As the Republican Party, and the conservative movement that runs it, licks its wounds going into 2013, there has been much media speculation over the direction the party will take. Will it, as some maintain, steer a more centrist course? Or, as others fear, will it become even more reactionary and uncompromising going forward? To better understand where the GOP is going, one could do worse than spending a little time understanding the linchpin state of Texas – the conservative fortress which is the rock upon which Republicans’ national ambitions are based.
This is because Texas is the only “big” state that continues to reliably vote conservative – party doesn’t matter so much as ideology – no matter what. It is the Republicans’ California – a state so big and important that the GOP’s political possession of it gives the party national credibility. Without Texas, the GOP and the conservative movement would be little more than the rump party of rural states and interests. With Texas, it consistently governs one of the most important states – economically, culturally, demographically and politically – in the Union.
The story of Texas
Texas’ GOP delegation, for instance, amounts to nearly 10 percent of Republicans’ total seats in the U.S. House, while the state’s Electoral College votes amounted to nearly 20 percent of Mitt Romney’s total. Texas is also home to several major energy corporations – like Exxon-Mobil – that, along with Wall Street, bankroll the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement. The state also has a goodly number of religious conservatives and local ideological activists that work the Texas grassroots like cowboys riding herd. Moreover, unlike, say, the governor of Alaska, the governor of Texas is automatically assumed to be a potential presidential contender.
Texas is therefore a state where big money, big religion and big-state political power all meet. It is, however, the state’s particular history that marks out Texan conservatism as a particular brand of crazy. This is because Texas is an odd place – a sort of alternative-reality America where up is down, black is white and cats and dogs sleep together. It is a state founded by Americans who left the States only to later break away from Mexico largely because they disliked Mexicans, hated Catholics and wanted to keep slavery legal. Texans went their own way for a while as an independent nation – which native Texans are quick to point out – before eventually joining the Union in 1845, which shortly thereafter precipitated a war between the U.S. and Mexico.
Texas then left the Union along with the rest of the South when Lincoln was elected president, only to be brought back in, kicking and screaming, at the end of the war. It was where the last battle of the Civil War was fought – which Texan Confederates won – and where Juneteenth, the African American celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S., originated.
After the war, Texas descended into anarchy – though one might wonder how they could tell the difference – as returning veterans and organized bandits looted and plundered as they saw fit. Eventually, when order was restored, racism and paramilitary terrorism handed power over to “redeemer” Democrats who, like elsewhere in the South, imposed an apartheid system that benefited the wealthy and the politically connected by disenfranchising minorities and poor whites.
Texas was then run as a de facto one-party state for most of the 20th century by conservative oil and cattle barons who were joined by wealthy industrialists by mid century. The federal government did little except to reinforce the political status quo by investing in a massive amount of infrastructure and military spending – outlays which very much helped to create Texas’ post-industrial service and technology economy by the end of the century. Indeed, Texas’ conservative representatives in Congress are some of the biggest hypocrites in the U.S. legislature – making sure the Lone Star State consistently gets its cut of the federal pie.
Thus, Texas from the beginning was a state founded by malcontents with an independence streak a mile long who had big problems with outside authority. They do not like being governed by “outsiders,” and their political and cultural history is one of resistance to encroachments from “foreign” authority, whether that foreign power be based in Mexico City or Washington, D.C. A lingering symptom of this stubborn independent streak can be found today in the secession petition that received 80,000 signatures in the aftermath of President Obama’s re-election. It can also be found on the website of the Texas Nationalist Movement, an organization, somewhat tin-foiled, devoted to re-establishing Texas as an independent nation.
A history of security
Another aspect of Texan history that deeply influences its culture is the state’s endemic insecurity. From the beginning, Texas was a sparsely-settled frontier territory governed by force, violence and blood. Spain subdued the Indians. Mexico threw out the Spaniards, who were then thrown out by the Texans. Banditry and feuding by both individuals and organized groups – white, Indian or Mexican – was the norm. Like any frontier society, law in Texas was both far away and often something to be feared for it was inevitably corrupted by the powerful local interests – landowners and the wealthy – that influenced it.
