Michael Lind, the author of The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite (Portfolio/Penguin Random House), has a theory about what’s ailing democracy in the United States and Western Europe. Over the past half century, he asserts, institutions like churches, unions, and civic organizations, which helped mediate between what he calls the professional managerial overclass and the working class, have eroded, leaving everyone polarized, angry, and worse off. He has a theory about what will fix it all too: rebuilding those institutions, as part of a system he calls democratic pluralism.

A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and Plan II program, Lind has had a wide-ranging career. He has been a staffer at Harper’s, the New Republic, and the New Yorker; cofounded a think tank; taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins; and written sixteen books, including a 350-page epic poem about the Alamo. Today, he is a professor at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Texas Monthly: How did Texas shape your politics? 

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Michael Lind: I’m a fifth generation native of the Austin area. I spent my first four or five years in south Austin. Charles Whitman was a neighbor, and after he shot everybody from the UT tower, we moved to northwest Austin, right when it was opening up. Ours was one of the first two or three homes on the block.

Back in the sixties the big political divide in Texas was between the Roosevelt and Johnson people, on the one hand, and the Dixiecrats, on the other. I come out of the LBJ/ FDR tradition, so in different decades—I’m almost 58—I’ve been a liberal, a neoconservative, and a centrist, but my views haven’t changed that much. It’s the whole political system that keeps shifting every ten to fifteen years.

In the nineties and 2000s, there was a factional struggle among the Republicans, and the winners were mostly former Democrats, but they were Southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats. To this day, I think that explains [George W. Bush’s politics]. It’s a combination of free trade, cheap labor, and anti-union policies, and a high degree of militarism because that was the historic Southern combination. So I found that quite uncongenial, coming as I do from the New Deal or the modernist tradition in Texas politics.

TM: Did you ever consider yourself a leftist?

ML: No. I think there are some people who are temperamentally radical. And I’m not. What I think about is how to hold a city, a state, a country together. Everyone has to live with everybody else the day after the election, so you want to have consensus-building institutions as much as possible.

There are some issues you can’t compromise on, one side will win, and one side will lose and has to adapt. But politics is about building coalitions. It’s not about self-expression, it’s not about crushing and humiliating the other side. That’s always made me somewhat unpopular among the purists of various factions.

TM: At the beginning of the book you say that the populist surge of the last few years is “a revolution, not a revolt.” I think everyone has wondered over the last couple of years whether 2016 was a revolution or a revolt. Trump won relatively slim margins in Midwestern states. He won a smaller share of the national popular vote than Romney did, and he won Wisconsin in 2016 with fewer votes than Romney lost with in 2012. And the Republican party performed horribly in the 2018 midterms. What happened in 2016, when Brexit passed in England and Trump was elected? Was the last presidential election the start of a new political realignment, or a fluke?

ML: My thesis is not that the populists are going to win all the elections. In fact, they will usually lose. And in the event that these outsider demagogues win, they will be neutralized because most of the establishment is against them.

My argument is that we’re now in a new world on both sides of the Atlantic. The late-twentieth-century political order is gone. It’s collapsed. We’re in this new system where the mainstream parties are just labels and power kind of circulates among factions of this technocratic insider neoliberal establishment. Politics becomes this kind of spectator sport of musical chairs among people who all went to the same Ivy League schools and all know one another and vacation together in the Hamptons and so on, and they really don’t disagree on that much. And then you get a large portion of the population that feels alienated and doesn’t vote much of the time. And when they do, it’s to cast a protest vote. It’s an anti-system vote. And that’s a political system ripe for demagogues.

TM: You talk in the book about the need to find a new “settlement,” or compromise, that Americans of various factions can buy into, rather than about how to “win” a more just system. Why is that an important way to think about political change? 

ML: My background is as a lay historian and one way of organizing history, in both European countries and the United States, is to see it as settlements that follow revolutionary turmoil. So you get this period of turmoil where the old regime breaks down and then the whole system just doesn’t function anymore. And often you get a very violent rupture. It could be associated with foreign wars, with domestic revolutions, coups d’état. And then you have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, piece together a country.

I think this is a very useful way of organizing things. In my first book, The Next American Nation, I used a three republic schema. That is, we are now either in the beginning of the fourth republic, or in the last stages of the third republic. The first was from the American Revolution up to the Civil War. It all went to hell. Then from Reconstruction up until the Great Depression you have the second republic. The French are quite explicit about it. France is now on the fifth republic, and there’s a joke about an American who goes to a French bookseller and asks to see a copy of the constitution, and the bookseller says very haughtily, “We do not sell periodical literature.” 

