in his hair. The man was crying but trying not to, so that he could smile and wave at Clark as he died.
The process is grim and grotesque. But while polls tell us that Texans are pretty similar to other Americans on most issues, the death penalty is one where we stand apart. According to a November 2011 poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 62 percent of Americans support the death penalty for people convicted of murder and 31 percent are opposed. A May 2012 University of Texas/ Texas Tribune poll, by contrast, found that 73 percent of Texans were either “strongly” or “somewhat” in favor of the death penalty, with just 21 percent opposed.
An outsider could easily get the impression that Texas’s use of the death penalty is in keeping with a generally punitive approach to crime. The state’s prison population is dropping slightly—in August 2012 there were about 154,000 people behind bars, down from 156,500 a year before—but Texas nonetheless has the largest prison population of any state and the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country. Prison conditions are often overcrowded and unpleasant, and occasionally abusive. Most of the state’s prisons have no air-conditioning, for example; there have been inmate deaths attributed to heat, leading to ongoing lawsuits against the state.
The state’s disproportionate prison population is partly due to disproportionate crime. In several major categories, Texas’s crime rates exceed the national average. But that is also due to the state’s historically draconian approach. Texas drug laws, for example, have been notorious not only for their severity but also for their use in neutralizing people suspected of socially disruptive behavior—that is to say, political types. The most famous case is that of Lee Otis Johnson, a black activist and organizer from Houston who, in 1968, received a thirty-year prison sentence after passing a joint to an undercover cop (he served four years before being freed on appeal). “Criminal mischief” has been another catchall charge used to crack down on perceived troublemakers, usually black or Hispanic ones. That supposed crime, which generally refers to property damage or vandalism, can carry a sentence of up to twenty years.
Not surprisingly, Texans are big on the right to bear arms. They always have been: a grievance that triggered the revolution was that Mexico didn’t want the settlers to be armed. Democrat Ann Richards was one of the few modern governors to be skeptical of Texas’s gun culture. She was tough on crime—she built new prisons and made it much harder to be released on parole—but she also vetoed a concealed-carry bill in 1993, even after advocates tried to persuade her that the law would help women in particular to ensure their personal safety. “Well, I’m not a sexist,” she responded, “but there is not a woman in this state who could find a gun in her handbag, much less a lipstick.” That was during her campaign against George W. Bush, who promised that he would sign the bill. He won, and he did.
MOST TEXANS AREN ’T BOTHERED by the state’s strong Second Amendment stance. And many would point out that Texas has actually pursued a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years. But it’s an uphill battle when so many people think your state is, well, dumb. That’s another problem people have with Texas. Never was that clearer than when George W. Bush emerged on the national stage, speaking English the way he does.
“Such frank boobery would seem to represent a culmination of the long, strange history of anti-intellectualism in America,” wrote Mark Crispin Miller, who was moved to write a whole book on the subject of Bush 43’s syntax and diction. “Certainly George W. Bush has always postured as a good ole boy, who don’t go in fer usin’ them five-dollar words like ‘snippy’ and ‘insurance.’ ” In Miller’s view, Bush was a step down from presidents such as Franklin Pierce, who was “fluent in Greek and Latin, like so many of his peers.” Yes, the heady days of antebellum America—black people were held as slaves, women couldn’t vote, and the American buffalo was on the verge of extinction, but at least the affluent white men of America’s political elite spoke Greek so that we didn’t have to be so ashamed of our boobery.
Complicating matters is that Texans themselves seem to go out of their way to offend everyone as much as possible—and if anyone gets upset, they act like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Remember that one about secession? It was April 15, 2009, a bright, sunny day in Austin. Governor Perry was at city hall addressing a rally for people who were against the stimulus package, one of the nation’s proto–tea party events. As the governor was leaving, Kelley Shannon, a reporter with the Associated Press, asked him what he thought about the idea that Texas could secede. Somebody in the crowd had shouted something to that effect, and Perry was known to be a big proponent of states’ rights.
“Oh, I think there’s a lot of different scenarios,” Perry replied. “Texas is a unique place. When we came in the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America, and Washington in particular, pays attention,” he continued. “We’ve got a great Union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that? So. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”
In Texas, the comments were greeted with a snort: it was just Perry running his mouth. People in other parts of the country, however, were shocked, maybe because they’re not used to hearing their governors allude to secession or sovereignty. After Perry joined the presidential race