Thus, when disputes occurred, matters were best settled at the local level between individuals, families and neighbors. Not only did this foster an additional layer of mistrust between rulers and the ruled in Texas – which reflected Texans’ own desires to govern themselves free of interference from “foreign” authority – but it also fostered an “honor” culture where a man had to be seen to stand up for his property, family and friends. Without the state, which was mistrusted anyway, disputes were settled by men who had to be seen as tough, willing to fight and, in the end, to kill in order to protect them and theirs – a situation common in many societies – such as the Afghan Pashtuns – where central authority is weak and corrupt.
An economic powerhouse
Finally, third, another aspect of Texas’ history that deeply influences its political culture is the way its economy developed over time. Texas was for a very long time, and remains to a great extent today, a primary-product economy. Its vast ranches raised cattle for sale and export – either abroad or to the industrializing metropolises up north – while its oilfields supplied petroleum to America’s factories and gasoline tanks. As a result of this development model, wealth in Texas gathered in very few hands – mostly landowners, corporate titans and the legal and administrative class associated with them – while labor was repressed, ostensibly via racial and ethnic discrimination, so as to make life easier for landowners and the owners of capital.
This, unsurprisingly, created a great amount of economic inequality in the state and facilitated the formation of an oligarchical ruling class not uncommon to many underdeveloped nations with economies similarly based on the production and export of commodities. The difference between, say, Texas and Guatemala, however, is that Texas was not a sovereign state economically colonized by outsiders. It was, instead, a frontier region of the greatest capitalist power on Earth and benefited accordingly. While Guatemala’s ruling oligarchy became increasingly dependent on cutting ever more vicious deals with external companies and foreign powers that reduced more and more of Guatemala’s people to abject poverty in order to remain in power, Texas’ oligarchy used its increasing influence in American politics to send federal resources into the state which, in turn, created the modern, urban Texas you see today.
This new, modern Texas built with federal resources is much like urban areas you see elsewhere in the United States. It is racially and ethnically diverse with an economy based on manufacturing, technology and services. Government spending is seen as both crucial and stabilizing, while education at all levels is viewed as an important ingredient for economic growth. Like the country’s other urban areas, Texas’ major cities increasingly vote Democrat as a result of the cultural and economic changes that urbanization and economic modernization bring. Having democratized and modernized as a result of federal intervention, Texas is now beginning the long, hard process of liberalizing its deeply held conservative culture.
‘Old’ Texas vs. ‘new’ Texas
However, what needs to be understood is that this “new” Texas is mostly a recent invention – dating from the 1960s – that is still heavily influenced by the culture of “old” Texas and the political interests that dominated it. The state is still ruled by an oligarchy of vested business and government interests that would make Tammany Hall blush, while racial tensions are as fraught and fragile here as anywhere in the post-Jim Crow South, if not more so. Conservatives, for the time being, retain their iron-like grip on state politics at every level as a result.
Times though, change. The future for Texas conservatives, like elsewhere in the country, does not look particularly bright. Demographically, the state has already transitioned from one dominated by whites to one where “minorities” are now the majority. Indeed, Texas remains Republican only because its huge Hispanic population tends not to show up at the polls. As Texas’ cities continue their inexorable, sprawling growth, however, they will continue to draw in residents, gain wealth and emerge as even more powerful centers of economic and political power. Its universities, many top-notch, global competitors, will continue to pump out information-age workers who are increasingly liberal in orientation.
Thus, Texas is not immune to the immense forces of social and economic change that has remade American politics in the last 20 years. As Texas society becomes even wealthier and more complex, the state and its people will have to finally abandon the frontier roots of its political culture and embrace a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to governance – one that views Texas as unique, yes, but ultimately part of a larger, global whole. You see this outlook already in the state’s corporate boardrooms and its university classrooms. When this view finally percolates into the rest of Texas’ broader culture, this immense bastion of right-wing America will have, at long last, finally fallen to the forces of liberal modernity.