America's Third World

Because Texas is a big and consequential state, often with outsized influence over national political and economic and cultural developments, we have become a kind of petri dish of dumbassery, a place to see what ignorance will grow beyond the lost souls of Abbott and Paxton and Trump’s party.

America's Third World

“There are honest politicians. They haven't won the elections yet.”
― Ljupka Cvetanova, The New Land

Leaving daily journalism turned out to not be as traumatic as I had anticipated. My initial fear involved the question of who I was if I were not a TV news correspondent. That really did not require much navel-gazing, though, and I knew I had skills that might transfer to business endeavors, which turned out to be the case. I was left, though, with wondering what I might have made of a different choice if I had used my energy and intellect for growing a business or an executive career. Getting to a point where I could afford the comforts of a middle-class life took considerably longer following a broadcaster’s path than it would have by stepping into corporate endeavors, though reporting was certainly more interesting than any board room I might ever enter.

There was not a conscious decision to leave journalism but I saw the signs it was breaking up with me. I was given to longer reports, determined to offer as much detail, information, and emotion as possible while producers and news executives realized they were suddenly needing shorter and flashier content to compete with the emerging Internet distractions. There was barely time to get subject, noun, and verb into a sentence before you had reached your out cue. Advertising dollars, meanwhile, were decreasing in TV news because there were suddenly online businesses attracting significant traffic to see ads, which also meant less pay for people in the newsroom. When I was offered a 50 percent salary cut, I realized my moment had arrived to board a departing flight.

I was, however, already made weary by 20 years of reporting from the Texas legislature. State government was the central reason that the TV stations in Houston, which had hired me, used to justify investment in an Austin bureau and live broadcast studio. From the late seventies until around 2000, too, there was a market comprised of an audience that wanted to know what was being done by people elected to public office. What I discovered after two decades of chasing interviews in the House and Senate, and watching bills be written, was that legislators and their laws never actually did much, and what little was accomplished was usually derivative of a previous piece of legislation. Courage and character tended to leave town when lawmakers arrived in Austin.

The Texas Capitol - House on a Haunted Hill

Governing is, by its nature, of course, a sloppy enterprise. Divergent interests in a state the size of Texas will always struggle with compromise and finding common ground to best serve the population. The unfortunate part is that there seemed, year after year after year, no real interest in progressing to that point. I, and my fellow journalists, watched the same subjects get debated through legislative sessions that felt endless and dysfunctional. Why has it never been possible, in an energy and technology state with profound wealth and an abundance of natural and human resources, to arrive at a constitutional formulation to make certain every child in Texas gets an equal public education? The first lawsuit in this matter, Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District, was filed in 1968, and Texas has been in and out of the courtroom since that day and still hasn’t gotten education funding right.

The current governor’s solution to crowded Texas schools, lower-than-average teacher pay, and declining test scores, is to take money away from public education and offer it to private institutions. He is particularly fond of Christian education, and when he began a statewide tour to promote school vouchers, re-branded as Education Savings Accounts, he never bothered to stop at public school. Jesus had commanded him to skip the small towns where the local schools were the community pride and identity, and their state representatives, generally conservative Republicans, were the ones who joined Democrats to defeat vouchers in the legislature, yet again. Meanwhile, as Abbott tries to give away tax dollars to religious private schools, the average Texas teacher salary is $7700 below the national pay rate and spending on public education, when adjusted for inflation, has gone down every year since he became governor.

Political and policy decisions in Texas, especially since the mid-nineties, have seemed calculated to be divisive. Of late, they are even mean-spirited and hurtful, as if they are designed to do harm rather than solve problems. Anger has become manifest in legislation and leadership. Nothing proves that assertion more than the case of 31-year-old Kate Cox, who is pregnant with a fetus afflicted with a lethal genetic disorder. Under Texas law, she cannot have an abortion and must carry the doomed child to full term, which prompted an Austin judge to rule Cox had a right to an exception of the state law because her health and future fertility were at risk with the continued pregnancy. Rather than abide the court’s judgement and allow a woman to deal with the physical and emotional trauma of losing a child, the impeached and indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, chose to ask the Texas Supreme Court to intervene and stop the procedure.

