On election night, we were filming a group of young political activists in Fort Bend County, just outside of Houston. They’d gathered outside in the parking lot of a popular Chinese restaurant for the local party’s Democratic victory celebration.
Mirroring the explosion in the county’s Asian population, they were largely Pakistani and Indian Americans in their 20s, many of whom had worked on Sri Kulkarni’s near-miss 2018 congressional campaign. In that cycle, Democrats surprisingly swept the county races, electing an immigrant from a small village in southern India as county judge and an African American crusader for criminal justice reform as district attorney.
Fort Bend had once been Tom DeLay’s conservative base, largely white and conservative like most American suburbs in the 1980s and ’90s. But decades of people flocking to sprawling new housing communities had quadrupled the population. Now it was one of the most diverse suburbs in the country, divided among whites, African Americans, Latinos and Asians. And the politics had changed with the population.
On this night, though, the blue wave that the Fort Bend celebrants hoped for never appeared. Although Joe Biden’s national win seemed in sight, wins in the big-ticket local races for Congress and the state Legislature were not to be.
For Texas Democrats, the election results were a shock. The state did not turn blue or even purple. No new congressional seats. No progress at all at picking off the needed nine seats in the Texas House to flip the chamber. Nothing.
And Texas’ streak of two decades of no Democratic statewide wins, the longest in the nation, grew longer.
The seemingly endless negative ads attacking Texas Democrats as socialists, radicals and defenders of defunding the police may have seemed silly to folks in Texas’ liberal bubble of Austin. But across the state, including the swing suburbs, they resonated, especially to voters the Democrats needed to flip in districts that Beto O’Rourke had won in 2018. Cutting the police budget might play in Austin, but it was hard to see it as a winning strategy anywhere else.
For Mexican Americans on the border, the increasing militarization of the border has meant more jobs in law enforcement and border patrol. Any mention of banning fracking threatens the loss of jobs. And President Donald Trump was just more popular among Latinos than some pundits thought.
Totally abandoning door-to-door contact with voters to the Republicans probably didn’t help either. Nor did ending the straight-ticket voting. In the end, Democrats needed to build on their 2018 results to flip more congressional and state House seats, and they didn’t.
Years ago, at the end of our film “Vote for Me: Politics in America,” about American politics and culture, an old Mississippi veteran of many campaigns told us a story that I always think about when we cover a losing campaign. When he was younger, having lost a local election and taking it badly, his father pulled him aside and told him a Latin phrase. Vox populi vox dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God. And he told him if he could accept that, he probably ought to stay in the political picture. And if he couldn’t accept it, he probably ought to quit it that day.
For Democrats in Fort Bend County, election night wasn’t the one they’d hoped for. But in a county known as one of the last places to free slaves after the Civil War, they had elected African Americans as sheriff and county attorney. That was something.
As for the young activists, their disappointment didn’t change them. Most of them are the children of immigrants, having grown up in Texas, mixing their faith, in local mosques and temples and south Asian Christian churches, with a fervor for the Houston Astros and football Texans. This was and will remain their home. As they hugged and took photos late into that night, they all affirmed that they were in this for the long haul to start thinking about the 2022 races to come. Because that’s the way our democracy is supposed to work.
Paul Stekler is a documentary filmmaker, the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, and a professor in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Austin American-Statesman.