So my argument has always been that even though, in practice, technically we’re still under this 1787 constitution, the present country really was created in the New Deal and the civil rights era. And there are signs that is falling apart now and there will be a new America. On paper, we’re still part of the same regime that was established by the nation’s founders. But, in fact, the change that’s coming will be the third or fourth society that’s risen from the ashes, like the phoenix, from periodically breaking down. When the end comes, there has to be a new system, and it has to incorporate the side that was defeated as well as the winners. 

Having said that, I’m not a big fan of bipartisanship, which is simply splitting the middle between positions. Because if the left-wing position and the right-wing position don’t make any sense, then having something that’s equidistant between them doesn’t make any sense either.

TM: What do you expect to see in the U.S. without such a settlement? 

ML: My analysis is very pessimistic, since institutions that integrated the working class into the wider social structure—trade unions, local party machines, churches—have disintegrated to varying degrees. 

The question is: How do we avoid being banana republics, where there’s a small group of leading families in a couple of cities and essentially they run everything? And then periodically you get, usually, an insincere charlatan running as the outside populist. And after that, you basically revert to the norm of oligarchic politics.

That was Texas once. Between Reconstruction and the civil rights revolution, you had a few families in Dallas and Houston and a few other cities who kind of ran the state. And then periodically you would get a Ma or Pa Ferguson and the populist on the left or pass-the-biscuits Pappy O’Daniel, who was essentially a front for oil companies. It’s a terrible doom loop to be trapped in. 

The really disturbing thing to me as a thirty-year veteran of Washington is the rise of this kind of caesarist elective dictatorship approach. That seems to be everyone left, right, and center. You have Democratic candidates in the primary saying, “My first day in office I will do X. I will do Y by executive order.” 

That’s kind of Latin American politics, where you have a legislature but it’s not that important. And you have a president who represents the establishment, or maybe he’s anti-establishment. But the people that really run the country are the cabinet and these people who nobody knows their name. And a lot of it is done by executive order.

So one of the arguments in the book is, how do we escape this doom loop between the oligarchs and the populists? And I think it’s not simply a matter of free elections. I think you have to rebuild these power sharing institutions in the economy and the culture as well as some kind of local political organizations. 

TM: What would you say caused the falling apart of the old cross-ideological, cross-class party coalitions that you think were once so valuable?

ML: What I write about in The New Class War is the shift in the base of political power from working-class people—the union members and the members of farm lobbies and so on in the middle of the twentieth century—to the college educated upper-middle class. 

The late, great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in the sixties about what he called the amateur Democrats. They were educated professional-class Democrats attracted to politics by idealism, by the civil rights movement of the sixties, by the antiwar movement, by environmentalism, various causes. And they had nothing personally to gain—they just sincerely believed in these causes. 

They collided with the older transactional politicians who were based in the unions and in the once very powerful farm lobbies. They wanted farm subsidies, right? They wanted collective bargaining. And because it was transactional, you could cut deals. Whereas for the amateur Democrats, segregation was the big issue, right? I mean, you can’t be half-segregated. You have to dismantle white supremacy.

Increasingly, politics is dominated by upper middle-class people, what I call the overclass in The New Class War, and I belong to it. But for us it’s about clashing ideals. One side is right and one side is wrong. And so the issues tend to be issues on which there’s no compromise, whether it’s abortion, gay rights, environmentalism, prayer in schools, where one side is going to win, one’s going to lose. So you don’t get brokerage politics and you don’t get horse trading.

TM: One explanation that people offer for the fact that the cross-party, cross-ideological party coalitions went away is that for a century the South hated Abraham Lincoln. They wouldn’t vote for Republicans. And that system fell apart in the sixties.

ML: Well, that’s true. When I was a kid in Austin, I asked this old reactionary Democrat, “Well, why did you vote for the Democrats?” And he said, “We vote the way we shot.” This was the seventies, 110 years after the Civil War. Up until around 2000, the regional divide between the former Union states and the Confederate states was the most important thing in the U.S.

