|Sept 2000||GEORGE W. BUSH DOWN HOME The backward state of Texas by DANIEL LAZARE *|
Texas breaks all the records. It rates first for capital punishment, second for size and population, last for public spending, and it is nearly always behind in health care, racial equality and protection of the environment. Two former presidents, Lyndon Johnson and George H. Bush, come from Texas. Now it is George W. Bush's turn to run for the White House.
Most Americans, including most Texans, assume that Texas, home to George W. Bush, gets its distinct political character from its cowboy heritage, its wide open spaces, and its long history of violent struggle with everyone from Mexico and the Comanche Indians to the Civil War armies of the American North. When the Indians are on the warpath and the nearest neighbour is miles away, a man has nothing to fall back on except his trusty six-gun - which explains why Texans have long prized individualism and self-reliance above all other virtues.
Thanks to Bush, the United States presidential election is fast turning into a referendum on Texas and all it stands for. But while guns and geography have certainly played a part, explanations like these tend to understate the degree to which Texas was consciously put together during a brief period in 1875 by a group of 90 or so lawmakers, all of them white and many of them ex-Confederate (Southern) army officers. Over the previous half-dozen years, a Northern-sponsored radical state government had struggled to bring Texas into the modern world by building public schools, encouraging industry and putting an end to some of the worst abuses of Mexicans and blacks (1).
The results were so traumatic for Texas's large-scale landowners that, when the North abandoned reconstruction and the state's brief experiment with democratic reform was allowed to collapse, they seized the first opportunity to restore the ancien régime. They decreed racial segregation in state schools, slashed education, banned the use of general revenues to fund black colleges, and all but dismantled the governing apparatus that the former governor, Edmund J. Davis, had worked so hard to create. The upshot was the deliberate reinvention of a state whose name would become synonymous with hostility to government, opposition to political change, and violence towards racial minorities, workers and the poor.
This side of Texas is apparent in virtually everything the state says and does - in its abysmal urban conditions, its class structure, its boom-or-bust economy, and its love affair with capital punishment. Texas, as the tourist brochures say, is a land of contrasts. What they don't say is that many of those contrasts are the result of deep-rooted contradictions in its political structure. Texans are contemptuous of politics, yet they have produced some of the canniest politicians in the country. They abound in oil and gas millionaires who preach the gospel of free-market capitalism while milking Washington for tax breaks and subsidies.
Texans are imbued with a can-do spirit, an irrepressible frontier optimism, yet, thanks to chronic political disorganisation, their history is a record of one failure after another. The battle of the Alamo, the famous Spanish fortress in San Antonio in which 187 Texas independistas were killed by Mexican forces in 1836, was a wholly preventable military disaster. With unerring accuracy, the state's white population chose the losing side in the US Civil War of 1861-65. Then, in subsequent decades, local politicians did everything in their power to make sure the state stayed an economic backwater by cutting schools and all but outlawing trade unions.
Despite the discovery of oil in 1901, the state remained undeveloped well into the 1950s. Although Texas's fortunes took flight in the 1970s when Opec forced up energy prices, it lost much of its wealth in the savings-and-loan financial disaster of the 1980s when, relative to the nation as a whole, its per-capita personal income fell nearly 10%.
It has a loser as governor. George W. Bush managed to go through $4.7m, put up by family friends and wealthy Republicans, in the oil business in the 1980s. He nearly ran two energy companies into the ground and only turned a profit in 1990 when, on the eve of the Gulf war, a third company in which he was involved won a lucrative oil-exploration contract from Bahrain - helped by the fact that his his father was president at the time. George W. Bush did well as the owner of a professional baseball team, but only after persuading the town of Arlington, a Houston suburb, to pick up much of the tab for a new $191m stadium - another example of the Texas bourgeoisie's reliance on public largesse (2).
George W. Bush did better in his bid to become governor, winning the election in 1996 and again in 1998, and, of course, he may also do well in his bid to become president. If he does, however, he will merely succeed in imposing Texas's losing policies on the nation as a whole. It's hard to think of anything the world needs less than a right-wing Texas oil man at the helm of the sole remaining superpower, but that may be where America's political system is now heading.
