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Supporters for Texas Democrats stand outside the Austin Bergstrom International Airport on July 12, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats fled the state to prevent a quorum after protesting SB7, a voting protection bill that Democrats have criticized as being too restrictive.

Supporters for Texas Democrats stand outside the Austin Bergstrom International Airport on July 12, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Texas Democrats fled the state to prevent a quorum after protesting SB7, a voting protection bill that Democrats have criticized as being too restrictive. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

In Texas, 'Fleeing' Democrats Take Courageous Stand for Democracy

These state legislators are doing something brave and necessary on behalf of all people in the United States. They are exiting, for now, so that their counterparts in Washington can regain their backbones.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Monday's USA Today headline said almost verbatim what is being said across a wide range of U.S. media outlets: "Texas Democrats plan to flee state to stop Republican voting bill in special session."

That's right. To flee.

To political science professors and other assorted aficionados of American politics who know about legislative arcana, this might make sense. To all others, it must sound utterly bizarre, and perhaps even madcap, the subject of comedy and not something deadly serious. And yet deadly serious it is. For it is not an exaggeration to say that in a way the fate of democracy in the U.S. hinges on the ability of a few dozen Texas Democratic legislators to run away and hide.

To summarize: the state of Texas is the second largest state in the U.S. Its territory is dwarfed only by Alaska. And its population, at almost 28 million, is second only to California. Texas matters. Because it elects 36 House members and has 38 electoral votes, and will play an important role in the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections. And because it looms large in the symbolism of the Lost Cause and of the Republican right—which are increasingly one and the same.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that in a way the fate of democracy in the U.S. hinges on the ability of a few dozen Texas Democratic legislators to run away and hide."

Texas is also one of the 23 U.S. states in which the Republican party controls both the legislature and the governorship. And its Republican party, led by Trumpist Governor Greg Abbott, is hell-bent on passing and enforcing a harsh new electoral law that would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban ballot drop boxes, institute new voter identification requirements and, most ominously, empower partisan poll watchers—an invitation for MAGA zealots and other assorted “patriots” to intimidate voters.

Texas Republicans, like their counterparts in states across the country, are dedicated to the lying proposition that all citizens are not equal, that Democrats are radical fanatics who stole the 2020 election and hate their country, and that Democrats must be kept from power by all means necessary.

Texas Republicans, like Republicans elsewhere, are determined to change election laws so that Democrats cannot again win. And they are determined to use their control over the statehouse to make this happen, and without delay.

Because each of the fifty U.S. states has its own election laws, and there is minimal federal oversight over these diverse laws, the kinds of changes currently being pressed in Texas, combined with those in a few other key states— like Florida and Georgia, for example—can dramatically impact not simply the voters in those specific states but the balance of power in the national government, and thus the plight of citizens everywhere. This is what Republicans are now trying to accomplish—the use of their minority power to obstruct any form of majority rule, from seat to shining sea—except when and where they hold the majority. (This is also what the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are designed to limit, which is why these essential pieces of legislation are being stymied by Senate and House Republicans.)

And so all eyes now are on Texas.

"Texas Republicans, like Republicans elsewhere, are determined to change election laws so that Democrats cannot again win."

And because only Texas Democrats can stop Governor Abbot’s anti-democratic juggernaut, and because Democrats in the Texas statehouse are overruled by a Republican majority determined to steamroll them, Texas Democrats in the state legislature have only one option at their disposal—to flee! Because only by preventing a legislative quorum can they prevent the passage of the anti-democratic legislation. Indeed, they employed this tactic once already, in May, and were able to stall the legislation up until the end of the Spring legislative session. And so Governor Abbott called an emergency session just so this legislation can pass. And so a majority of Texas Democratic state legislators are already en route, by air and by land, to Washington, D.C., where they must remain for the next 27 days, until the new special session expires. For only if they return can the Texas voter suppression and intimidation legislation be passed.

Craziness, required by dark times, and by a crazy and archaic electoral system that gives the lie to any notion that the U.S. is "the world’s greatest democracy."

Back in 1970, economist Albert O. Hirschman published a seminal book entitled "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States." Hirschman’s basic insight was fairly straightforward: in almost every situation in which values are allocated to individuals, the individuals involved can accept the allocation, criticize the allocation in the hope of changing it, or opt out of the situation entirely. Hirschman was a brilliant theorist, and his book did not simply state a truism; it analyzed the different general conditions under which individuals might choose one or the other option. In the political domain, some (most) citizens will typically comply with governmental decisions, some may challenge them, and others, depending on their calculations of cost and benefit, will leave if they can. In fully authoritarian states, compliance and emigration are typically the two least costly options, and speaking up can bring big trouble. Liberal democracies theoretically maximize the opportunities for voice—through freedoms of expression and association and free and fair elections. All of these freedoms, but especially the latter, are now in the crosshairs of the Republican party. 

For Democrats, submission is not an option. But in states like Texas "voice" is being systematically weakened.

And so we are being treated to the bizarre spectacle of dozens of Texas state legislators running away for a month, not literally to escape restrictive Republican laws, but to prevent their very passage, for the benefit of both their state and American democracy itself.

Unlike emigrants or exiles, they are not permanently opting out. They are absenting themselves from the state in order to prevent the passage of the Republican anti-democratic agenda. And they are going to Washington, D.C. to make themselves heard in the capitol of the country, the country that does not yet even have a proper national voting law (nor does its capitol have any proper representation in the U.S. Congress).

For them DC is a sanctuary city of sorts. A place where they can stand pat for a moment, hold back Republican efforts in their state, and also advocate for the kinds of strong, broad, national legislation that is now essential if constitutional democracy in the U.S. is to survive.

Texas statehouse Democratic leaders explained this well in a public statement earlier today: 

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans' freedom to vote. We are now taking the fight to our nation's Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans—and all Americans—from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy."

"These Texas Democrats are doing something courageous, and doing it on behalf of all U.S. citizens... They are literally running for our democratic lives."

There is something almost comical about the image of elected public officials "taking flight" en masse. But it is not comical. These Texas Democrats are doing something courageous, and doing it on behalf of all U.S. citizens. They are exiting, for now, so that their counterparts in Washington can regain their backbones, and so that the metaphorical "voice of the people" expressed through democratic elections can be protected and amplified. They are literally running for our democratic lives.

It is likely that the road immediately ahead will be rocky, for them and for the political situation more generally. For the Republicans will continue to press forward their anti-democratic agenda relentlessly at the state level, while standing pat against any remedial legislation at the federal level. They will employ every technique at their disposal, especially the absurd Senate filibuster rule. Meanwhile "bipartisan" Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will do their best to continue to self-righteously temporize in the name of "moderation" and "balance."

One can only hope that President Biden will speak forcefully tomorrow night in his planned address on voting rights, and that he will act as forcefully, behind the scenes, to "whip" Senate Democratic holdouts behind the For the People Act and John Lewis Act. Pressure is building among the Democratic base. If something is not done, and soon, then it is likely that Republicans will succeed in their efforts to hamper free and fair democratic elections, which will help them to succeed in retaking the House in 2022 and the White House in 2024. This will be a disaster for the Democratic party and for democracy.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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