But if you look at the political balance of the country now by county, you have essentially the big cities and college towns, and then everything in between is the other party. And that’s new. If you go back to Texas, let’s say in the forties and fifties, the countryside’s Democratic, the cities were Democratic. There were a few little pockets of Republicans here and there in Midland–Odessa, like Yankees who moved down for the oil business, like the Bushes. And in New England, cities voted like the rural counties did. So this is a very new system that we’re seeing now, and in the U.K. and France and Germany, you see very similar maps.

TM: So you wouldn’t say that the current party system is a result of fights over desegregation and civil rights politics?

ML: Well, I think that was true in the sixties, but it’s a mistake to interpret what’s going on now, in what will soon be the third decade of the twenty-first century, as though this is all fighting Bull Connor in the sixties and so on. There was a post-civil rights system from the sixties all the way up until the nineties, where that’s basically what was going on—the Southern Democrats converting the Republicans with low-level race baiting.

But this is a new pattern. This is no longer simply the post-civil rights thing. I think it’s unprecedented in many ways. And one reason I wrote The New Class War was to try to figure out what’s going on.

TM: There’s a point in this book in which you say racism is on the decline, which in many respects it is. That’s reflected in a lot of polling about people’s attitudes and personal beliefs. But just the other day in Wisconsin, a judge moved to strip 234,000 disproportionately nonwhite voters off the rolls, part of a national trend of attempted voter purges. In gerrymandering cases around the United States they’ve used racial demographic information to draw districts to disenfranchise Democrats and admitted to it in court.

ML: That’s all quite correct, and I would go further and say that some of these populist parties on the Right, the kernel of them is racist. The Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany got captured by these very disturbing neo-Nazi types. But suppose their share of the vote is 5 to 10 percent, right? Which is probably the hard core of residual racism in your Western countries. And then they get 40 percent of the vote. And most of those voters were voting for a German Social Democrats or Italian communists or American Democrats a decade or two ago.

So one explanation is, well, they’re racist, just like that 5 or 10 percent, which I find implausible. The other is that those parties have appealed to these disaffected former center-left voters, many of them in industrial regions, like the U.S. Midwest, northern Britain, which had been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing and technological change. Those people used to be the core constituents of the center-left, while the new center-left is based among college graduates who tend to be more affluent professionals in a few big cities like Paris, London, Rome, Austin, New York, San Francisco.

The older conservative parties did not represent these folks. They would get their votes, but then they would do nothing for them. Take the Bush Republicans. They would make appeals on the basis of religion. Sometimes crypto-racism. But if you look at the polls, most blue-collar Republican voters going back to Nixon want more spending on Social Security. They want more Medicare, right? They are not economically conservative. The British Tories, the Bush Republicans would never deliver on that.

So it created an opportunity for demagogues, like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini in Italy, various others, to address this group, which had not been represented. But I think it’s a mistake to say, “Well, these are just Klansmen. These are just neo-Nazis.”

TM: You write that “neoliberalism is the disease, populism is a symptom, and democratic pluralism is the cure.” What’s democratic pluralism?

ML: Democratic pluralism is the idea that a nation-state is a community of communities, not just a mass of individuals held together by nothing but a common government. You have to have checks and balances. They can’t just be formal political checks and balances because the same party can capture all three branches—both houses of Congress, the White House, the judiciary, and then just run roughshod over everybody.

It’s not enough to have free elections. It’s not enough to have the rule of law and the Supreme Court. If your society’s atomized, you don’t have powerful organizations with their own leaders, their own rules, their own memberships that can mobilize and protect their prerogative. Once you’ve delegitimized all institutions, you end up with a government that is basically in charge of all of society. There are no independent authorities left. 

This can take left-wing and right-wing forms. The form I deal with mostly in the book is organized labor, which was opposed by both Marxist-Leninists and right-wing libertarians. Unions stick in the craw of centralizing elites of all kinds because they have veto power in the form of a strike and their own mass mobilizations. All kinds of regimes, left, right, and center, have had problems with that. Historically, centralizing regimes don’t like independent religious groups either. Those also have their own grassroots membership that they can mobilize to defend their prerogatives. 

I think those kinds of groups have broken down to the extent that the managerial overclass, to which I belong, is vastly more powerful than it used to be. If you go back to 1960, the elite had to deal with union leaders like Walter Reuther and George Meany. Religious leaders like the Reverend Billy Graham and Bishop Fulton Sheen were a force, and they’re gone now. 

I think these eruptions of outsider populism we’re seeing are a reaction by folks who decades ago would have been able to channel their discontent through unions, church lobbies, chambers of commerce, and voluntary organizations. We lack that mechanism now. The theme of my book is that you need countervailing power, where people can pool the only resource that most working-class people have, which is their numbers, to try to push back.