Oligarchy and frontier republic
The Texas that rose from the ashes in 1875 was very much an American creation. In other circumstances, a land-owning class intent on putting down ex-slaves and impoverished tenant farmers might have been expected to monopolise political power and wield it with ruthless force. But Texas's neo-Confederate elite did something more complicated. Because the previous regime had tried to create a centralised governing apparatus that would be a force for change, it instinctively set about dismantling it.
In a special convention called to draft a new state constitution, a group of hand-picked delegates voted to cripple the executive branch by dividing it up into five different posts, each one separately elected. They further fragmented executive power by dividing it up among what are, by now, some 200 administrative boards, whose members are chosen by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate and are largely unaccountable to either. The delegates also crippled the local legislature by restricting its members to two-year terms, and limiting their salaries and the times they could meet, so as to ensure a high turnover of members.
On the assumption that a judge immediately dependent on the voters would be less likely to challenge the other two branches, they then hamstrung the judiciary by requiring that every last member be popularly elected. As a final measure, they decided to hamstring the electorate as well, by disenfranchising blacks en masse, and by requiring even white voters to pay a poll tax and register in person nearly a year prior to each election. A $1.50 poll tax may not sound like much, but in the days when subsistence farmers rarely saw money from one season to the next, it was enough to keep thousands of people away from the polls.
Although often described as a return to loose forms of government that had existed prior to the Civil War, the new system was actually worse - more fragmented, more decentralised, less responsible to the voters at large. Rather than a dictatorship, it was a kind of oligarchic frontier republic that large-scale landowners had no trouble manipulating behind the scenes.
In creating their pseudo-democracy, members of the 1875 Texas convention were able to draw on a sizeable body of US constitutional beliefs and structures. Although Americans like to think of themselves as the most modern people on earth, the US constitution of 1787 was (and is) curiously pre-modern in its elevation of what medieval jurists described as jurisdictio (law) over gubernaculum (government). Because law is the closest thing to a sovereign power, the law is always right. Because it is strong, government can afford to be weak. Indeed, since Americans have traditionally regarded their constitution as a charter of liberties, the weaker the government, the stronger and more undiluted those liberties will be.
Constraint on constraint
This is what Richard Coke, Texas's first governor after the Civil War, meant when he told the state convention in 1875: "The accepted theory of American constitutional government is that State Constitutions are limitations upon, rather than grants of power ." (3). Even though the US constitution already put permanent limits on the people's ability to govern themselves, the purpose of a state constitution was to limit it even more. Constraint was piled on constraint.
Texas's unshakeable state constitution - the state legislature attempted to create a new one in 1975 but failed - has distorted state politics ever since. Texas has a brand of folk conservatism that has become the law nearly as much as driving on the right or stopping at red lights. If the political culture of the Texas land-owning class helped shape the Texas state constitution in the 1870s, the constitution has, in return, served to ensure its hegemony over the ensuing 125 years.
A rigid constitution has led to rigid politics, morality and much else besides. In the 1890s Texas saw a brief populist revolt by impoverished farmers, which was all too easily crushed and co-opted by the state's Jeffersonian elite (4). Thereafter it saw a collection of colourful politicians go trooping through the governor's mansion, each one promising change while doing his best to preserve the status quo. When one governor found himself impeached by the state legislature, he arranged for his wife to run in his place so he could continue governing from behind the throne. Another governor travelled the state in the 1930s with his own country-and-western band, campaigning on a platform consisting of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and a promise to provide each retired citizen with a pension. (The pension, needless to say, never came to pass.) Others made names for themselves by railing against communism, the federal government, or literature professors who assigned "obscene" books at the University of Texas.
While politics degenerated into little more than empty theatrics, morality remained almost tribal. If a Comanche "enjoyed heaping live coals on a staked-out white man's genitals," wrote T. R. Fehrenbach, then a white Texan would, just a blithely, "bash an Indian infant's head against a tree, or gut-shoot a 'greaser' [a Mexican-American] if he blinked" (5). Texas probably saw more lynchings of blacks between 1900 and 1930 than other states in the deep south. Meanwhile the state militia known as the Texas Rangers - also the name of the baseball team that George W. Bush owned before becoming governor - conducted a reign of terror against the state's Mexican-American population, executing, without trial, an estimated 300 in the years 1915-19 alone.
