Editor’s Note: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
After the Supreme Court failed to stop Texas’s new SB 8 bill last week, my social media feeds lit up with righteous indignation. The law bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected at around 6 weeks and effectively outsources enforcement to private citizens empowered to sue anyone “aiding and abetting” an abortion.
Well-meaning strangers offered to arrange airlifts out of Texas, or wondered if it wasn’t time to return the state to Mexico. Others compared the state legislature to the Taliban for what it was doing to the lives and futures of young women in Texas.
Like many Texans, I am devastated at what my state legislature has done to women’s reproductive rights, and what the Supreme Court has allowed. And my deep concern is all the greater because these actions come amid other outrages in my state: a hobbled Covid-19 response that has already caused a surge in cases among children and shutdowns in one school district after two middle-school teachers died of Covid-19 complications in the same week, a health care system operating beyond capacity, an unregulated and unreliable electricity grid, and now new voting rights restrictions signed by our governor, Greg Abbott on Tuesday. And the list goes on.
But the answer is not to cut Texas loose from the rest of the country, or to leave the state.
For many, it is not easy being a Texan right now. But that does not make us, or our state, disposable. To suggest otherwise ignores not only who we are and how the current political realities in the state came about, but also how the new legislation on abortion affects real people with real lives, who need all the solidarity we can muster. I came to live in Texas in 2009 for work and while I am privileged enough to be able to leave if I wanted, I’d much prefer to stay here and work to make this state one that I’m proud of.
The fact is that, more and more, the Republicans who have carefully engineered their vise-like grip on the levers of power, do not necessarily reflect the will of a growing number of everyday people in this changing state. Polling by The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune in March was quite revealing, for example, on the question of state abortion laws, with 31% of respondents saying those laws should be stricter, 18% saying the laws should be left as is and 37% saying they should be less strict.
And while some Texans certainly think abortion is the most important problem in the state, many – as polling shows – see immigration, voting rights, gun control, health care and education as more urgent priorities.
This nuance and diversity of political views is not always visible, because since 2002, when Republicans gained control of both the state legislature and the governor’s office, Texas has been a deeply gerrymandered state. Redistricting, including in 2003, which immediately gained the GOP six seats, was supported more recently when the US Supreme Court last year turned away claims that Republican state lawmakers had not been intent on diluting influence of minority voters when they again redrew the voting district map in 2011.
Texas is also among the hardest states in the nation in which to vote, even before SB 1 – which bans drive-through voting, creates new rules for voter assistance, further restricts mail-in voting, and established monthly citizenship checks – went into effect. The state still does not have automatic voter registration, for example, but does have tight voter identification laws, restricts vote-by-mail to the disabled and elderly, and has drastically reduced the number of polling places in some parts of the state.
These laws create what Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, has called a “generations-long pattern of discrimination,” especially affecting voters of color. (After Abbott signed the new law restricting voting, incidentally, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging it.)
But whether on voting or abortions, the new wave of legislation from this Republican government, should be seen not as representative of all Texans, but rather as an attempt to assert dominance from the right onto a reality that is very much in flux. People of color drove 95% of Texas’ population growth in 2020, (as a result of the 2020 US Census, Texas gained two congressional seats this year – the only state in the country to do so. And while newcomers to Texas have long voted across the political spectrum, the diverse new influx may well make the political landscape more fluid than it has been in nearly two decades.
Changing demographics and the growth of cities mean that the population is increasingly leaning away from traditional red-state politics. In a new UT/Texas Politics Poll, 52% of participants said the state was moving in the wrong direction, the lowest impression since the project started in 2008, and Abbott scored the lowest approval rating of his tenure.
Recent elections also help tell the story: In 2012, Mitt Romney won Texas with a 16-point lead over Barack Obama. By 2016, Trump won Texas by only nine points. In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz hung on to his seat by less than 3% – a marked difference from 2012, when he won by 16%. And in 2020, Biden lost Texas by less than six points. Like everything else about Texas, local politics are more complex than meets the eye. Do they hide a rising sea-change in attitudes?
So, while I appreciate the intentions and the attempt at humor behind the offer to rescue me from my own local government, I do not find these comments supportive or funny. Instead, I find them dismissive: of the diversity and complexity of Texas, of the changes wrought over the last two decades, and of women’s right to exist in the places they have chosen to call home, regardless of which party is in power.
Offering to airlift all women out, to me, feels a lot like admitting defeat.
Defeatism, however, is not democracy; representation is. After 2020, Texas Democrats identified voter turnout as the main reason for their failure to flip the state. Instead of airlifting women out, why not help boost that turn-out by coming to Texas instead? We have a fast-growing economy, diverse and energetic populations, wonderful cities, world-class universities, good food and the live music capital of the world. We even play some football.
If you want to help, come take advantage of all Texas has to offer. Come live here, learn to know this brash and complicated state, invest in state level races, organize for causes you believe in and, at the very least, make this state a place you care about all year round, and not only when we make the news.
That is how lasting change is made. That is how you mess with Texas.