TM: You say there are three fields where the overclass and underclass are contesting power: the economy, politics, and the culture. If unions are how to make the economic system more democratic, what is to be done about the political system?

ML: I think what’s actually most needed is a change in urban politics—an emphasis on putting power into the hands of what Thomas Jefferson called “wards.” A ward is basically a neighborhood. I think you return power to communities as much as possible and let people make all kinds of decisions. I think if you did that, then people would participate in politics who otherwise would not. Once you get past a certain urban size, the big realtors, real estate developers, big business, a few millionaire families take over. Everyone else becomes passive spectators in their own hometown, not to mention their state and their country. 

In terms of the actual political parties, I think we ought to adopt ranked choice voting. It’s friendlier to third and fourth parties because they don’t threaten to become spoilers. The other thing is it makes politics much more civil, because if you’re standing on a stage with six or seven people, you have to say to the audience, “Please mark me as number one. But if you prefer my colleague here, then think of me as number two or number three.” Another thing you could do is adopt multi-member house districts. Of course that’s a very long term process.

If you have a winner-take-all system where one tribe, which may have only a slight majority, ends up having all the power, the other tribe thinks, “We’re never ever, ever going to elect anybody.” Then you get secessionist movements or you get rebellions. My theme has always been conciliation. You want to work out systems in which you have lots of small negotiations going on instead of this election that everyone fears could be the end of everything.

TM: What does your proposed “settlement” to the culture war look like?

ML: The U.S. is soon going to be as secular as Western Europe already is. You will have religious minorities who are regularly attending religious services. They will be a substantial portion of the population, even if they’re a minority. 

In 2100, there will be deep divisions among conservative Catholics and secular liberals and evangelical Protestants and orthodox Muslims, who will be a substantial part of the population. You don’t want to have the anticlerical French system, where you essentially just try to eradicate all public expression of religion. Historically we’ve not done that. We allow Jewish soldiers to wear yarmulkes in the army, and Muslim women to wear hijabs. I think that’s a much better system. At the same time, you can’t give religious groups, which are minorities, a veto on the rights of individuals in public commerce and public accommodations and things like that.

I think that’s going to be the real tension. We think it’s all about race now, but I think over time that’s going to fade somewhat and religion will be the enduring cleavage. It was historically in the U.S. because the Protestant/Catholic cleavage is almost as deep in American society as the black/white cleavage going all the way back to the colonial period, nineteenth century, twentieth century. I think there’s a danger of this new secular/religious divide, and we have to work out some kind of modus vivendi where the two sides can agree to disagree and live together.

TM: In the book you write that “rulemaking institutions” should be created to empower “representatives of religious and secular creeds and bodies charged with oversight of education and the media.” What do you mean by that?

ML: I think that there needs to be a Fairness Doctrine overseen by some kind of commission. The people who run the media and the people that come up with school curricula should know that people are looking over their shoulder. For example, in the universities, you can’t have all liberal Democrats on your faculty, right? Or even if they’re all liberal Democrats on your faculty, there has to be some representation of other views—left-wing, conservative, libertarian.

Within the media, the groups that are picked on historically have been the ones that don’t have much political power. I’ll give you an example. The sources of ethnic humor historically in the U.S. were, say, anti-black jokes, Irishman jokes, and hillbilly jokes, right? Because of the civil rights revolution, thank God, you get rid of the Amos and Andy stuff in the popular culture. Irish-Americans politically became powerful enough that they could stop the media from doing this. But to this day, trailer-trash redneck jokes are socially acceptable on TV and in Hollywood and so on. The groups that people are laughing at are the ones who need some help.

TM: What do you think that looks like in practice? 

ML: It looks like the Federal Communications Commission, or something like that. Up until World War II, the Catholic kids and the Jewish kids had to sing Protestant hymns and recite Protestant prayers in the public schools. Then they pushed back. By the time I was going through public school graduation, there would be the minister, the rabbi, and the priest in the high school auditorium, right? Now you would have maybe the mullah, too. It can be the Wiccan druid. I don’t care.

It’s about accommodating group practice, and also preventing the powerless groups from just being the butts of jokes and being humiliated publicly all the time by the powerful producers and journalists and media people who live in a couple of cities in every Western country. 