Political impoverishment has also led to intellectual impoverishment. According to Fehrenbach, "The Texan's distrust for theories [was] profound. The practical outweighed the conceptual; things were more important than ideas; education was to fit children to society, not change them or produce inherent confusion by educating too many students beyond their station" (6). If, traditionally, Texans "were not antisocial but asocial", this perhaps explains the deep sexual unease that Texas's most famous novelist, Larry McMurtry - author of The Last Picture Show (1966), Terms of Endearment (1975), and Lonesome Dove (1985) - argues underlies much of West Texas cowboy culture.
Locked in the past
The Texan economy is also anchored in the past. Thanks to massive federal investment in military installations and aerospace, Texas has been successful since the 1980s in its efforts to diversity into computers and other forms of high tech. Yet it remains an essentially land-based economy. Regardless of how they make their money, wealthy Texans consider it de rigueur to buy a few thousand acres out in the hinterlands, put on jeans and cowboy boots, and set themselves up as ranchers - as George W. Bush has done with 1,500 of desolate scrubland that he recently purchased near the remote West Texas town of Crawford (7). Wealth is not really wealth apparently, unless it takes the form of property.
Texas's economy is also rooted in the past in terms of its social policies. Although it ranks dead centre among the 50 states in terms of personal income, its distribution of wealth is so lopsided that by 1998 it was among the 10 worst in terms of the portion of the population living below the poverty level. Proportional to its population, Texas is also in the bottom fourth in terms of such social indicators as the number of physicians, full-time college enrolment and infant mortality (8). Thanks to relentless budget cutting under George W. Bush, it now ranks last in terms of state spending per capita, an indication that the distribution of income is continuing to worsen (9).
Because landed wealth is intrinsically anti-urban, Texas has little by way of mass transit, multi-family housing, neighbourhood playgrounds or other urban amenities. Because government is so undeveloped, the people have no means with which to create effective environmental policies. As a result, Texas is responsible for more water and air pollution than any other American state or Canadian province. Hundreds of ageing utilities, chemical plants and oil refineries are exempt from pollution regulations while, thanks to rising traffic levels, Houston, the state's petro-chemical capital, beat Los Angeles in 1998 as the city with the worst ozone levels in the US. Not that George W. Bush seems to mind, though; one of his top environmental appointees once testified in Washington that ozone is actually a benign substance (10).
Texas has emerged in the late 1990s as the nation's leader in "sprawl," a term that Americans use to describe a cancerous blight of shopping malls, fast-food outlets, and discount stores that now covers much of the landscape (11). Imagine a smog-shrouded, stiflingly hot (36 degrees centigrade) city with about 20% fewer people than Paris but spread out over an area more than 13 times greater, where there are virtually no pedestrians or cyclists but an abundance of traffic-clogged eight-lane highways going every which way like strands of spaghetti - that is pretty much what Houston is like today.
Texas incarcerates more people per capita than any other state in the nation: indeed, it has a system of law enforcement that is now the most punitive in the industrial world. Though it only has one-tenth of the population, it hosts a prison population that is now greater than that of France, Germany and Italy combined. Its criminal justice system is an uncontrolled Gulag consisting of some 250 county sheriffs, 500-plus municipal police departments, more judges than in the whole of Great Britain, and some two dozen state boards and agencies, all more or less autonomous. The state legislature lacks the constitutional authority to reorganise this hideous mess even if it wanted to. Given the thousands of defence attorneys who also have a stake in the status quo, serious change is unlikely.
Texas's criminal justice system is drawing international attention because of the more than 200 prisoners executed since the 1970s. Predictably, state officials have responded to the protests with resentment and hurt. "I happen to think we live in a rather fine place, and I think that Texas is being showcased by some for political reasons as not such a fine place," declared Bush right-hand man Lieutenant-Governor Rick Perry on the eve of the execution of Gary Graham on 22 June. Graham, a black, protested his innocence to the end, and the press failed to mention that he was under the age of 18. The US is one of only six countries still to carry out the death penalty on minors and the mentally ill - along with Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Incompetent state government not only invites criticism, it fairly thrives on it. Rather than protecting state autonomy, the Texas state constitution consistently undermines it by leaving the federal courts and other US agencies (12) no choice but to step in and clean up state abuses. Texas's consequent reliance on the federal government serves to thrust it deep into federal politics, which is why the state has turned into such a prolific breeding ground for national politicians since the turn of the century - not only ex-President Lyndon Johnson and the Bushes, father and son, but also long-time Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Clinton Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen Jr., Bush Secretary of State James Baker and numerous other Washington power brokers.
