Ever since George W. Bush swaggered into the Oval Office a dozen years ago, liberal pundits have pondered whether his adopted state wielded outsized influence over American politics and policy. New York Times columnist Gail Collins makes a compelling case in “As Texas Goes . . . ’’ that much of what ails the nation began down in the Lone Star State.
There’s always a risk, in books based on such a sweeping argument, that the author will wind up cherry picking examples and facts to suit her conclusion. Her claim that “Texas presidents have led the country into every land war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam” is technically true, but awfully reductive. Still, over the past couple of decades, the state has produced a group of political powerhouses, all of whom proved effective, if spectacularly shortsighted, in Collins’s view.
Former Texas senator Phil Gramm, aided by powerful House allies and fellow Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, led the charge for the financial deregulation that brought us the savings and loan crisis, the collapse of Enron, and the 2008 financial meltdown. Bush himself pushed through the failed educational reforms of No Child Left Behind. And Vice President Dick Cheney, a former chief executive of Houston-based energy giant Halliburton (“So let’s consider him an honorary Texan,’’ Collins urges.), oversaw the administration’s — so the nation’s — corporate-friendly energy policy during its two terms.
But the most compelling aspect of Collins’s book is her psychological examination of the Texan mindset, which she insists arises from an “ideology of empty places” that glorifies self-sufficiency and “holds that virtually any amount of government is too much government.”
The central irony is that Texas never would have developed economically without the highways and electrical grids built by the federal government. But, of course, ironies abound. “One of the interesting things about the empty-place ethos is that the theory about leaving people alone to do whatever they want does not apply at all when it comes to sex,” Collins observes.
The state, for instance, requires teenage girls to obtain parental consent before they can receive publicly funded contraceptive services, even if the teen in question has already given birth. Thanks to policies like this, along with an apparent single-minded emphasis on abstinence-only sex education, the state ranks third in teenage births, and second in repeat births to teenage girls.
Collins devotes a chapter to debunking the so-called “Texas Miracle,’’ the oft-touted claim that the state should be viewed as a model for the nation because of the way it has created scads of jobs by eliminating taxes and regulations and paying out-of-state businesses to relocate. Not only are the job stats inflated, but the cost of these incentives is borne by the state’s most vulnerable residents, who have seen budgets for social services and education plummet, while their sales tax climbs.
As a stylist, Collins lacks the sharp wit and homespun eloquence of the late Molly Ivins. And she writes about Texas in a manner that natives — even liberal ones — will find simplistic and condescending at times.
But her larger thesis has a chilling ring of truth. Texas represents a kind of dark bellwether for the rest of the country: a two-tiered society in which the affluent rig the system in their favor while a vast underclass struggles to pay for basic services such as medical care.
Perhaps the most telling symptom of Texan hubris resides in the state’s reverence for the Alamo, the mission where a band of revolutionaries faced off against the Mexican army. In fact, the Texan soldier dispatched to the Alamo, James Bowie, had been ordered to destroy the garrison, because the fledgling republic lacked the funds necessary to protect it. Instead, Bowie took matters into his own hands and perished, along with some 200 of his men.
“And that’s the traditional Texas spirit,’’ Collins writes, “at its best when there’s a enemy to rise up against. Outsized and brave. And frequently somewhat lunatic.’’