During Rick Perry’s brief presidential campaign, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote frequently about the governor and his home state. Her columns took all of the obvious swipes—she was particularly taken with the time he seemed to flirt with the notion of secession and the time he shot and killed a coyote while jogging. But she rarely offered original insights about Perry or Texas, at least to anyone who had more than a passing acquaintance with either. Yes, it’s utterly hilarious, and so telling, that Perry wears boots stitched with the words “freedom” and “liberty”! Got it.
Collins, for all her wit, epitomizes a coastal take on Texas that frowns on the state’s political ideology even as it misses the underlying politics that actually explain things. And there are real consequences to this sort of blithe indifference. Collins’s columns doubtless amused her loyal readers, but Team Perry long ago learned to use press criticism to its advantage. Every time the “liberal media” takes on Perry in clichéd terms, his surrogates cry, “Bias!” which electrifies the echo-chamber conservative networks that have supported his last two political campaigns.
So it’s disappointing to open Collins’s new book, As Texas Goes . . . : How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (Norton/Liveright, $25.95), and discover that it deploys pretty much the same tone as her Times columns. I know people (usually from other states) who adore Collins’ style, but I suspect that even the fans who enthusiastically email me links to her latest Texas takedowns will admit that the devices that pep up an eight-hundred-word column become tiresome over the course of a two-hundred-page book. As Texas Goes is chock-full of jokey little asides, like adding a perky “Just sayin’!” after noting that Texan presidents have gotten the U.S. into several wars. Too often, it’s not enough for Collins to point out how wrong she thinks Texas’s policies are; she labors to underline how obviously ridiculous Texas’s policies are.
But As Texas Goes does a better job of explaining “the Texas recipe for national prosperity” than one might expect. Collins casts a suspicious eye on Texas’s pro-business approach, providing useful details about the lax regulatory environment, anti-union labor laws, regressive tax structure, and chronic underfunding of the state’s educational system, social services, and public infrastructure. She also reminds readers that much of Texas’s economic strength has nothing to do with conservative ideology. States wanting to follow Texas’s lead, she writes, ought to “have oil,” “avoid being in the Snowbelt,” and “share a border with Mexico.” As she slyly points out, the Texas model of government won’t get the job done on its own. “If deregulation and low taxes were the real keys to job growth,” she writes, “wouldn’t Mississippi be setting records?”
Collins isn’t buying what the Texas GOP is selling, and she doesn’t think the rest of the country should either. “[Texas] has a massive number of badly educated adults prepared to work for very low wages, plus laws that make it next to impossible for labor to organize and press for better salaries, plus a tax system that favors the wealthy,” she writes. “What’s not to like?”
Collins clearly paid attention in her interview with Steve Murdock, the former state demographer of Texas. Murdock, now ensconced at Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, has been traveling far and wide sharing his cautionary analysis of what will happen if Texas doesn’t change its educational model. The state already ranks last in the percentage of people 25 and over who have completed high school; refusing to improve the education available to our surging population of young Latinos will result in an even more dire picture. Collins, following Murdock, poses a stark choice: educate the people who will eventually make up the majority of Texans, or “demonstrate how easy it is to create a two-tiered economy in which the failing underclass looks resentfully at the happy sliver on the top.” This isn’t just a matter of equality; it’s a matter of maintaining the sort of labor force that will attract higher-wage businesses in the future.
All of this adds up to a solid summary of the liberal critique of the Texas model. What Collins fails to do is get to the bottom of why things have turned out this way. She lays most of the blame on the state’s political culture, describing Texas as a place that is skeptical of government and dedicated to individual autonomy, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But though she’s attentive to the importance of Latinos in the state’s past and future, she never fully appreciates the class and ethnic divisions that have long defined political power here. This leads her to overgeneralize about what “Texans” think. The occasional interviewees on the left side of the spectrum are presented as lonely voices of reason in a state full of self-defeating nuts.
In fact, public opinion in Texas is more sharply divided than Collins’s account suggests. Broadly speaking, GOP hegemony has two main components. The first is a deeply rooted and overwhelmingly white male business community that has prevailed in Texas since Reconstruction. The other is a large bloc of conservative white voters, dominant in the small towns and rural areas, who reliably show up at the polls to vote Republican.
But this hegemony, however effective, doesn’t tell the whole story. Over the course of decades, the business establishment has painstakingly built a well-funded political infrastructure—which wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t strong opposition to Perry-style conservatism. Though you’d never know it from As Texas Goes, Obama got more votes than McCain in Harris and Bexar counties in 2008, and there are a growing number of competitive legislative districts in the demographically dynamic suburbs. Significant groups—African Americans, Latinos, and white voters in urban and suburban areas with relatively cosmopolitan views—have little interest in the orthodoxy Collins describes. Much to the Democratic party’s frustration, the Texans who take the trouble to vote are much more conservative than the overall population of eligible voters. But just because the opposition keeps losing doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The current battle over redistricting is an indication of how terrifying the Republican leadership finds these shifts.
Missing these important crosscurrents, Collins draws a one-dimensional portrait of the state. This suits her agenda just fine but exposes her as a smart writer looking at Texas from too great a distance to convey much more than the obvious. When it comes to taking potshots at Texas, Collins is almost as quick on the draw as the governor she relies on for easy laughs. Unlike Rick Perry, though, she only wounds her prey.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
What Dies in Summer, Tom Wright (Norton, $25.95). Texarkana debut novelist’s Oak Cliff–set Southern gothic.
The Billy Bob Tapes, Billy Bob Thornton and Kinky Friedman (William Morrow, $26.99). The onetime Houston resident tells the story of his career.
Playing Dead, Julia Heaberlin (Bantam, $15). Texas-set family mystery from a first-time author and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram staffer.