Texas's backward political structure manifests itself in an unusually unified ruling class. As an oligarchic republic, Texas not only allows its wealthy residents and corporations to manipulate politics behind the scenes, it fairly mandates that they do so to ensure their class interests are protected. The upshot is an intense level of political involvement on the part of the state's super-rich, most of them reactionaries to one degree or another, who have moulded themselves into "a formidable force that wins more often than it loses in confrontations with the largely depoliticised masses" (13).
Texas's energy sector is America's very own Opec, a corporate clique that believes that global warming is a myth, that the health risks from smog are much exaggerated, and that it is the duty of every US citizen to burn all the fuel he can. It is a sector that has never seen a car, highway, or 10,000-square-foot suburban home that it didn't like as long as it was filled with oversized refrigerators, 72-inch television sets, costly exercise machines and other energy-consuming gadgets.
The Texan energy sector is America's own Opec, a corporate clique believing that global warming is a myth, that the health risks from smog are much exaggerated, and that it is the duty of every US citizen to burn all the fuel he or she can: the clique never saw a car or a highway it didn't like. This sector has backed George W. to the hilt - to quote The New York Times, oil has been the essential lubricant for his unsuccessful run for Congress, his two gubernatorial campaigns, and his bid to become president. Bush's most important patron is the Enron Oil Company, and at least 25 of his top donors are connected to the oil business (14). The reasons for this support are obvious. The son of an oil driller and a former oilman himself, George W.Bush is a local patriot whose years at boarding school in New England, Yale University and the Harvard Business School only served to strengthen his loyalty to his home state. He is an enthusiastic glad-hander - as a college student, he reportedly memorised the names of a thousand fellow undergraduates to ensure his popularity - and he is thoroughly at home in the deal-making world of Texas politics (15). He is also a resolute conservative, well to the right of his father, and he exudes a jovial, anti-intellectual manner. In Texas, ignorance rules.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the US has grown ever more like Texas. The process has continued in the last eight years under Clinton, with the prison population up 50%, the growing use of capital punishment (Clinton and Gore are both supporters of the death penalty), and an increasingly punitive war on drugs. If Bush gains the presidency, the process will simply change pace.
* Journalist, author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1996).
(1) Robert A. Calvert and Arnold De Leon, The History of Texas , Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1990, p. 153. One historian estimates that one black male in 100 between the ages of 15 and 49 was killed by marauding whites between 1865 and the advent of a radical state government in 1868.
(2) Molly Ivins & Lou Dubose, Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, Random House, New York, 2000, pp. 19-42. In 1998 Bush sold his share in the Texas Rangers baseball team for $15m, acquired for $600,000 in 1989.
(3) Gary M. Halter, Government and Politics of Texas: A Comparative View, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1999, p. 21.
(4) Chandler Davidson, Race and Class in Texas Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990, p. 20.
(5) T.R. Fehrenbach, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, Macmillan, New York, 1968.
(7) Frank Bruni, "Bush Finds Comfort Zone In a Remote Texas Ranch," The New York Times, 22 July 2000.
(8) 1997-98 figure. For further information see: http://www.census.gov/statab/www/ranks.html
(9) Louis Dubose, "The Gospels of the Rich and Poor," The Texas Observer, 12 November 1999. The Observer's extensive coverage of the Bush presidential campaign can be found at http://www.texasobserver.org
(10) Molly Ivins et Louis Dubose, "Bush and the Texas Environment", The Texas Observer, 14 April 2000.
(11) See John W. Gonzalez, "Urban sprawl in Texas fastest in the country," The Houston Chronicle, 26 December 1999. See also Danièle Stewart, "Do you know the way to San Jose?", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2000.
(12) The federal government often intervenes in the States of the Union to ensure that fundamental rules, which apply to all Americans, are respected.
(13) Davidson, op. cit.
(14) John M. Broder, "Oil and Gas Aid Bush Bid For President," The New York Times, 23 June 2000. Bush broke all records by accepting nearly $100m in gifts four months before the general election.
(15) Nicholas D. Kristof, "Ally of an Older Generation Amid the Tumult of the 60's", The New York Times, 19 June 2000.
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