Ed: Reflections of a Quorum Breaker
If you are one of the five people who, like me, read the entire tedious screed, you might have been thinking, "someone needs to write a response to this impotent so-called progressive."
Well, this letter is for you!
Dear Mr. Talarico,
You and your colleagues have made the same mistake that Democrats have now made for a generation. You are clinging to a set of rules and practices that Republicans have long since lit on fire and danced away from with jubilance and no regrets.
It is destructively ironic that your naïve “hope” that democracy will eventually win, rests largely on the vagaries of one of the most undemocratic institutions in the United States government: the US Senate. Joe Manchin, who represents fewer people than reside in the city of Houston alone, will make or break the voting rights law for the entire country, which, let’s be clear, would only provide some assistance in combatting the nationwide Republican anti-democracy onslaught.
But let’s look only at Texas for now. The first of your “five key assumptions,” all of which are fatally flawed, shines a spotlight on exactly why your strategy is a failure. You argue that because breaking quorum is such a radical – bordering on anti-democratic – strategy, it should only be used to fight bills that attack democracy itself. And further, you say that the only bill that currently meets this high threshold is the Republican voter suppression bill. Laws that end safe and legal abortion, dehumanize trans children, indoctrinate a false history upon Texas youth, and put guns in the hands of anyone who wants one? You say they’re bad, but not anti-democratic.
Spoken like a cisgender white man who claims that, because of his identity, he can never know what his marginalized colleagues know.
Indeed, you got that wrong too. What you cannot know is what it feels like to experience the first-hand brutality and persecution experienced by your marginalized colleagues and marginalized people across Texas. But what you certainly can know, is that these people have and will continue to experience brutality and persecution at the hands of the state, unless you figure out how to fight.
Is it a democracy that rejects the very identity of transgender children?
Is it a democracy that prevents legal and safe abortion for marginalized pregnant people, while the wealthy and privileged are still be able to get the care they need by leaving the state?
Is it a democracy that mandates its children not learn about the horrors of its racist white supremacist history?
Is it a democracy that encourages its people to bear weapons of war in its streets?
To debate these issues is to debate democracy itself. Each one is an illegitimate use of power. If you don’t realize this, you are complicit, no matter how many souring yet flaccid speeches you deliver.
Take off your Disney goggles and look at the reality that now besets all Texans. Even you admit that right now our future is more uncertain than at any time since the Civil War.
And don’t think for a second you can hide in Lincoln’s shadow. Lincoln fought, not to preserve a democracy – there was no democracy in a nation where only some white men had political power – but to build toward a democracy. His strategy was practical, unburdened by the idealistic notion that the opposition would play by fair rules. On April 27, 1861, Lincoln did one of the most profoundly undemocratic things of any US president in our history, he suspended habeus corpus. And in doing so, he made democracy more possible in this nation.
Dr. King also provides you with little cover. You could have stood your ground and forced the House Speaker to arrest you. But you dismissed this direct action as “social media fodder.” I’m sure you are well aware that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to prison nearly 30 times in his fight to bring our nation closer to actual democracy. But your words echo the words of the clergymen who opposed him, to which Dr. King addressed his 1963 letter that he famously wrote from a Birmingham city jail. The clergymen cast aspersions against his direct action, just as you have, as “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King’s response? In the 1963 letter he explained,
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
He goes on further,
“when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
You might not personally feel that degenerating sense of “nobodiness,” but I assure you that millions of Texans do.
Every pregnant Texan who now cannot avoid the Governor’s grasp inside their uterus, feels it.
Every transgender Texan who is rejected as a legitimate person by the state and denied basic rights and dignity, feels it.
Every Texan who is yet to be gunned down in a school, a mosque, or their home, will feel it.
Only when you come to understand this, can you effectively fight the existential scourge that is upon us.
So no, quorum breaking was not just “cathartic-even euphoric.” It was the beginning of a strategy of direct action that ended abruptly and too soon because you and your colleagues failed to recognize reality.
Where would we be if Dr. King had thrown his arms up and said, “well, it’s not like I could have gone to jail 29 times, guess we just have to accept things the way they are!” We’d be where we are now, with folks like you saying, “it’s not like we could have broken quorum forever! And in any case, the Governor would have just kept calling special sessions.”
You explicitly recognize that Governor Abbott has “a unique disdain for democracy.” But then you lament that you have no practical way to stop him, and that breaking quorum was the most extreme tool in your legislative toolbox, evoking the “first law of holes: if you find yourself in one, stop digging.” Well, that is sound reasoning, but only if you settle for the confines of the toolbox created and handed to you by the Texas Republicans, the same Republicans who, by your own admission, are lead by a unique disdain for democracy.
It is time to reject that toolbox, emerge from the abyss of despair, and recognize the second law of holes:
“when you stop digging, you’re still in a hole.”
In a properly functioning democracy, the minority does not simply function as an agitator, sometimes frustrating the majority agenda. No, in a properly functioning democracy all sides work together to synthesize policy that reflects the will of the people. The majority gets to lead the effort, but the minority should be right there next to them as a legitimate partner. 52% representation should not be equal to 99% policy control. A majority that so marginalizes its minority and refuses to negotiate, overtly flaunts the sacred covenants of the social contract, and thus delegitimizes the democratic promise that is the source of its power.
Speaking of power, in justifying your capitulation, you argue that we all have an obligation to use our power responsibly – “to ensure the game outlasts the players.” What you apparently don’t see is that the game ended long ago. Republicans have left you and your colleagues in the back of the station wagon, unilaterally grabbing control of the car, which is now careening at full speed off a cliff.
And so the dangerous precedent you are so concerned about setting, has in fact already been set. Republicans from DC to Austin and beyond have shown what they stand for, and it’s not democracy, it’s bald-faced power. In Washington, Republicans unapologetically abused their power to gain control of the third branch of our federal government through the United States Supreme Court. Similarly in Austin, Republicans have repeatedly changed the Texas Senate rules to ensure they would not need votes from a single Democrat. The list goes on and on.
The script is not new, Republicans use and abuse their tools with an unrivaled bloodlust for power, while Democrats show restraint in the name of a system only they respect.
But, you say, the Texas House is the last bastion of sanity in Texas government, where hot tea is cooled amid a “bipartisan culture and cooperative ethos.” This is an appealing notion, but ultimately nothing more than a fantastical apparition. For every Republican representative who might be willing to govern with you, like Lyle Larson, there are scores of dumpster fire muppets like Briscoe Cain.
Governing to “lose in the best way possible” is an unsustainable strategy. You seem to think the burden should be on the folks pushing for more direct action to explain their endgame. What about your strategy, what’s your endgame? To continue losing in the best way possible? Until when?
You cite your mother saying, “as my mother used to say: follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”
OK, good advice. But, as a father of four, I would add,
“AND DON’T LET THAT FUCKING BULLY KEEP PUNCHING YOU.”
You did get one thing right, this is indeed like a dream. But it is not the kind of dream from which we “eventually have to wake up.” Direct action is not just a feelgood release. No, it is about life and death, quite literally. It is like Dr. King’s Dream, it requires imagination, it requires resilience, it requires fortitude, it requires sacrifice. It can and it must become reality.
To do violence to democracy, as Lincoln did, can sometimes be the only way to prevent violence to actual people. Lincoln did not defeat slavery with hope alone. Dr. King did not compel civil rights legislation with hope alone. They both acted with force.
As we enter yet another special legislative session that promises to cause further destruction to our social fabric, I urge you and your colleagues to rethink your strategy.