The Texas Supermodel
America is chasing the myth of Texas. Fortunately, we aren’t.
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In this summer’s most unlikely movie mash-up, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Great Emancipator discovers that pro-slavery bloodsuckers are plotting to take over the United States. In the summer political chiller As Texas Goes . . . : How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, Gail Collins, a columnist for the New York Times, asserts that our state’s conservative political model—“low tax, low service” and virulently antigovernment—has already taken over America. “Texas runs everything,” warns Collins (emphasis hers), as she not unreasonably blames us for dumbing down the nation’s textbooks, disastrously deregulating its financial institutions, and saddling it with an energy policy based on fossil fuel profligacy and climate change denial. “We feel Texas’s influence in our lives every day, but we’ll be feeling it much more in the future.”
Neither the movie nor Collins’s book caused much of a shudder in a country that will soon have to choose between Barack Obama’s zombie economy (still moving but clearly dead) and Mitt Romney’s vampire capitalism. But now that the Obama campaign has effectively Swift-boated Romney’s private equity exploits, Republicans may well end up haunted by the ghost of Rick Perry’s long-deceased bid for the nomination. If the GOP had fielded a candidate with authentic rural roots, secession-talkin’ tea party cred, and a record of both job creation and immigrant friendliness, Romney’s super-PAC billionaires could already be licking their chops over a victory as lopsided as Reagan versus Carter. And had Perry, the embodiment of the Texas model at the heart of Collins’s cautionary tale, displayed so much as an entry-level presidential intellect, it’s very likely this would be yet another election—like four of the past six—with a Texan at the head of the Republican ticket.
Even though we escaped that alternate universe, liberals are fooling themselves if they think Texas-style conservatism is dead just because the calamitous Bush presidency and the failed Perry candidacy have been driven like a pair of sharpened wooden stakes straight through its heart. If anything, Collins understates the influence of our political culture; the notion that Texas conservatives have victimized the entire nation doesn’t reflect the extent to which voters throughout the country have bared their own necks. States’ rights, right-to-work, anti-regulation, “personal responsibility” (i.e., zeroing out social services)—our way is the new road map even for such blue bastions as Wisconsin and New Jersey, where brash, bold Republican governors walk Perry’s talk. And if Romney is able to win in November despite his unlovable personality and unidentifiable convictions, the real victor will be a small-government, anti-Washington ideology that bears an indelible made-in-Texas stamp.
So why has our homegrown political philosophy proved harder to kill off than a True Blood love interest? To begin with, there’s geography. The question of whether Texas is fundamentally a Southern state or a Western one has been debated for generations by historians. But our political culture uniquely combines both identities, encompassing the two very different strains of anti-Washington fervor that animate voters in the red swath extending from South Carolina to the Mountain West. We alone have wedded the Old South’s undying resentment to the New West’s optimistic (and more color-blind), don’t-fence-me-in ethos. It’s a psychological synthesis that has allowed Texas to have its own version of the DREAM Act, providing in-state tuition rates to undocumented children who complete high school, while our attorney general sues to overturn part of the minority-enfranchising Voting Rights Act. It’s how Perry can offer government subsidies to high-tech businesses while railing against government subsidies for sick children.
Our hybrid philosophy allows American conservatives to see the sunny economic upside of ranking dead last in health care and percentage of high school graduates (we’re growing because we’re not giving handouts to slackers!) while adding a hopeful luster to our indifference to the needs of the neediest (soon enough they’ll have such good jobs that they’ll be able to afford the skyrocketing cost of health insurance!). That’s a big contrast with our old Confederate poor relations like Mississippi and Alabama, whose similarly laggard social services merely reek of defeat and poverty. Hey, if bare-bones government works for booming Texas, why shouldn’t it work for Colorado—or even New Jersey?
However, the main reason the Texas model works for us (or appears to) is that we are, quite simply, far more urbanized than any other red state. Our sprawling metro areas, where the vast majority of Texans live and work, are the demographic and economic growth engines that give the Texas governing model its high-performance features.
And the funny thing is, Texas’s go-go metro areas owe next to nothing to the penurious philosophy we’ve so successfully exported. In fact, they don’t much resemble red-state America at all. Politically, they’re much bluer: did anybody notice that amid the 2010 tea party tsunami, Dallas County Democrats actually increased their near-monopoly of county offices? These Texas cities and their suburbs are some of the most multicultural in the nation; their urban planners are taking cues from “socialist” hotbeds like Vancouver and Paris; and they’ve long been piling on debt to lay light-rail tracks, build cultural facilities, revitalize downtowns, and educate a diverse workforce. Our state government doesn’t need to tax, borrow, and spend—or plan for the future—because that’s what our municipalities do.
Yet our political leadership continues to ride the range and whistle Dixie while modern Texas mushrooms around them. Nowhere is the cultural dissonance more surrealistic than in Austin, one of America’s hippest destinations, where rural and exurban lawmakers gather every two years to legislate Texas back to the nineteenth century, while budding high-tech entrepreneurs and alternative-energy researchers whiz past them on single-speed bikes—the cutting edge in sustainable, Euro-style urban transportation.
But that’s the ironic beauty of the Texas model, which stands atop the burgeoning cultural and economic wealth of Texas’s cities without having to acknowledge their existence. Founded on a mythic rural past and subsidized by an urban present the rest of the country and our own leadership refuse to recognize, Texas’s political culture will never die—at least as long as the nation remains its willing victim.