Paxton’s political extremism is unbounded. His comments indicated he would prosecute any hospital or doctor that provided Ms. Cox the abortion that the court had ruled was legally her right. Under the Texas abortion law, the state can revoke medical licenses and provide up to 99 years in prison for doctors who give a woman an abortion, and, apparently, in Greg Abbott’s and Ken Paxton’s Texas, it doesn’t matter if the child is doomed and the mother’s health and hopes for more children are ruined. Providing an abortion that results in the death of the fetus can result in first-degree felony charges and life in prison in this state and someone attempting an abortion or inducing one can face second-degree felony charges resulting in 2-20 years incarceration plus a fine of a minimum of $100,000 for each instance.

If an abortion is medically necessary to save a woman’s life, it becomes legal, but such judgments are subjective, based on a physician’s diagnosis, and expose that doctor to great professional and personal risk when they choose to help, which prompts most medical professionals in Texas to avoid the circumstances of emergency abortion surgeries. Paxton, Abbott, and the Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, work hard to position themselves as heroes protecting the life of the unborn with almost no concern for the mother’s emotional and physical well-being. Further, while arguing for the fetus, the state’s top three elected officeholders have done nothing to see that underprivileged children born over this soil get health care or basic nutrition. Almost a million Texas kids lack health care and a significant percentage of our population is without adequate food and frequently suffering severe hunger. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 1 in 6 Texas households is food insecure, which is considerably higher than the national average and accounts for 1.7 million families. Even as Abbott brags about the Texas economy and growth, 300,000 more households are food insecure this year than last, which is his administration’s failure.

But Paxton is focusing his energy and political pull on a fetus that has a non-existent chance of survival outside the womb, according to doctors. In the dead of night, his office filed with the Texas Supreme Court and asked for the Austin judge’s temporary restraining order to be lifted and the abortion law to govern the Cox case. “Nothing can restore the unborn child’s life that will be lost as a result,” he wrote in his motion. “The post hoc enforcement is of no substitute, so time is of the essence. Each hour the TRO remains in place is an hour that the Plaintiffs believe themselves free to perform and procure an elective abortion.” Paxton knows, of course, the child’s chances for survival are nil, and that the mother will be traumatized and may lose her ability to bear more children. He simply does not care. His interest is in appealing to the Christo-fascists and Dominionists who have taken control of the Texas Republican Party, and one person’s pain and suffering means nothing compared to votes from the radicalized right to keep him in office and to distract from his personal criminal indictments.

Further evidence that the political cruelty in Texas has become institutionalized appeared late Friday night when the state’s highest court ordered a halt of the TRO to enable the Cox procedure. The nine, conservative Republican judges indicated they wanted to consider the merits of the case, though the outcome is unlikely to be in Ms. Cox’ favor given the political inclinations of the court. In the meantime, AG Paxton sent a threatening letter to hospitals in Houston, where Cox’ doctor has admitting privileges, warning the hospital and doctors who might assist in the procedure that they face civil and criminal penalties should Cox be treated. The goal, of course, is intimidation, and has nothing to do with the fate of the fetus or its mother. Although Paxton cannot prosecute, he made certain that the hospitals’ administrators understood that a county attorney or a district attorney can bring criminal charges under the Texas abortion law, which meant anyone who helped Cox might be criminally liable, including her husband.

While Paxton is making the Cox’ family life one of great misery, he is also, I have to assume unwittingly, elevating the abortion issue to an increased level of national anger. There will not be a case more talked about in the coming campaign season, or more relevant to a woman’s body autonomy than this one being publicly scrutinized in Texas. Kate Cox, who decided to challenge the law and put her life on public display to defend principle, is making history. Paxton, meanwhile, the adulterer and indicted conman, is hardly the face for conservatives to put forward as a champion of the rights of a fetus. The idea that he is willing to heap more suffering on the private and emotional angst of a woman dealing with a problem pregnancy gives him a starring role in the horror movie that has become the Republican Party’s desire to strip women of their rights by distorting the law.

