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The Texas nexus

George W Bush's conservatism, a Texan political tradition dating back to the years of the southern confederacy, now dominates within Washington. The American right has been Texanised

By Michael Lind   April 2003

When Lyndon Johnson was US president between 1963 and 1969, the world grew familiar with the “western White House” – the Johnson ranch on the Pedernales river west of Austin, in the heart of his beloved central Texan hill country. Three decades later, newly elected president George W Bush began hosting foreign leaders at his own Texas ranch – this one north of Austin in Crawford. Although Bush was ridiculed in the liberal press as a phony rancher – and indeed, many of his activities on the ranch, like clearing brush in the midsummer heat, were publicity stunts – there is no doubt that Bush is a Texan. He was born in New Haven, but George W Bush grew up in west Texas, absorbed Texas folk culture and, in most ways, is as authentically Texan as was Johnson.

Two ranches, two Texans, two presidents – yet in governing philosophy, Johnson the “Great Society” populist could hardly be more different from Bush the corporation – friendly cutter of taxes for the wealthy. The contrast reflects, in part, certain obvious differences between the men; they are of different eras, political parties, and family backgrounds (Johnson’s origins were as modest as Bush’s were patrician). But less obviously, the two Texas presidents represent two entirely different Texas political traditions, entwined in conflict inside a single border and reflected in the differences between Johnson’s liberal hill country and Bush’s conservative Crawford.

Cultural geography is of little use in analysing the personalities of politicians – but it is indispensable in understanding their politics. Politicians are shaped by many influences, but to be successful they must reflect the values of their constituents; if they did not, they would never have risen to high office. Lyndon Johnson grew up in a part of Texas shaped by German-American unionism, liberalism and anti-slavery sentiment. George W Bush, on the other hand, is a product of the deep south tradition of the cotton plantation, transplanted to the west Texas oil region.

It is this strain of Texan conservatism that now rules Washington – the Texas of Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey. Even in the northeast and midwest of America, older, rival conservative traditions – the conservative progressivism of the New Englanders, the isolationist, protectionist conservatism of the midwest – have been replaced by a broadly southern conservatism that unites belief in minimal government at home and bellicosity abroad with religious fundamentalism. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to speak of the Texanisation of the American right as a whole. And although they influenced the administrations of Reagan and the elder Bush, as well as the House of Representatives after the Republican takeover in 1994, it was not until George W Bush became president and the vast machinery of the executive branch passed into their hands that Texan traditionalists and their allies had the power to shape national policy. George W Bush is neither the first conservative president, nor the first Texan president. But he is the first conservative Texan president.

Texan new dealers like Johnson and Sam Rayburn, along with technology-embracing reformers like Ross Perot and Bobby Ray Inman, represent the Texas modernist tradition. This Texas is a society eager to embrace the space age and the information age. This Texas is led, not by good-old-boy businessmen and political demagogues, but by an earnest elite of entrepreneurs, engineers, reformist politicians, and civil servants, many of them self-made men and women, often with backgrounds in the military. The economy of modernist, post-New Deal Texas takes a high-tech state-capitalist form, in which government, business and universities collaborate to promote innovation in computer science, biotechnology and other cutting-edge fields, and in which public institutions supply investment capital and expertise in the absence of a native, entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. The leaders of this Texas usually share the pro-military ethic of their rivals and, indeed, are more likely than the oligarchs to have served in the military. But the preferred society of these Texans is a broadly egalitarian meritocracy, not a traditional social order. Even if they are of southern descent, they have little if any sense of southern identity and no loyalty to the south as a region. They are sentimental nationalists for whom Texan patriotism is wholly fused with American patriotism. They believe that an activist federal government – in the right hands – is an ally of ordinary Texans.

