In the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection, two ideas have been floating around in Texas conservative circles. The first is secession, as represented in a popular petition posted at whitehouse.gov. The second is the notion that Texas might serve as the vanguard of a national conservative movement against Washington.
Actually, I would call these notions more impulses than ideas. They both stem from a common cause: unhappiness with the federal government, which always affects a certain percentage of Americans, whether an Obama or a Bush is in office. Often this is irrational; the rule of neither conservatives nor liberals presages the end of America. But then, in my opinion, we do not belong to a rational species. (I came to this conclusion after participating in my second war and voting in my first election, and it is refreshed daily in my email in-box.)
Secession became a topic of media interest when Governor Rick Perry alluded to it during a speech at a 2009 tea party rally. Of course, we’ve been there and done that, having joined the ill-fated Confederacy in 1861. Most Americans believe that secession by a state is either illegal or impossible. But though the Supreme Court in Texas v. White (1869) ruled secession unconstitutional, the decision was more or less moot; secession is, in effect, rebellion against a government and its constitution. The problem for would-be secessionists these days is that no civil issue is hot enough to die for, and economic integration makes splitting off into the sunset unsalable to our business classes. In 1861 the Southern ruling class lived, richly, by the export of cotton and tobacco; it did not need the North and was not really integrated with the rest of the country through finance or industry.
This is hardly true today. There is no way a bill of secession would pass the Texas Legislature or come close to passing by referendum. A feeling for Texas independence, however, has never completely died. But as practical policy, secession is about as meaningful as the fact that generations of English schoolboys have favored Harold the Saxon over William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
More substantive is the notion that Texas could lead a national conservative coalition to upend liberal actions in Washington. But when you get into the practicalities of organization and goals, it’s no simple deal.
The Republican dominance of Texas is based on an alliance between social conservatives and small-government conservatives. Such alliances are neither inevitable nor permanent (which is why political victors should never be proud), because situations change and all parties, administrations, and governments eventually screw up. And right now, these two groups do not like each other very much, as reflected in the continual grousing over the Texas House’s speakership. It is questionable that a Texas Legislature that snuffs and snorts about a civilized Speaker such as Joe Straus could provide any sort of leadership of a multistate coalition. And anyway, even though the leaders of one state may steal ideas from the leaders of another, they are unlikely to accept direction from a constitutional equal.
If Texas conservatives are looking to influence the national debate, they might better do so by example than by rebelling or forging alliances. Our belief in limited government is already a source of inspiration for conservatives across the country. We have no state corporate income tax, no state personal income tax, and no overweening state bureaucracy, a.k.a. organized public services employees. In Wisconsin or Colorado a business may be checked regularly for tax delinquency or various minor infractions; in Texas such a business may have never seen an inspector. And historically, we have not allowed ideology to rule. Most politicians seek personal power, which, constrained constitutionally, does much less damage than rigid notions of right and wrong.
Today, however, this sort of attitude is in abeyance in the Legislature. So we must look elsewhere for innovations and solutions. Thankfully, Texas, unlike virtually any other state, is basically ruled by two hundred or so boards and commissions. And though the commissioners are appointed by the governor or the lieutenant governor (or in a few cases, elected), they often act independently of his office.
Texas commissions range from the truly important to the annoyingly necessary. Citizens vie to serve on the prestigious Transportation or Parks and Wildlife commissions; they almost had to be dragooned to serve on the now-defunct MHMR (Mental Health Mental Retardation Board). When I chaired the Texas Historical Commission, Governor Bill Clements wanted to consolidate it with the Commerce Commission. My fellow commissioners, both Republicans and Democrats, thought this was mixing apples with grapefruit, and I set about killing the bill—with as little embarrassment to the governor as possible. Doing so took having a local newspaper publisher pressure a key state legislator as well as getting others to delay votes until time ran out—the usual stuff in Austin. Likewise, when Governor Perry tried to abolish the Historical Commission in 2011, all of his appointments refused, and the idea died.
Many commission battles are tempests in a teapot, but the more serious ones remind us that the states created the United States, not the other way around. Until the early twentieth century, nearly all important reform was initiated by the states. They, not Washington, were, in Louis Brandeis’s phrase, the laboratories of American democracy. Successful experiments such as child labor laws and women’s suffrage, for example, were first tried out in individual states. If they worked, they eventually became national law. This is the way the founders envisioned our system, but the refusal of some states to get on popular bandwagons led reformers to focus their work at the federal level—a problematic practice that keeps notions like secession half alive.
Yet in Texas, reformers and functionaries continue to work, with little glory, on the commission level, improving our own lot and occasionally inspiring policy makers in other states—or even the federal government. When I served on the Historical Commission, ourexperiments in improving bureaucracy were adopted by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Other states, so minded, might see the wisdom of adopting our tradition of government-by-commission. At the very least, it saves money, as most commissioners are not paid , and many receive no more than modest per diem expenses. They also have the benefit of working cheek by jowl with staff, who know the workings of government down to the tiniest detail. And they are much more resistant to public-payroll pressures than politicians. Texans may regard themselves as constitutionally allergic to government, but we have, in our ambivalence, created an enviable method of governance. If other states want to emulate us—and compared with some, like California and New York, we are vastly more fiscally responsible—they need no formal invitation.