Who’s Afraid of Texas?

From the Kennedy assassination to the (mis)adventures of our current governor, Texas has given the rest of the country plenty of reasons to look down on us—not that we care. But that doesn’t mean outsiders should take exception to Texas exceptionalism.
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Consider, for a moment, Texas through the eyes of an outsider. On January 13, 2013, just two months after President Barack Obama won reelection, the White House formally declined an online petition signed by more than 125,000 people that would have allowed Texas to secede. The government of Belarus weighed in, expressing its concern that Texas independence was being suppressed. When Obama nominated John Kerry for secretary of state, three senators voted against confirming their colleague from Massachusetts: John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas; Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas; and James Inhofe (nice try, Oklahoma). Meanwhile, state attorney general Greg Abbott took out an ad on the website of the New York Times directed at gun owners in the Empire State: if they were concerned about stricter gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, they should move to Texas, where they wouldn’t have to worry. A few weeks later, Rick Perry went to California on a hunting trip—job huntin’, that is.  

Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that around the country there has always been a widespread impression that Texas is corrupt, callous, racist, theocratic, ignorant, and belligerent. Even worse, many Americans think Texas is dangerous: all the terrible stuff this state does creeps into the rest of the nation through the underhanded strategies of textbook distribution and national elections. 

That notion is mean. It’s wrong. And it’s easy to see how it’s reinforced by stories like the ones mentioned above. On the other hand, those events make the headlines because Americans are wary of Texas in the first place. So this raises the question, Why would people be scared of a state? 

The mutual suspicions between Texas and the United States have been around so long that it’s impossible to say when they started. We could go all the way back to the annexation debate of 1836–1845, when the Republic of Texas’s bid to join the Union caused so much consternation in Washington that some historians consider it the proximate cause of the Civil War. Or we could go to the Civil War itself, a conflict in which Texas was on the wrong side of history, morality, and the American Constitution. Clearly the United States had some trouble with Texas even before that November day in Dallas that horrified the world—and that left the nation with a new president, who struggled to redeem his home state’s reputation. 

But this isn’t the only state that was part of the Confederacy. It’s not the only state that has been the home to a national tragedy. So if Texas is more controversial than any other state, maybe something else is afoot. Refer yourself to J.R. from Dallas or Rich Texan from The Simpsons (“Without oil, you wouldn’t have four-wheel drive!”). Think of Tex Richman, the villain in the most recent installment of The Muppets, who buys the Muppets’ old theater because he wants to get at the oil underneath. Or consider This Is Texas, part of a sixties-era children’s series by Czech illustrator Miroslav Sasek that includes This Is Paris and This Is New York. “Leonard’s Subway, the only privately owned subway in the world, takes you from the parking lot to Leonard’s Department Store,” Sasek writes. “No charge. It is also the only subway in Texas where passengers might drown in oil.” 

The first gusher in Texas was discovered in 1901, at Spindletop. Thirty years later, the state’s oil industry became even bigger with the discovery of gargantuan reservoirs in East Texas. Before oil, Texas didn’t have enough wealth or power to influence the country. After oil, it did. The state could no longer be dismissed as merely eccentric. In other words, Texas became a problem for the rest of the country when Texans started to get rich. Oil created a clutch of super-empowered businessmen—super-empowered economically and politically. Rich Texans weren’t shy about using their newfound wealth to push for favors, and they were successful enough at doing so that the nation started to pay attention. As early as 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, national politicians were trying to close the loopholes that were helping this crop of wildcatters become wealthier than seemed reasonable. The politicians didn’t succeed. Over the decades, as the special treatment for the oil industry continued, the nation’s resentment of it, and Texas, only strengthened.

To make matters worse, after the oil industry brought wealth and influence to Texas, its residents started getting ambitious about other things. In 1982 Ronald Reagan signed a bill that briefly made life easier for America’s savings and loan institutions by implementing regulations that were modeled after Texas’s freewheeling rules on the subject. Some years before, the state had loosened up its restrictions by reducing the amount of deposits S&L’s were required to keep on hand and allowing the thrifts to lend money for commercial real estate projects. At the time, financial deregulation seemed to be working. Greater access to capital had given more Texans a chance to hunt for oil. Others focused on real estate development: all those people who were getting into oil would surely want to buy swanky condos and office towers. 

What happened after the nation followed suit could probably have been predicted, in retrospect. Interest rates were relatively high in the early eighties, so investors were saving more money than usual. The S&L’s, being flush with cash and having more discretion as a result of Reagan’s new rules, lent more money than usual. When interest rates came back down, however, investors wanted to move their money elsewhere. Hundreds of America’s savings and loans institutions, having lent out most of their deposits, abruptly failed.

In 1989 George H. W. Bush—who had been elected president the previous year after serving as Reagan’s vice president—signed what was, at that point, the largest federal bailout in U.S. history (it was exceeded when his son George W. signed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, in 2008). According to ProPublica, an investigative journalism group, the

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