The Texas of conservatives like George W Bush and his predecessors is something very different: a society with a simple extractive economy based on agriculture, livestock, petroleum, and mining. In this Texas, low wages and inadequate spending on public goods like education and pollution abatement are considered a source of comparative economic advantage. (Texas has lower per capita public spending than any other state, and one third of its jobs pay poverty-level wages.) This Texas is a toxic by-product of the hierarchical plantation society of the American south, a caste society in which the white, brown, and black majority labour for inadequate rewards while a cultivated oligarchy of rich white families and their supporters in the professions dominate the economy, politics and culture. This elite tends to be worldly and aristocratic in attitude, the working-class majority religious and fundamentalist; both the elite and the majority in this Texas share a deep social conservatism and an attachment to military values unknown anywhere else in the English-speaking world, except in other southern states. The inhabitants of this Texas are deeply localist and tend to view Washington DC as the enemy.

Geographically and politically, Texas – the second largest state in the union with a population of 21m – is the westernmost extension of the deep south. For generations its economy was based on cotton, picked by a black labour force that was first enslaved and then segregated. The society of east Texas, like that of the other deep south states, was bi-racial and hierarchical. East Texas had nothing in common with plains states like Nebraska or southwestern states like New Mexico or Arizona. It was a clone of the society of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and northern Florida (though not Louisiana, with its unique Cajun element). Texas was not merely part of the south, however, but part of the deep south during the Confederate century between 1876 and the 1970s. The Confederates in Texas and similar southern states lost the civil war, but they drove out federal troops and defeated postwar Reconstruction. In the territory of the former Confederacy they created a de facto Confederacy, with the economy of a non-industrial resource colony, the social order of a racial caste society and the politics of a one-party dictatorship.

The Confederate order in Texas was undermined by the New Deal and shattered by the civil rights revolution. But the Confederate tradition continues to influence politics in Texas and, through Texan conservatives in Washington like President George W Bush, the nation and the world.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, many Americans believed that Bush’s slogan of “compassionate conservatism” and the choice of Colin Powell, a self-described “Rockefeller Republican,” as secretary of state signalled a shift by the second President Bush toward the political centre. Instead, in his first two years in office, Bush was the most rigidly dogmatic conservative ideologue in the White House since before the great depression. What distinguished him from his father and Reagan, however, was not his free-market economics. After all, conservatives of various persuasions, along with libertarians who reject conservative social views, supported the large tax cut enacted by Congress in 2001, as well as the administration’s support for the partial privatisation of social security and school choice. But these familiar issues of the conservative and libertarian right were not what gave the Bush brand of conservatism its unique flavour. Rather it was the Texan synthesis of Protestant fundamentalism and southern militarism with an approach to economics that favours commodity capitalist enterprises like cotton and oil production over high-tech manufacturing and scientific R&D.

In truth, southern conservatives have never felt comfortable with the New Deal. In the realm of political economy, the southern reactionaries preferred the Old Deal that existed between the end of Reconstruction and the depression: a laissez-faire economy with minimal federal regulation. These anti-New Deal conservatives believed that the poor, instead of being protected by a state safety net, should rely, as they had done before 1932, on religious and private charity. (Texas has the highest number of people without health insurance in the US.) Dick Armey, a Republican representative from Dallas, spoke for this faction when, in his 1995 book ‘The Freedom Revolution’, he compared Franklin Roosevelt to Stalin and Mao; Armey was at that time the second most important national figure in the House of Representatives.

It was during the 1970s that southern conservatives first began to win important victories in national politics – ironically, by exploiting one of the proudest achievements of the New Deal, the industrialisation of the agrarian periphery. By means of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its central Texan equivalent, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), Franklin Roosevelt and his allies and prot?g?s like Lyndon Johnson brought modernity along with electricity to vast stretches of the backward south and west. But the New Deal Democrats who modernised the south and the west inadvertently gave southern and western conservatives an advantage in both politics and political economy in the final quarter of the 20th century. By creating an industrial infrastructure throughout the country, the New Dealers also gave the low-tax, low-wage states of the south and the west an advantage in competing with the industrial northeast for footloose industries.

