Compounding the problem of voter fatigue that results from frequent elections for a dizzying number of offices is the historical dominance in Texas of only one or two political parties at any one time. For more than a century after the Civil War the Democratic Party dominated Texas politics, so much so that it was practically a necessity to be a Democrat to hold public office. This single-party dominance tended to limit the range of political debate, in turn constraining the evolution of the state's political culture.
The period of Democratic Party dominance in Texas - from the Civil War to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s - was characterized in part by the systematic exclusion of African Americans and other minorities from political participation. This would seem to contradict the populist and democratic values of broad popular participation and control of government that is so central to the state's political culture. But the historic exclusion of minorities and the poor from full participation in politics, or at least, the resistance of the political system to make an effort to include these groups, was consistent with the strains of the dominant political culture that disdain "activist" government and publicly funded social programs.
Ultimately, the great gulf between the state's democratic political values and the practice of political and economic exclusion based on race helped to make those practices unsustainable. But changing those practices in Texas and elsewhere required a vigorous and long-term effort by the federal government that continues today.
As this effort to end the legal exclusion of minorities got underway, the party system long dominated by the Democrats began to unravel. The civil rights victories in the 1960s, especially the national Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, helped set in motion a realignment of the two main political parties. Since, the 1970s there has been much more robust political competition between the resurgent Republic Party and the formerly hegemonic Democrats. During this period the Republicans steadily eroded the Democrats' hold on government, and by the turn of the 20th century they had come to dominate virtually all of the state's elected and appointed public institutions.
As the Republican Party grew in prominence over this period, increasing numbers of conservative Democrats changed their party affiliation to the Republican Party. Meanwhile, conservative newcomers to Texas from other states also helped to swell the Republican ranks. At the same time, the Democrats attracted more liberal sectors of Texas society and a large portion of minority voters, particularly African Americans and Latinos. In recent years, however the Texas Republican Party had made a focused effort to increase support from these predominantly Democratic constituencies, as the video clips of Governor Rick Perry and former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams on this page illustrate.
Now, in the early years of the 21st century, Republicans have solidified their hold on the governmental institutions of Texas, at least for the time being. In some ways the Republican dominance today represents a replay of the era of Democratic Party dominance: an emphasis on low investment in social services, favorable policies toward business, and strong resistance to the provision of social services.
But there are signs of stress in this new majority, as well as concerns in both parties over the impact of the growing numbers of immigrants and first generation Americans - particularly Latinos - on the party system. Both parties have sought to recruit the support of immigrants and their children. But, lately there has been a backlash against immigration, particularly undocumented immigration. This issue has caused great stress in both parties in Texas, but it seems particularly problematic for Republicans whose popular base is much more intensely opposed to undocumented immigration. This places the Republican Party at greater risk of alienating minority groups (which together, now make up a majority of Texans).
The ongoing debate over immigration and its ultimate resolution has great potential to transform the party system in Texas, our institutions of state government, public policies, and ultimately our state's political culture. The inherent tensions within our dominant political ideology between classical liberalism, social conservatism, and populism come to the surface on this issue.