The history of parties in Texas is the tale of how the century-long period from the early 1870s to the 1970s following a decade of Republican-run post-Civil War Reconstruction came to be dominated by the Democratic Party and how that "party system" gradually came undone in the post-Civil Rights period, to be replaced by a competitive system dominated by the Republican Party.
It is also the story of how the various strands of Texas political culture have been combined into coherent patterns of party stability as well as jarring, discordant elements of underlying tension, rupture, and sharp change. Running through the story, linking these various elements, is the enduring low taxes, low services consensus.
During the century after Reconstruction, the Democratic Party enjoyed electoral dominance on all levels of state government and in the Lone Star State's representation in the national government. Democratic rule was carried out by a conservative white political elite that strongly promoted economic development, but that resisted change either in race relations or social programs for the poor. Tensions within the party over these issues were effectively muted until the civil rights movement and national politics made their abrupt intrusion into state politics in the 1950s. The parties gradually began to change.
Republicans were not completely absent during this period, but their electoral victories were few and limited in scope. The most common successes were at the presidential level, where Texas supported Republican candidates in 1952, 1956, 1972, and in every election after 1980 as Republican strength grew.
The history of the Texas party system reflects the political heritage of the rest of the old South, including secession from the Union, racial segregation and nationally mandated desegregation, the mobilization of conservative Christians, and continuing immigration of people from the northern states. But the party system is also shaped by other equally important currents more commonly shared with other states in the Southwest, rather than the old South. The strong Spanish and Mexican tradition going back to colonial times and the long term influence of Mexican culture has influenced the state in profound ways.
Texas has also been the home of significant third parties, such as the Populists, La Raza Unida, and, most recently, the Reform Party. Some might attribute this to the storied independence and non-conformism and entrepreneurial energy of Texas culture, all likely contributing factors. But these parties also grew out of the social forces within Texas at critical moments in the history of the state and nation.
The size of the state, its particular history, and the resulting political and cultural variety of Texas society have all contributed to the development of what might be called a "pragmatic center." Scratch the surface of this pragmatism, and one is likely to find that what is "practical" is a relatively conservative, pro-business set of policy preferences, periodically affected around the edges by mobilized groups without the power to remain influential over long periods of time. The resulting political culture has been reflected in a party system that has consistently rewarded pragmatism, compromise, and deal making over ideological purity.
Key characteristics of the political and policy climate in Texas, after the civil rights movement, reflect this pragmatism and the relative strength of conservatives in both parties. These enduring characteristics include:
- a comparatively low level of state services maintained by a general hostility toward progressive taxation (particularly any form of income tax)
- a generally anti-union work environment
- limited environmental regulation
- culturally conservative social policy in areas such as education, religion, and civil rights
These characteristics of party politics in Texas have deep historical roots, originally established back in the days of Texas's independence and even earlier during the Spanish colonial experience. The consensus on these points has been challenged and modified to some extent during various periods in Texas history, but these tendencies continue to exert a strong influence through to the present. The next two sections provide a more detailed discussion of the party system in Texas history and the future of party politics in the state.