Economies based on commodity exports, like that of traditional Texas, suffer from wild oscillations caused both by nature and markets. Instead of rewarding long-range planning and investment and careful design of the sort necessary in manufacturing, such economies encourage a combination of fatalism and speculation. The confusion of capitalism with gambling on the part of the Texan oligarchs, while it has yielded some spectacular fortunes and memorable parties, also produces titanic bankruptcies and business failures. The Texas real estate boom of the 1980s was a typical speculative bubble augmented by unethical business practices. It is significant that the collapses of Enron and WorldCom in 2002 occurred to companies headquartered, respectively, in Houston, Texas, and in Clinton, Mississippi – and that each company’s growth strategy, combined good-old-boy politicking with bluffing on a heroic scale.

The close connection between the Bush family and Enron began in 1988, when George W Bush lobbied the Argentina government on the company’s behalf. Enron’s chief executive, Kenneth Lay, joined President Bush Snr’s export council; as co-chairman of Bush’s re-election campaign, he served as chairman of the host committee of the Republican convention in Houston. After Bush lost to Clinton, two senior members of his administration – former commerce secretary Robert A Mosbacher and former secretary of state Jim Baker – were hired by Enron, which also elected Texas Senator Phil Gramm’s wife Wendy to a directorship. Wendy Gramm had been chair of the Bush administration’s commodity futures trading commission, which in 1992 created a legal exemption that enriched Enron by permitting it to trade energy derivatives. After she joined the board, her husband – who received $100,000 from Enron in campaign contributions – supported laws that exempted it from important financial reporting requirements.

Lay, who became one of George W Bush’s top fundraisers during his successful 1998 campaign for the Texas governorship, ensured that Enron was the largest corporate contributor to the Bush presidential campaign. Vice-President Dick Cheney, a Texas oilman too (in spite of his Wyoming residency), held an interest in Enron and ran the Halliburton company that built the Enron Field stadium in Houston. Bush appointed Thomas White, who was vice-chairman of Enron Energy Services, to be secretary of the army.

If Texan state capitalism is represented by the New Deal-era LCRA, Texan crony capitalism is symbolised by Enron, another enterprise that specialised in providing energy to the public. The good-old-boy network was not an abuse of traditional southern capitalism; it was traditional southern capitalism. Instead of bourgeois capitalism, the southern states have seen a rivalry between aristocratic commodity sector capitalism and a technocratic state capitalism that comes in both civilian and military forms. Crony capitalism is the only kind familiar to the southern oligarchs, descendants of planters who could not balance their books and adventurers who despised mere trade. The lesson of the Enron and WorldCom scandals is not that capitalism is unworkable. It is that capitalism only works where there are capitalists.

If George W Bush’s economic programme is rooted in Texan crony capitalism, his religious values are those of a declining but aggressive minority of Americans: southern “Bible Belt” fundamentalists. In 2000, Bush received an overwhelming majority of the votes of the shrinking minority of white Protestants and Catholics who attend church regularly and hold traditional religious beliefs. Outside of the business community, his political base was concentrated among southern “born-again” Protestants; Bush was one of them. And his zeal was shared by other leading conservatives. On 12th April 2002, Tom DeLay, the US representative from Houston who was the House majority whip, told the congregation at the First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, that President Clinton had had to be impeached because he had “the wrong worldview.” DeLay reassured the Baptists that God was using him to promote “a Biblical worldview” in American politics and warned the congregation to send its children to schools where they could obtain a “Godly education.”

Encapsulated in its own subcultural network of institutions, southern Protestant fundamentalism at the beginning of the 21st century had hardly changed from the 1920s, when it took on its present form. Beginning in the late 1970s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and later Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition mobilised the so-called religious right – really the white southern Protestant fundamentalist right, most of whom in previous generations had been conservative Democrats. Although genuine fundamentalists amount to no more than around 5 per cent of the population, the high turnout of religious-right activists in Republican primary elections enabled them to capture the Republican party by the 1990s.

