Despite the rhetoric of elites from the Northeast and California, I am struck by how much of America is represented by Texas. Last November, I traveled to Texas and observed both urban and rural areas in the full context of the recently concluded election. Texans represent more of a cross section of Americans and America than any other place, and yet the Democrats who are being led around by their liberal wing are no longer competitive in a state that they long ruled. As my reading has recently reminded me, Texas has been the state most indicative of the United States as a whole since the end of World War II, and has produced both liberal and conservative titans.
I recently finished two books about prominent Texas politicians. The first, Lone Star by James Reston was an excellent detailed biography of Governor John Connally who was LBJ’s right hand in his Congressional career during the 1940s, became a power in his own right as a Democrat in the 1950s, got shot in Dallas with JFK in the 1960s, came close to becoming President as a Republican in the 1970s, and went bankrupt like so many in the 1980s. Connally was the consummate Tory Democrat as the establishment conservative wing of party was known. In the 1950s he became close with oil and gas interests which helped start his slow drift away from his mentor LBJ and towards the camp of Richard Nixon. In the 1950s, a charismatic, strongly liberal rival for Connally arrived in the form of Ralph Yarborough, who ran for Governor and barely lost to a conservative incumbent and then was elected to two terms in the US Senate. In Washington, Yarborough was as solid a liberal vote as Dick Durbin or Chuck Schumer is today. Yarborough’s biography which I have just completed is written by Patrick Cox, and the forward to the book by Senator Ted Kennedy discusses how he learned how to be a champion for the little guy by watching Yarborough take on the conservatives and the corporations on daily basis in the US Senate. As Kennedy points out Yarborough would usually lose his battles, but that would only embolden him for future fights. Compromise was not a word Ralph Yarborough knew, which is partly the reason why JFK ended up in Dallas on the fateful November day in 1963. Connally and Yarborough, were each as Texan as they come yet could never see eye to eye on any issue that affected Texas or America.
For years, I’ve heard a debate about whether Texas is Southern, Western or mostly corporate urban. What I found last year is it entirely depends where you are in the state, as Texas is more a microcosm of America than the coastal elites might want to admit. East Texas tends to be very religious, rural and Southern. Yet until 2004, East Texas sent three Democrats to Congress in every election and had never elected a Republican, and none of the three could be characterized as Conservative. In fact, Wright Patman who served from the twenties until 1976 and Charlie Wilson who served from 1972 to 1996 were two populist Democrats whose voting records on economics and in Wilson’s case social issues like abortion rights were hard left. Jack Brooks, the longtime Congressman from Beaumont and a close associate of LBJ actually voted for the 1964 Civil Rights act on the House floor. In fact on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Right Act of 1965 more Texans voted yea than representatives in all other Southern states combined, including Florida. Of course, Ralph Yarborough was a strong advocate of Civil Rights, and he was re-elected in 1964 by a large margin over a Connecticut Yankee Republican who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights act named George Bush. More recently, Max Sandlin, Jim Turner and Nick Lampson were all more or less national democrats on every issue except for guns, an issue near and dear to almost every Texan’s heart. In other words, while East Texas is Southern, it isn’t knee jerk Southern, in fact it’s Southern with a distinct Texas twist.
The two large urban areas of Texas are reliably Republican and they have been for sometime. Dallas was so Republican and Conservative by 1960 thanks to oil and corporate interests that local Congressman Bruce Alger, one of the House’s most conservative Republicans led a mob that attacked Lady Bird Johnson just days before the Presidential Election. By the time George Bush got elected as a Houston Congressman in 1966, both major urban areas were reliably Republican and were delivering large anti-Yarborough (pro-Connally) margins in both Democratic primaries and General elections.
The rural areas of Central Texas have become solidly Republican with Texan George W. Bush in the White House. These areas are much like the Midwest and plains states with their emphasis on Agriculture ands small towns. Cities such as Abilene are market towns where cotton, cattle and other goods are auctioned off. Towns such as Midland and Odessa are oil producers and became Republican long before the rest of the area. These areas are deeply religious and somewhat insular in their outlook.
The panhandle of Texas, the Red River valley is an area that produced Sam Rayburn one of the titans of the 20th Century but has now become a Republican bastion. Lubbock and Amarillo are towns that are very reflective of the Great Plains and the west, as well as Glen Campbell music. Amarillo is closer to all of Oklahoma’s major cities than to any major point within Texas.
The Texas Hill Country, which produced Lyndon Johnson and liberal titans Henry Gonzalez and Maury Maverick is Texas in a nutshell. The areas north of Austin produce oil and natural gas. Austin itself the capital has long been the home of Texas liberalism, a progressive university/capital town much like Madison, Wisconsin. But today’s Austin looks more like America, with new high tech firms and industry moving to town. But like other high tech areas, Democrats rule the day, albeit different types of Democrats than the Ralph Yarborough’s and Ann Richards’ who have been so popular in the Austin of yesteryear. The rural rolling hills in between San Antonio and Austin produced LBJ and also some of the most German towns in America. One such town, New Braunfels still has a distinct German feel. San Antonio, and Bexar County have long been Democratic, dominated by Mexican-American voters.
South of San Antonio is a wide swath stretching from Brownsville to El Paso known as the Border Counties. Included in this area are Corpus Christi and McAllen. This are is heavily Hispanic, depressed and Democratic. It was here that LBJ learned of the hardship of Mexican-Americans and dedicated himself to bringing some sort economic equality to the nation, which led to the Great Society a favorite punching bag for Conservative critics and Washington elites.
Texas has produced three of our last eight Presidents and neighboring Arkansas has produced one, giving the “Greater Texas” area four of the last eight heads of state. Countless other Texans have made a major impact on the national scene. Lloyd Bentsen, the conservative Connally ally that knocked off Yarborough in the 1970 Democratic Primary and later found himself as a ticket balancer on the 1988 Democratic national ticket. Democrat turned Republican Congressman and then Senator Phil Gramm who became the leading Congressional voice for supply side economics which has been practiced more or less by three of the last four Presidents. (the lone exception being Texan George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton was a convert to the Supply Side theory but by the mid 1990s he was advocating tax cuts and growing markets). Republican Congressional leaders, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, both from very different backgrounds with very different methods, but each distinctly Texan and strongly conservative and effective congressional leaders typify the new Texas in many ways. Liberal talk show host Jim Hightower a former statewide elected official himself and columnist Molly Ivins are today’s best examples of the Yarborough/Maverick liberal tradition that Texas has offered the nation for decades now. This was a group of liberals so strong that they derailed both the favorite son Presidential candidacies of Lloyd Bentsen in 1976 and John Connally in 1980 by Legislative action that failed to move up the Texas Primary. The Killer Bees as they were known were the envy of liberals in legislative chambers across the nation.
From my perspective if you want to know a little about America, you need to study Texas and visit Texas. Today’s liberals see Texas as a red state in love with George W. Bush, instead of a nation of contrasts, one that looks more like America and in many ways the world than any other place.
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- I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.