Greg Abbott’s run as Governor of Texas has been explosive and controversial, but as the controversies continue, it becomes clear that his time in office has also become a risk to democracy. This week the governor and Attorney General Paxton declared supporting trans youth transitioning practices as constituting “child abuse” in a move that circumvents anti-trans legislation by instead amending the definition of abuse. This decision comes after several attempts at passing anti-trans legislation in Texas and across the country, but most importantly, after a term of using Texas legislation to create “a culture of fear and paranoia” that aids in curtailing civil rights and pushing Republican and right-wing partisanship.
The Texas law “imposes a duty on DFPS to investigate the parents of a child who is subjected to these abusive gender-transitioning procedures” in the same way that last year Abbott’s highly controversial and debated anti-abortion bill “permitting citizens to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion after about the six-week mark — from the doctor who performed the procedure down to the person who provided transportation to the clinic”, and thus prioritizing “vigilante litigation” from other citizens to maintain moral standards set by the state, rather than merely legislative accountability and punishment. Instead of securing the legislative legitimacy of these decisions, and given that the anti-trans declaration is not even legally binding, the purpose of these controversial and very publicized political decisions is to create fear, promote polarization, and create more instability as the governmental elections approach.
All of these actions from Abbott point to a dangerous precedent of undermining democratic norms that is certainly not new to the United States, as the country has become increasingly polarized, and experienced concerning patterns of electoral disenfranchisement in the past few years, particularly from the GOP. Nevertheless, Abbott is embodying an aspect of stealth authorization that Varol, a proponent of the theory, expands upon in his work. Varol claims that stealth authoritarianism can include polarization, political monopoly, judicial review to avoid accountability , the latter of which Abbott is doing by not making this legislation explicit and employing vigilante and citizen-led persecution. He also outlines the importance of electoral laws and regulations as a sign of authoritarianism in order to “afford the opportunity to disenfranchise portions of the population dissatisfaction makes them a preferred target for disenfranchisement” .
Relying on vigilante litigation for abortion and trans youth issues sets a precedent for polarized legislation that can lead to even more democratic backsliding. Researchers and political scientists that have focused on polarization, such as Lieberman et al. have claimed that hyperpolarization manipulates the partisan “institutions that are supposed to exercise checks and balances” into being used for “partisan or incumbent advantage”, and are often “nourished” by “cultural cleavages” . With the upcoming elections, and considering that “Texas has long been a deep-red bastion, but” that “statewide races have become competitive” despite a “heavily gerrymandered legislature” that “remains dominated by Republicans”, it makes sense that Abbott is attempting to undermine his partisan and political opponents and tapping into those fears of cultural and social change that have spurred anti-trans legislation in the past.
Most concerning, Abbott’s social and cultural-based legislation, such as the anti-trans declaration, highly restrictive anti-abortion bill, and educational legislation banning critical race theory in schools, Texas is bolstering a cultural war waged through partisanship and a rejection of democratic norms. The problem is not just that Republicans are using legislation to wage moral and cultural wars on the state level, and perhaps to reach the Supreme Court, but also that the pull-and-push of partisan relationship means that Democratic legislative efforts are also in danger of following vigilante litigation, which has already begun to occur with “at least 31 copycat laws have been introduced across the country” since the Texan abortion bill went into effect in September 2021. Although parties employ a partisan “double standard”  wherein each party “is more willing to punish undemocratic behavior” by the opponent, and many Democrats “oppose the legal strategy used in the Texas law”, they are also “unwilling to cede the tool to their Republican counterparts for solely conservative causes”. The pressure of partisan loyalty over prioritizing democratic integrity sets a precedent for a political culture that could foster further stealth authoritarianism and democratic erosion.
The public negotiation of partisan power has always been a part of American politics and democracy, but the undermining of democratic norms such as the legislation pushed by Texas in the past year demonstrates that increasing polarization and hyperpolarization can undermine American democracy. The timing of this declaration is also suspect, as it comes the same day as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, potentially overshadowing criticism that the media and the public outside of Texas might have. Additionally, in the midst of this writing, Texas “rejected thousands of absentee ballots based on requirements set by the state’s new election law”, which is a highly concerning and clear sign of democratic backsliding and desire of the GOP to maintain power over Texas. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015  Robert Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics 2018.  Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” American Political Science Review, 2020.