I was a great critic of the religious right in the nineties. But it was never my premise that secular liberals should then come around and persecute traditionalist Catholics, conservative evangelical Protestants, orthodox and Hasidic Jews. No, no, they’re citizens too, and they have rights as communities, not just rights as individuals, right? You have to work out this kind of peaceful coexistence.

CH: Are you talking about a system in which the FCC could prevent or sanction a TV network that decides to make a Last Temptation of Christ miniseries?

ML: If you want to write a blasphemous book or write a blasphemous movie, go ahead. People can protest it. On the other hand, if it’s The Simpsons, and it’s just one stereotype after another—the toothless hillbillies, the Indian 7-Eleven store owner, and so on—I think having a public forum, where Matt Groening and the producers of the Simpsons, they’re not going to suffer any particular consequences, but their show can be exposed and debated, I think that would be healthy for the culture.

If you really take power seriously, then you cannot believe that a janitor has equal bargaining rights economically with a giant corporation. But, also, the janitor does not have significant power if the janitor’s ethnic group or class is being ridiculed by the TV networks, by Hollywood, by biased academics.

TM: Unions and ward politics fell out of favor partly in the early part of the twentieth century because they were vectors for corruption and patronage. Patronage, I might agree with you, probably gets a bad rap. Earmarking and all of that turns out to have been an important part of how our politics works. Are you saying that maybe we need a little bit more corruption?

ML: Patronage, sure. It turns out that getting rid of earmarks totally backfired when it comes to infrastructure. You had John McCain and these good government reformers, and they say, “This is corrupt. They’re building bridges to nowhere.” They got rid of the earmarks. But instead of replacing it with a rational technocratic project, we got no big infrastructure bills, nothing, just paralysis, and, periodically, emergency bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund.

Economists hate democracy because it’s inefficient. I quote some of them in the book about the rise of technocracy. It’s like, “Why don’t we just transfer all of these decisions from legislatures because they’re doing things for the voters back home? It makes no sense, and it’s messy, and it’s redundant. We’ll have this commission of experts who are totally insulated from public opinion. They’ll just come up with the best system.”

I don’t believe there are any altruistic people. I spent my life in government, in the fringes in Austin, and Washington, and New York. You’re going to have self-dealing, nepotistic, quasi-corrupt, cronyist politics. The question is, is it going to be on a massive scale among a few super-elite individuals and families at the national level, or are you going to have lots of little local crony politicians?

When it comes to the stability of society, I think the older system clearly was superior because the patronage linked elected officials with their districts. They could do something for them. They talked to them, they had an incentive. All they want from their districts now is a vote every two years, or four years, or six years. But today, how do politicians get that vote? Do they go there by talking to the people? They hire pollsters. They hire firms that say, “If you get this group in this neighborhood and narrowcast your ads, then you get the 51 percent in the primary or the general.” They’re talking to donors and pollsters.

But the public is persuadable. With this whole polling system, it’s simply assumed that people have these fixed preferences. Whereas, in fact, if the county extension agent went and talked to the rural farmers, he could change their minds. But today there’s nobody to talk to them.

TM: In this book you’re thinking and writing about the course of the twenty-first century. I was interested that there’s really no discussion of climate change. When writing about national and international politics, about immigration politics, the prospect of future refugee flows, why is climate change not something you’re thinking about?

ML: I’m thinking about it. My book is a 40,000-word essay. It’s not a medieval Chinese examination where you have to tell everything you know in one sitting.

TM: It seems like it’s fairly important to this subject, though.

ML: Yes and no. My own view of climate change is, yeah, it’s real. Human beings contribute to it. There is natural climate change. It would be going up or down. It’s not stable. We’re at the end of an interglacial period, so it would either be getting warmer or colder, one way or the other. But, yeah, if you pump greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you’re going to heat it up. I reject the apocalyptic aspects of it. And I think it will be politically marginal.

If you look at some of the Green New Deal stuff, I’m sympathetic to particular elements of the programs, but that has no traction politically outside of the left wing of central-left parties. None. Zero. I don’t see it gaining traction, and it’s not going to gain traction by telling people that civilization’s going to collapse and their grandchildren are going to die, because they can go to the internet and find out that that’s not going to happen.

I really blame the left on this. They say, “Not only do you have to deal with the sources of climate change,” the technical aspects of it, but, “you have to get rid of capitalism. You have to revolutionize your diet, your transport, everything else.”

I see that having absolutely no political future, telling people that you can’t change anything unless you revolutionize every single aspect of society, from travel to diet to politics, and so on. It’s dead on arrival. It’s not politics. Do you understand what I’m saying? Politics is achieving an achievable goal by building up a broad enough coalition that will support it and then sustain it. Politics is not saying, “Convert. The end is near.”

TM: But if you’re writing a book about great power conflict in the twenty-first century, and disruption at home, political instability, and how countries are going to respond to coming shocks …

ML: My background is in foreign policy. There are two definitions of a global problem. One is a problem that affects everyone on the globe simultaneously. For example, the ozone layer was a global problem. You had UV rays basically all over the earth.

Another definition of the global problem is any problem which happens anywhere on the globe. Those are not actually global problems, they’re local problems, and people who want to draw attention to that local problem will use that second definition of a global problem.

Again, I’m not trying to be callous, but if the rivers rise in Bangladesh by fifteen feet over a century, is that a global problem? It will displace people who live along the riverbank. Most of them are not going to be displaced to Europe, and the U.S., or Japan, or whatever, they will be displaced a few miles inland. All right? They’re not going to get on planes. They’re not going to travel on foot to the industrial countries. The attempt to link immigration with climate change I’m just skeptical about.

TM: Well, instead of Bangladesh, we can talk about Guatemala.

ML: Okay. Guatemala. Let’s take Guatemala. The poorest people in Guatemala do not come to the Texas border or the Southwestern border. It takes a certain amount of resources in order to pay the coyotes.

TM: Like farmers who are leaving because their farms are no longer productive, because there’s a drought of the kind that Guatemala has not experienced previously.

ML: Right. The problem with assessing the agricultural effects of climate change … do we believe, in 2100, that any country is going to have a majority of farmers using Neolithic techniques? I hope not. A lot of the analysis about the impact of climate change on low-income populations assumes static technology. It assumes that the children and grandchildren of peasant farmers in Africa will be peasant farmers and stressed by water. I’m thinking, “Maybe they’ll be peasant farmers. Maybe they’ll be in Johannesburg living in apartments with VR headsets.” You see what I’m saying?

It’s a chronic condition that industrial civilization is going to live with. I think there are things you should do about climate change, but the question is, is it politics or is it theater? If it’s politics, it means you have to get people who disagree on all kinds of things to find something they can agree on.

TM: When I hear skeptics talk about climate change, there’s often a distrust of the people who are bringing this issue forward—environmentalists, leftists, hippies. There’s also a sense in which I think it doesn’t fit into a lot of people’s framework for how the world works or ought to work. There’s kind of a tendency to want to ignore it. It’s not that they don’t believe in it or disagree with doing something in some way, but it doesn’t quite fit into people’s framework.

ML: Well, it doesn’t fit into my book because my book is a criticism of technocratic neoliberalism. Nevertheless, the subject of the book is how do you reintegrate working class people into the system. With climate change, you basically have to fix electricity generation, automobile fuels, transportation, and planes. If you fix that, you don’t have to revolutionize everything else. You’ve mitigated the thing that causes the problem, and you still have to adapt to the consequences. But the policy questions posed by climate change are boring. I mean it’s not interesting. It’s not.

TM: What do you think Texas should be doing now? 

ML: The theme of my book Made in Texas was that you have to understand Texas as a Latin American country where there’s no left. It’s like Argentina and the Peronistas. You get instead the New Dealers who are modernizers, but who aren’t necessarily socially liberal. Somebody like Ross Perot comes out of what the Marxists called the nationalist bourgeoisie. If you know your Marxist theory, these are the ones who basically want to kick out foreign ownership, build up industry, modernize, and they often they have roots in the military, an agrarian society’s most meritocratic institution. And then the Bushes, they’re the comprador-bourgeoisie. They’re basically the local elite representatives of the New York investors and the London investors. 

But I’m not convinced Texas exists. I’m not convinced it ever existed. Texas has always been several states, which were tyrannized by the Anglos in East Texas. You had the largely Mexican Texan Valley, you had the Germans in the Hill Country, and so on. But now you’ve just got the hubs and the heartlands—the divide is between the downtown business districts and the inner suburbs, where the affluent people live, and the high-school-educated working class in the outer suburbs and the non­metropolitan counties. It’s a national pattern. Do people in Austin have more in common with people in Los Angeles and San Francisco than they do with people in Pflugerville and Waco? I think that’s an open question. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “How to Put America Back Together.” Subscribe today.