In an article in the Houston Chronicle on February 1, Professor Mark Jones asks voters to pay more attention to candidates in the Republican primary this March because “The direction and scope of public policy in Texas for the remainder of this decade will be profoundly affected by the outcome of this spring's Republican primaries. In all 15 statewide contests and in three-fifths of the state legislative races, the November general election will, barring an egregious misstep by a Republican candidate, merely ratify the decision made by GOP primary voters in March and May.” My interest is in two paragraphs in which Professor Jones identifies the two major factions in the contemporary Republican Party of Texas. Jones states:
These pragmatic center-right conservatives view their “movement” conservative brethren, commonly called the tea party, as excessively ideological and obstructionist. They fear the latter’s rhetoric and actions jeopardize the state’s continued economic success as well as the Republican Party’s long-term dominance in the Lone Star State.
Movement conservatives, however, think their intraparty rivals are too quick to compromise conservative principles in the name of political expediency and are overly beholden to the Austin Lobby. Furthermore, they do not think their efforts to restrain spending are jeopardizing the state’s economic future. To the contrary, they believe increased state expenditures for education, health care and roads that are financed by more debt or tax increases will put the “Texas Miracle” at risk.
By identifying the “movement” conservatives as Tea Party types, Jones masks the fact that these two factions—what Gary Keith, Rex Peebles, and I referred to as “pragmatists” and “purists” in the second edition of our textbook on Texas politics and government in 2000—have been evident for some time in Texas. Although I would agree with the characteristics that Jones attributes to the “movement” conservatives, the essential difference between the two factions is that the pragmatists want to control government so that they can effect public policy that reflects the policy choices of their party’s members, and the purists want to keep the party pure, adhering to a position, regardless of its effect on their electoral chances or control of government. Purists are much more ideologically committed than their pragmatic brethren. In fact, they view compromise as making a pact with the devil. The opposition is evil, and how can one remain pure if one compromises even a little bit. The ability to see every issue in black and white helps enormously. After all, the opposition has no moral authority or political legitimacy. So, whether the issue is abortion, gay marriage, immigration, or any other issue, there is the moral, conservative position and the immoral, liberal position. You can’t get into bed with the devil; so no compromise is possible. In our system of governance, no compromise usually means no action. But that’s okay, because the goal is purity and not action anyway.
Historically, the pragmatic conservatives controlled the Republican Party of Texas. But that control is challenged by the purists in a number of Republican Party primary elections this March. Some of the challengers may be faking their allegiance to the purist wing of the Republican Party in hopes of gaining political office. Unfortunately, if they do win, they will be held accountable by the purists who financed their campaigns and ensured their election or re-election.