Because Texas is a big and consequential state, often with outsized influence over national political and economic and cultural developments, we have become a kind of petri dish of dumbassery, a place to see what ignorance will grow beyond the lost souls of Abbott and Paxton and Trump’s party. The assault on choice is only one suppression facing Texans. Transparency, or what was left of it, has all but disappeared from our government. In a recent investigation of Operation Lone Star, the inspector general, as another example, reported that everything was fine and that there was no substance to a state trooper’s whistleblower claims that the DPS had given orders to push asylum seekers entering Texas back into the Rio Grande and deny them water.

The DPS, of course, was investigating the DPS, which meant its findings were a foregone conclusion. It is, after all, the same agency that is refusing to release records of what happened with law enforcement at Uvalde, even after a court order. AG Paxton filed an appeal to stop the information from being delivered to news organizations, which is likely designed to prevent families of murdered children from filing civil rights lawsuits against the state. The delay created by hearing Paxton’s appeal has the potential to cause the clock to run out on the statute of limitations for federal claims.

Paxton also has federal appeals before courts regarding the border. Because the governor’s floating razor wire balls were impeding an international waterway, a judge in El Paso ordered them removed. A modest degree of humanity might have justified the ruling, but Paxton asked the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to stay the order and hear an argument for permanent placement. His approach was no different when another federal court said Border Patrol agents were allowed to cut razor wire to reach immigrants trapped in the river. Paxton and Abbott decided that was a destruction of state property and got another appellate court to overturn the judgment pending another hearing. Cruelty is the point, not legal jurisdiction.

My shrinking enthusiasm for being a reporter at the Texas capitol had nothing to do with the types of legal depravity and lying and evasiveness currently plaguing our body politic. I had grown weary of the same issues and same faces every session, which generally concluded without meaningful change. I did have, however, people usually willing to answer my questions, sit for interviews, public documents that did not require lawsuits to acquire, and a general sense of responsible accountability from officeholders. Even in the Bush administration, his office agreed to last-minute video interviews for TV with me when there was an issue that needed addressing. Members of the House and Senate were not able to run and ignore reporters, though a few tried. Our role was respected as a part of the democratic process.

In 2023, the difference is profound for Texas journalism and the public’s right to know. Access to information is controlled and lying has become a political tactic, no longer fatal to a career. Reporters used to sit at a table on the Senate floor to watch proceedings and interview senators after a session but they have now been removed to the third-floor gallery, a maneuver which was supposedly part of Covid protections. Unfortunately, the president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Patrick, likes the absence of journalists, and the rule has not been rescinded. It hardly seems to matter, though. Patrick does whatever he wants and orders senators to vote the way he wants, and few defy him. During one of the previous special sessions, he set the vouchers bill to be voted on in a tiny committee room with almost no advance notice and zero public input. Senators had only minutes to read the extensive language. This does not even remotely pass for democracy, and neither does the increasingly fascistic approach of Patrick, who turned AG Paxton’s impeachment trial into a giant, hypocritical charade with a pre-ordained verdict, which was purchased by a $3 million dollar campaign donation to Patrick from a PAC supporting the AG.

There is enough information for a long, depressing book about what is happening politically in Texas. If anyone might read such a manuscript, they would discover there is also a great danger of our governmental gangrene spreading to the rest of the country, especially if Trump resumes the presidency. Texas Republicans have shown that the public can simply be denied and ignored and government no longer requires compromise or majority consent. Governors don’t have to conduct news conferences or answer questions. Constraints can be added to make voting more difficult and reduce turnout for dissenting voices of minorities. Texas has put the template in place to be used by radicals for the decline and fall of the American republic. The public and the media seem almost unarmed in the battle.

And the tragic outcome is increasingly clear.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He writes frequently for CNN and other national media outlets and can be reached a