On the Texas Constitution

I'd like to introduce you to this short video about the Texas Constitution.

On the Texas Constitution

I'd like to introduce you to this short video about the Texas Constitution. You're asking "Why? Who cares?" Well, in Texas, Texas Government is a required college course which one cannot possibly have too many resources for teaching. I was very lucky someone else discovered this video and shared it with me.

But for those of you not in Texas–heck, for those of you who are part of my international audience–you need to see for yourselves what's going on at the state level. You witness America's actions on the world stage and you see the dysfunction of federal government. However, a close look at what's happening in the so-called "laboratories of democracy" can be quite sobering. The Texas Constitution is from 1876, and I'll let you judge whether it allows for a more "direct democracy" as the narrator of the video says it might:

Texas is not some small place; it has nearly 30 million people. If it were an independent country, its GDP would place it 8th in the world. Wikipedia says it has a larger GDP than Russia or South Korea. There are plenty who say that because of such success, whatever Texas does must be the right thing. Typically, these people have rather strong opinions about the state of California. I have not heard much about the concept of "fortune." Thinkers of a bygone age would say that since it was possible for the world to drop in your lap, value cannot be judged on success alone, if it is possible to judge value on success at all.

The video does not start off subtly: "Our Texas State Constitution is a bloated confusing document with nearly 500 amendments. Compare that to the U.S. Constitution which has only been amended 17 times since it was adopted." Right away, we might say that 500 amendments is no proof of failure, that it is possible to have a "bloated" and "confusing" structure for law and still do great things. The video goes on to show you that is not the case. Take a look at just one amendment, which is correctly declared a violation of the U.S. Constitution's 1st amendment. You can search for it yourself in the text of the current Texas constitution:

Sec. 4. RELIGIOUS TESTS. No religious test shall ever be required as a
qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be
excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided
he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

Not only does this obliterate any serious distinction between church and state, but it isn't even grammatical. I guess it is grammatical in the way "I'll pray for you" is. Just like one says "I'll pray for you" to substitute for "I hope you get hit by a truck in the next 15 seconds," one can say "We've got no religious tests! You just need to believe in a god" as a substitute for saying "You've got plenty of choices! You can choose to cooperate or get what's coming." From the perspective of something like linguistics or philosophy of language, the meaning is clear, but that meaning is less than desirable for a formal document governing 30 million people of an incredible number of religions. Moreover, the idiomatic grammar needed to establish that meaning is also not optimal.

There are many ludicrous amendments to scoff at, but the real failures of the Texas Constitution lie in its being a reaction to Reconstruction. I dislike the rhetoric that "government is the problem" because when government fails, e.g. when it has been treated as the problem time and time again, lives are often in danger. To take one example, the Texas state legislature meets once every two years. This makes it difficult to get laws, policies, and oversight which are desperately needed, which is how prisoners and guards burn to death in Texas prisons year after year and caregivers for the disabled see pay raises that are pennies. Another example is the Texas plural executive. Since executive functions are distributed to elected officials no one knows about, such as the Land Comptroller and Railroad Commissioner, elections are an absolute mess. You can vote in them, but if you feel like its too confusing and doing nothing but validating whatever happens anyway, you're not entirely wrong. There's only so much voters can be educated: expecting them to have a doctorate in Political Science before they go to the polls is extremely bad practice. You might say it is deeply anti-republican and anti-democratic. Shouldn't elections be a serious opportunity to inform people of their choices?

If you're wondering what kind of accountability state governments in the United States have, that's a good question. While some governors and state officials get caught in scandals, there isn't a lot of oversight. Moreover, as the video shows, barely anyone votes in Texas elections or on state constitutional amendments. And I'm not sure what the value of voting would be if local journalism has been gutted and replaced with the sort of clickbait you see on Facebook. If no one reads past the headline, and the headline only means to create an angry comments section, do we really need that at the polls? Of course, that is what we're getting at the polls nowadays anyway.

I confess there's no easy way around these problems. It's not enough to convince people that serious local journalism is sorely needed. That's a collective action problem with several layers. People angrily spouting off about any old thing in the comments can find themselves mini-celebrities, if they don't end up being full-fledged celebrities. However, even if one creates a sustainable local network or publication with beats on things like state legislators and education, a billionaire can simply buy it and do whatever they like. Furthermore, when it comes to the state constitution, something like a constitutional convention is sorely needed. How can we even talk about such a thing when one of the benefits of the Texas Constitution of 1876 is its unwavering endorsement of public education? An endorsement that the Governor and his billionaire buddies want to pretend never existed?