Austin at Large: “It’s Time to Get <blank> Done”
As we dive deep into 2021, let’s complete that sentence with real talk, not “stuff”
It feels like 2021's streak of Weird Wednesdays has run its course, and we once again live in a functional, if flawed, society that is able and willing to govern itself. The flurry of actions starting on Day One of each presidency, or Congress, or Texas Legislature, or City Council seems more meaningful this time, after all the posing and performance and tweets and tantrums that the decadent and depraved Republican regime has substituted for action.
Most of what has been accomplished, rather than just gestured at and talked about, by the MAGA-fied red team has been subtraction, turning the clock back, retreating from hard-won bits of change achieved by the multicultural coalition of solidarity that is slowly supplanting the hegemony of white privilege. Even in our local affairs, where the GOP's relevance is modest at best, the marquee items on the conservative agenda involve waving the white flag in the struggle for progress – reinstating the ban on public camping, reopening the police academy, giving the cops back money that Council will likely, instead redirect toward housing for some of the thousands of Austinites who can't attain and afford and maintain stable shelter. On the other side, the Save Austin Now campaign and its allies say they want to pursue alternative plans to end homelessness in our city, although nobody knows what those plans are.
The framing used by City Hall critics, including new Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, is that we need to get something done, because the now-visible poverty under Austin's bridges and in its creek beds is evidence that the city is not doing anything. This is not totally incorrect; as one of the voices that's been most supportive of not treating Austin's unhoused poor as criminals, we at the Chronicle agree that the city's vaunted efforts and investments since 2018 have stalled out and need to be retooled, in ways that are starting to glimmer and coalesce on the Council dais. It's not just that progress is slow, or that COVID-19 has derailed everything; major elements of the community's (adopted and twice now reaffirmed) action plan to end homelessness are not working.
But effort and investment still need to be made, which is what was not done for decades of suits-and-boots centrist comity that treated the unhoused poor of urbanizing Austin much like we treat the salamanders in Barton Springs – special, vulnerable, worthy of protection but not worth rethinking the systems and structures that drive species to extinction and people to live in the streets, and best kept distant and hidden from the ever-expanding Austin success machine, for their own good. That's what Save Austin Now wants to go back to.
Reversion to the Mean
Despite the florid MAGA freak show that entertains and energizes Texas Republicans for whom citizenship is just a TV show or a Facebook thread, I think Austin conservatives, including Kelly, are mostly open to persuasion and amenable to the business of governing, to compromise and debate and making the sausage. But I worry that the post-Apesh*t GOP mindset is too eager to revert to its former mean, and blow past the real talk and real work that needs to happen to actually "get something done" that is meaningful and sustainable. We've seen the comically disingenuous burblings about "healing" and "unity" from Republicans in D.C. and our own Capitol who literally stood around and watched, and couldn't help but smile if not cheer, when deranged conspiracists crashed into our democracy looking to kill people. Screw that noise. But just as Apesh*t himself has deflated by at least 60% since being towed back to Mar-a-Lago just last week, that dangerous bad-faith MAGA-pologist energy is a finite and declining resource.
It's the old-school Bush-Baker-banker GOP vibe that Texans know very well, and the both-sides, anti-political neuroses of (mostly white, mostly wealthy) centrist leaders who feel their power and status is at risk, that we should just not allow to rush back in to fill the voids left as MAGA decomposes. That was and is the point of view from which Austin's permanent managerial class – for example, board members of the Downtown Austin Alliance, people who sit precisely between Greg Abbott and Steve Adler on the left-right spectrum – addressed homelessness. It's how Abbott's red regime has approached the pandemic, defining the acceptable range of "getting stuff done" wholly as a return to the status quo ante. Get kids back in school! Get the stores open! Distribute vaccines just like we do our annual flu shots, even though a pandemic is by definition not the same as ordinary disease. It all looks like action but it's thoroughly passive, leading from behind, leaving big questions unasked. Abbott could expand Medicaid right now to respond to COVID. That would get a lot done that needs doing. He won't do it.
This week, Texas 2036, the think tank founded by pre-MAGA GOP stalwart Tom Luce, released statewide polling (conducted by Austin's own Mike Baselice) via the Dallas Morning News, whose editorial board summed the findings up thusly: "Texans have a message for their leaders in Austin: Get along and get something done. ... Texans are ready to leave fake-news-fueled foolishness behind and get on with recovery. ... We don't have time for partisan squabbles and ideological sermonizing." In other words, go back to what we were doing before, which wasn't working, which is why both the left and the right rose up to demand change, which ended in bloodshed.
We can't do that.