Thankfully, he has not written one of those folksy humble-brag faux-struggle cliche-paste-job candidate autobiographies. Still, O’Rourke does want to show us the kind of leader he would be — but through the stories of others. He listens to community activists and relates their challenges and stories, especially those of Texans of color who fought for equal treatment.
The most real estate goes to the uplifting tale of Lawrence Aaron Nixon, a Black doctor from O’Rourke’s hometown, El Paso. In 1924, the doctor gamely paid his poll tax. The election judges told him the bad news. “Dr. Nixon, you know we can’t let you vote.” Nixon’s response lends the book its title: “I know you can’t. But I’ve got to try.”
Unbowed, Nixon teamed up with the NAACP to bring two voting rights lawsuits — Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932) — to the Supreme Court. He won the first case on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. The Texas Legislature responded by passing a “white primary law” that allowed the state’s Democratic Party executive to bar Black voters. Because Texas was a solidly Democratic state, this effectively disenfranchised all Black voters. Nixon, denied the vote again, loaned his name to the second lawsuit. The Supreme Court agreed that Nixon “was deprived of his right to vote in the Democratic Primary.” He was awarded a symbolic dollar for his troubles. The state Democratic Party, equally unbowed, revised its rules to keep Black voters out. Nixon kept up his seemingly Sisyphean struggles for the right to vote, despite constant intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan and other white extremist groups. In 1944, he finally got to cast a ballot. “If Nixon and others like him could persist despite those threats, we can certainly do our part,” O’Rourke writes. “His example proves that not only is it necessary but that ultimately it pays off.”
As our unrelenting campaigner tours Texas, we also meet characters like Chole Galvan, who fought for investments in public transit in El Paso, and Pablo Gonzales, a civil rights activist who became the first Mexican American mayor of Cotulla in 1970. We meet Reginald Moore, a retired prison guard who fought to recognize 95 Black boys and men dumped in a mass grave in Sugar Land after the convict-leasing prison system worked them to death. O’Rourke connects Moore’s fight to broader struggles for criminal justice reform. “Moore understood the nature of doing time in Texas prisons. But for those who don’t know, the facts are sobering. … The state of Texas locks up a higher percentage of its residents than almost any democracy on earth.”
O’Rourke has listed both “The Odyssey” and Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” as his favorite books. (He named his first son Ulysses.) This Ur-story of a long and winding journey infuses the book. Of course, in his picaresque travelogue of Texan political activism, O’Rourke is also telling his own story — as a careful listener and tireless avatar of all those who have fought against injustice, past and present.
But of all the injustices, the contemporary assault on the right to vote stands front and center. Like many Republican-controlled state legislatures, Texas passed laws in 2021 that curtailed access to voting methods favored by Democratic-aligned constituencies (especially voters of color) under the guise of “election integrity.” Since 2013 (following the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which substantially weakened the Voting Rights Act), Texas has closed 750 polling stations.
Since the book opens with an 1886 lynching of Black poll workers who had killed a White attacker in self-defense, the lesson is obvious: Old times are most definitely not forgotten. O’Rourke does not hold back in connecting the links on the chain. In his telling, the same virulent strains of White racist violence are alive and well in the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol and in the Texas Legislature’s SB 1, the voting restriction bill that passed last August. “The goal of this bill wasn’t to ensure election integrity,” O’Rourke writes. “The goal was to finish what had been started on January 6.”
O’Rourke gets an A-plus on both the moral frisson of the long fight and the rightness of the cause: “We are always becoming a democracy; it never ends. It can be exhausting, daunting even brutal work. But compared to the alternative? We don’t have a choice. … We know one thing for sure. We’ve got to try.”
But in laser-focusing on the right to vote as the thing that “makes everything else possible” (the book’s subtitle), he falls prey to a common reform fallacy: If only it were easier to vote, voting rates would skyrocket, and we’d have true accountability. He warns, “Our representatives in Austin do not feel accountable to the people of Texas — both because of the gerrymandering that has insulated them from legitimate challengers and the suppression that has kept many citizens away from the polls,” he writes. If only it were so simple.
Seven million Texans didn’t vote in 2020. “There’s a temptation to blame nonvoters,” he writes. “Is it laziness or lack of civic responsibility? … Or could it be something else?” The implied “something else,” of course, is restrictive voting rules.
Though the obstacles Texas throws at many voters are discouraging, most nonvoters (in Texas and throughout the country) are nonvoters by choice, not circumstance. By choice, because many reasonably think their vote doesn’t matter. Neither party represents them well. Nothing changes no matter who wins. And because the vast majority of voters live in states or districts safe for one party or the other, nonvoting is not entirely irrational. Thus, politicians truly committed to working on behalf of underrepresented communities must work for a voting system that not only allows marginalized residents to vote but also ensures that their votes matter.
A system of proportional representation, with multi-seat districts, could give much more voice and choice to underrepresented voters and would put an end to gerrymandering, which has battered voters of color in Texas (and other states). Sure, it’s a long shot. But the happy warrior from Texas is inspiring. The fight is measured in years and decades. The alternative is surrender. And so: We’ve got to try.
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow at New America, a co-host of the podcast “Politics in Question” and the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”
How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible