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Bipolar Order

Contrary to what John Steinbeck wrote many years ago, Texas isn’t “a state of mind”—it’s two states of mind. And right now they’re fighting it out for dear life.

By December 2013Comments

Illustration by Bryan Christie Design

Whether you thought Ted Cruz was the goat or the Pyrrhic hero of this fall’s campaign to stop Obamacare, the national media unambiguously declared that his was the face of the failed GOP strategy. It’s a role that Cruz artfully played and has perhaps just as artfully refused to repent—it’s already put him at the top of the pack of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

But as all eyes were on Cruz, officials in Dallas County, the beating heart of the nation’s fourth-largest metro area, were leading a spirited grassroots campaign to promote the president’s health insurance plan in local churches, schools, and community organizations. These were the same Democratic officials who strengthened their hold on county government during the national party’s greatest bloodbath in seventy years, the 2010 midterm elections—and of course we didn’t hear much about that either.

That’s because the national media (and to a large extent the Texas media) still see our state as a peculiar ideological singularity, an idea characterized with martini-dry wit in John Steinbeck’s 1962 book Travels With Charley, which asserted that “Texas is a state of mind”—an image of ourselves that Steinbeck found not entirely fact-based but remarkably passionate and cohesive. And if you watch the news or read anything at all, you’re told that it’s an increasingly inflexible, conservative state of mind. Yet as often as it has been repeated, Steinbeck’s catchy observation wasn’t terribly apt half a century ago, and it is less so now. Texas is a bipolar state of mind, and Cruz hardly represents the thinking of the people who run our biggest cities and counties, or of the majorities who vote for them. In fact, if you further stipulate that we’ve always been bipolar, you’ll pretty much characterize our state—and its bafflingly conflicted states of mind—as far back as the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

The Spanish very quickly determined that the area that is today Texas was best suited as an undeveloped buffer region that would protect their far more lucrative investments in what is today Mexico from invaders. In establishing their spare frontier outposts, though, the Spanish also sent forth their formidable cultural apparatus, establishing Catholicism, building Baroque missions that still stand, and introducing conventions of architecture, animal husbandry, and town planning that remain woven into the fabric of Texas life. That conflict, frontier versus settlement, was the first major fissure in the Texas state of mind, setting in motion a sequence of dichotomies that have come to define Texas to the present day.

By introducing culture instead of people into Texas, the Spanish, followed by the Mexicans, set the stage for the next phase of our bipolarity, which began around 1833, when Stephen F. Austin determined that the American immigrants flooding into Texas should be allowed to own slaves. The result was a booming cotton economy—and a profound moral contradiction, freedom versus slavery, embedded in our simultaneous embrace of political idealism and the brutal deprivation of black Texans’ basic rights. 

The rise of the cattle economy after the Civil War brought about the next bifurcation, Southern versus Western, as cotton remained king of our economy while cattle dominated our self-image. By 1930, however, when oil trumped both as the source of unprecedented Texas wealth (until then we had been a miserably poor state), our inner conflict was represented by two oil-patch types: wildcatters versus technocrats. The wildcatters gave Texas a powerful myth of self-reliance, even as the oil and refining industry was being built on government regulation, World War II spending, and the innovations of imported oil-industry technocrats, such as Everette DeGolyer and Erik Jonsson, in Dallas, and the Menils, in Houston, who were also instrumental in transforming Texas into a sophisticated urban culture.

This conflict anticipated our present ideological fracture, the origins of which can be dated to the late seventies. That’s when Texas began to experience a transformative, second-stage oil boom as oil prices spiked. Money and immigrants flooded into Texas cities even after the mid-eighties oil bust, as our burgeoning metropolitan areas and cheap labor allowed our economy to rapidly diversify. By the mid-nineties Texas had become one of America’s most urbanized states. And that resulted in our most contrary state of mind, split between our metropolitan culture and the political culture that has emerged alongside it. 

Texas’s biggest metro areas, the source of most of our growth and wealth, are now all-in on twenty-first-century urbanism: downtown revitalization centered on high-rise housing and architecturally ambitious culture zones like the Dallas Arts District; the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods; the largely unplanned but efficient recycling of aging inner-ring suburbs and strip malls by immigrant communities; and light rail mass transit, with trendy retail nodes sprouting around the stations. We have a multicultural economy that has relied on the low-wage working poor, many of them immigrants, to fuel prosperity at all levels, including among the metro-area middle and upper classes. And most of the working poor require health services that could be provided by Obamacare at far lower cost to local taxpayers than the current delivery of basic health care in emergency rooms—a system that Rick Perry once deplored as wasteful and neglectful but that both he and Cruz now prefer to Obama’s remedy. Meanwhile, the shoo-in GOP nominee for next year’s gubernatorial election, Greg Abbott, who as attorney general made suing the federal government his job description, has already begun to frame his candidacy as yet another opportunity to stop Obamacare.   

So at the same time that Texas metro areas have been planning for the future, our political culture has become increasingly focused on obstructing government, ostensibly to preserve a rarified libertarian economy that exists more in the minds of our politicians than as an actual engine of our state’s growth. That bifurcated mind-set allows Perry to claim our booming metro economies—their growth financed by heavy bond debt and enabled by ever more complex regional planning—as proof that his parsimonious, antigovernment approach works. 

But Cruz now stands directly in the path of Perry’s presidential ambitions, and unlike the Paint Creek–reared Perry, he hails from our metro culture’s eclectic polyglot; Houston-reared, Ivy League–educated, and a social-media ninja, he’s the son of a Cuban immigrant and the husband of a managing director at the Houston branch of Goldman Sachs. Still it’s Cruz, not Perry, who has successfully put his face on the tea party’s take-back-our-country obstructionism. 

Cruz, however, will have his own obstacles to overcome on his way to the Oval Office. Although last year he came from nowhere to defeat the heavily favored David Dewhurst, in order to win the presidency he would first have to defeat the national GOP establishment—which doesn’t like him—and then sell an increasingly unpopular tea party agenda to a much more skeptical electorate than he faces in Texas, where our nation-trailing voter participation skews white and conservative. Given those odds, the high-flying Cruz could well find himself in a struggle to save his Senate seat in 2018. That’s when his reelection is likely to be opposed by San Antonio Democratic congressman Joaquín Castro or his twin brother, San Antonio mayor Julián, who have become the urbane, charismatic embodiment of our metro culture. And the only thing we can safely predict is that Texas will be of two minds on that contest.

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