Is all politics truly local?

by John M. Crisp

Is all politics truly local? If so, how do we account for many of the priorities on the list of the bills that my home state’s legislature hopes to pass this year?

Texas is so devoted to small government that its legislature is limited to only one 140-day session every two years. The Texas House and Senate are currently in session; the pressure to legislate has begun.

On Feb. 13, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a list of his top 30 priorities for the 2023 session, the bills he is most committed to passing out of the multitude that will be proposed. Some of his priorities are puzzling.

The first, Bill 1, makes sense; the “State Budget” is always a must-pass.

But Bill 2 is “Restoring Voter Fraud to a Felony.” This is an odd priority since, like everywhere else in the U.S., voter fraud is almost nonexistent in Texas. On the other hand, “Addressing Texas’ Future Water Needs,” which seems as if it should be a huge priority given Texas’s rapid growth, appears near the bottom of the list as Bill 28.

“Expanding Alternatives to Abortion” should probably be on the list, since the legislature has essentially illegalized abortion in Texas. But women dealing with a crisis pregnancy might have hoped for a higher priority than Bill 24.

Over a third of Patrick’s priorities involve education, but many of them echo national, rather than local, concerns. They sound familiar and seem to be intended to appeal to a larger audience than just Texans.

Bill 16, for example, is “Banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Higher Education.” Patrick, a former radio talk show host, aims to substitute his judgment about how race should be treated in higher education for the judgment of a highly educated set of professors who have devoted their lives to studying history and race and ways of teaching students about them. Talk about big government!

Other education bills on Patrick’s list similarly promote the preferences of politicians over those of experts. Bill 18, for example, calls for “Eliminating Tenure at General Academic Institutions.” Clearly the legislature hopes to control how colleges and universities operate, which is an ambition that circulates widely in national conservative circles.

In fact, many of these bills centralize power. But Bill 8 purports to transfer responsibility for children’s educations in the opposite direction, away from government and toward parents. The bill’s title, “Empowering Parental Rights — Including School Choice,” is immediately attractive, embodying ideas that everyone likes: choice, rights and empowered parents.

This bill would probably have the biggest impact on education in Texas. But it has implications for other states, as well, since it reflects a primary passion of American conservatives: their wish to use taxpayer revenue to pay for attendance at private schools.

All of these bills tap into national debates about these issues. They rely on the easy targets and low-hanging fruit of conservative grievance: Eliminate tenure. Empower parents. End voter fraud. Keep transgender kids out of sports. Protect children from obscene books and drag shows.

Many of these issues are largely fabricated and have little practical impact on most Texans. Does the average Texan care that university professors enjoy tenure, a time-honored practice that actually protects academic freedom? Do most Texans want to give a tax break to parents who can already afford to send their kids to private schools?

But these issues are useful as political bludgeons when the terms of the conflicts are sensationalized in intentionally divisive ways. They cultivate an “us” vs. “them” mindset. They serve reliably to rile up angry, aggrieved voters, both at home and in the nation at large.

Which I suspect is the point. Patrick isn’t running for president (not yet), but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is (sort of). Thus what’s going on in Texas reflects what’s happening in other conservative states, especially Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is running hard for president (for real).

And that’s how good governance at home is distorted by national ambitions. Maybe all politics isn’t local, after all.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.