Gail Collins on the Mighty Texas

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 5 2012 6:30 AM

Everything’s Bigger About Texas

Not just in 2012! In 50 years, we may all be Texans—or Texans might not even be Americans.

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Without anyone much noting it, Texas had taken a starring role in the 21st-century national political discussion

Photographs by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Jemal Countess/Getty Images; Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images; Rich Schultz/Getty Images. Compiled by Jane Zitomer.

My fascination with Texas began rather suddenly. It was the spring of 2009—you will remember, that was the season when the political right was failing to adjust to the idea of a President Obama. And there was Gov. Rick Perry at a Tea Party rally in Austin, publicly toying with the idea that his state might consider seceding.

It was quite a moment. Perry was standing behind a podium with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” banner, wearing jeans, his trademark boots, and looking pretty damned ticked off. “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may,” he said, quoting the state’s great founding father, Sam Houston. When Houston made that remark, he was definitely attempting to break away from the country to which Texas was then attached.

“We didn’t like oppression then, we don’t like oppression now!” Perry roared to the cheering crowd, some of whom were waving “Secede!” signs. It did sure sound like an Alamo kind of crisis. Their backs were to the wall!

And, important point: This was just a rally about the stimulus package.

It was perhaps the first time the rest of the country had taken notice of the fact that 21st-century Texans did not necessarily consider the idea of breaking away to become a separate nation as, um, nuts. We non-Texans were somewhat taken aback. How long had this been going on? Was it something we said?

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“We’ve got a great union,” Perry assured reporters after the rally ended. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their noses at the American people, you know, who knows what might come of that?”

Does this sound like a serious commitment to you? Try to imagine a husband telling his wife that he saw absolutely no reason to get a divorce—but if she continued to fail to live up to expectations, who knows what might come of that?

You had to pay attention. Not necessarily to Perry himself, who of course went on to become one of the worst candidates for president in all of American history. But the rally, with its combination of egomania (We’re the best!) and paranoia (Don’t mess with Texas!), was a near-perfect reflection of the Tea Party’s war cry in national politics.

That’s not an accident. The more I looked at Texas, which seemed to be having an anti-Obama rally every time a cow mooed, the more important it seemed. Without anyone much noting it, Texas had taken a starring role in the 21st-century national political discussion. For one thing, it had the hottest economy—which the rest of us were told we’d better emulate unless we wanted all the local employers to pack up and move to Plano. The reason Perry imagined he could be president was the way Texas had created job growth by hewing to the low-tax-low-regulation ethic that the political right believes should be the model for the entire country. (The model had certain flaws, such as the assumption that every state could scrimp on higher education and just build a large professional class by importing people who went to college in other states.)

Then a friend sent me a headline from a Texas news report: “Man Allegedly Beat Woman with Frozen Armadillo.” I was totally hooked.

So I started thinking a lot about Texas. Looking back over the last quarter century or so, I was stunned by how much of the national agenda it had produced, for good or ill.

Texas banking laws set the stage for the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. The 2008 economic meltdown was the product of a financial deregulation that was the work of many hands, but most particularly the paws of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. Our energy policy is the way it is in large part because Texas politicians and Texas special interests like it that way. (If the polar ice caps melt, it’s not going to be Utah’s fault.) Schools from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, have been remade, reorganized, and sometimes totally upended under a federal law based on Texas education reform. For several generations, our kids have been reading textbooks written with an eye to Texas sensibilities. Texas presidents have led the country into every land war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam.

Texas runs everything. Why, then, is it so cranky? Is it because of its long string of well-funded but terrible presidential contenders? True, being the home state of Rick Perry, the “oops” candidate, had to be embarrassing. On the other hand, thanks to the Bushes, there’s been a Texan president or vice president for 20 of the last 32 years, so the lack of White House access hardly seems like an appropriate subject for sulking. Is it the weather? The state of Washington has terrible weather, and you don’t see people there threatening to secede.

Gail Collins.
Gail Collins.

Photograph courtesy the New York Times.

The crankiness is actually a source of Texas’s political power. The state has a remarkable ability to be two contradictory things at once. It’s a fast-growing, increasingly urban place whose citizens have nevertheless managed to maintain the conviction that they’re living in the wide open spaces. And its politicians are skilled at bragging about the wonderful Texas economy and lifestyle while wailing and rending their garments over their helplessness in the hands of the federal Death Star in Washington. You need that sense of victimhood because it creates energy and unity. You can’t build a Tea Party on good news.

Another reason the Texas influence on the United States is outsized is that the place is just so damned big. The country has other hugely influential large states, like California and New York, but they’re not on an upswing. California has more people, but it’s hit a bad patch and it’s struggling. New York is the media capital and it has Wall Street, but its population is flat. Texas just keeps growing, by leaps and bounds. (Think jackrabbit. It’s a good metaphor. A really, really large jackrabbit.)

The huge Texas population—up 4.3 million in a decade—has an enormous impact on the country all by itself. We’ve got a super-big state with a young citizenry and a very high birth rate. You have to figure that by 2050, the entire United States will have a distinctly Texas cast. The state’s ability to rear, educate, and prepare all the little Texans to take their place in the national economy is going to be an excellent predictor of how well the whole country will be faring down the line.

Spoiler alert: The odds of success would be better if Texas had more control of the teenage birth rate. Did you ever hear about the time Rick Perry defended abstinence-only sex education by saying that he knew from his own personal experience that abstinence worked?

We’re not used to thinking of Texas as a driving force in American affairs, but there you are. Even when Democrats held the White House in recent decades, Texans seemed to be holding the reins—reins that were being used mainly to hog-tie the chief executive. Bill Clinton had to deal with two Texans—House majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay—whose lasting contribution to American history was mainly the thwarting of the Clinton agenda, particularly health care reform. Barack Obama has been hamstrung by the power of the Tea Party Republicans, whose first big coming-out parties were organized by Armey and whose ideology sprang, as much as from any place coherent, from the thinking of Texas congressman Ron Paul.

You’d imagine a place with a motto like “Don’t Mess with Texas” would be a small, scrappy state. But Texas is a huge, scrappy state. What could be more unnerving? And really, there’s never a dull moment. Take the frozen armadillo situation. I couldn’t resist looking into it, and at one point in my research I ran into an officer of wildlife enforcement who assured me that it was illegal to sell a live armadillo in Texas. “Dead armadillos you can sell parts of them,” he added. “Make a curio of a little armadillo on his back drinking a bottle of beer.”

How could you not want to know more about a state like that, particularly when it appears to have been setting the entire national agenda for decades, while continually howling about how the federal government is pushing it around?

And the people are great. I can attest that I had a wonderful time with everyone I met while I was wandering around, trying to figure out how Texas inspired a national education law which the politicians in Texas now denounce on an almost hourly basis, or why a state that would get more economic benefit than anybody from the health care reform law is so determined to repeal the health care reform law.

Anyhow, that’s how I became obsessed with Texas. To paraphrase the old saw about elections and Maine, it really does seem as if these days, as Texas goes, so goes the nation. Whether we like it or not.

Reprinted from As Texas Goes …: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2012 by Gail Collins. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Gail Collins is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist and the author of As Texas Goes … and When Everything Changed.

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