The mastermind of Bush’s faith-based policy initiatives was an eccentric figure named Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas. Like many neoconservatives, Olasky was an ex-leftist. Born Jewish, the son of a Hebrew teacher in Boston, Olasky flirted with communism before converting to Protestant fundamentalism. Olasky held “Biblical” views about women, explaining in a newspaper article about the Biblical story of Deborah and Barak, “God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, but as in the situation of Deborah and Barak, there’s a certain shame attached to it. I would vote for a woman for the presidency… but again, there’s a certain shame attached. Why don’t you have a man who’s able to step forward?” Olasky wrote this around the time that the Southern Baptist Convention declared that women should “graciously submit” to their husbands.

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, and the conservative Bradley Foundation funded his book, ‘The Tragedy of American Compassion’ (1992), in which he argued for abandoning 20th-century government welfare programmes and turning over responsibility for the poor and needy to Christian charities and other religious institutions. Olasky’s tract was dismissed by serious scholars, but leading conservatives like Bill Bennett and Newt Gingrich – who compared Olasky to de Tocqueville – treated the tract as a blueprint for a new conservative social policy. George W Bush claimed to be influenced by Olasky, and promoted the sharing of government funds for welfare programmes with religious groups, even before he ran for president on the “compassionate conservatism” slogan

Since Bush became president, various pieces of religious inspired legislation have been passed, most notably the law allowing religion-based social service organisations to receive federal funds even if they discriminate on religious grounds. Southern Protestant fundamentalists were also responsible for the Bush administration’s major initiative in the area of science and technology: the attempted outlawing of embryonic stem cell research. Unable to persuade Congress to ban therapeutic cloning (because of Democratic opposition in the Senate) Bush used his authority over the executive branch to limit government subsidies for stem cell research to research efforts that used only embryos created before 9th August 2001. Bush’s decision was a defeat for the scientific establishment. A new bill, which would outlaw both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, passed the House of Representatives in late February and awaits passage through the (now Republican-controlled) Senate.

George herbert walker bush had been derided for lack of what he memorably called “the vision thing.” But George W Bush’s advisers, if not Bush himself, were visionaries with visions to spare. During the early 1990s, ensconced in the first Bush administration, foreign policy gurus like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney constructed a plan of what the 21st-century world would look like. The US must maintain its status as the sole superpower by spending more on its arsenal than most of the other major nations combined. Overriding international law and diplomacy, the US would wage “pre-emptive” wars against regimes that might pose threats, even if they did not threaten America and its allies with imminent danger. The US would free itself from its European allies and dispatch bombs and justice in solitary grandeur everywhere except in the middle east, where the US would share regional domination with Israel.

This strategy broke with US foreign policy tradition, but it had the support of two groups of former Democrat supporters: ex-leftist, mostly Jewish neoconservatives and reactionary white southern Protestant fundamentalists. These two groups now dominate the right wing of the Republican party and after 11th September 2001 they came to hugely influence the foreign policy of the executive branch. The Wolfowitz-Bush doctrine of unilateral militarism, influenced by the Israeli government, was easily identified with the preferred foreign policy tradition of the American south, dating back to the earliest years of the Republic. If it seems bizarre to both establishment conservatives and mainstream liberals, it is only because no southern conservative had been elected to the White House between the pre-civil war era and 2000.

White southerners are not isolationists or pacifists. On the contrary, from the 18th century until the present, they have been more eager than white northerners to support American wars abroad. As John B Judis has pointed out in the ‘American Prospect’, in a Gallup poll last August southerners favoured an invasion of Iraq by 62 per cent to 34 per cent, while midwesterners were almost evenly divided – 47 per cent in favour and 44 per cent against. But the support of white southerners for military intervention abroad is not to be confused with internationalism. Rather, it takes the form of unilateral militarism, which is compatible with a contempt for civilian diplomacy. White southerners have always been disproportionately represented in the armed forces – and greatly under-represented amongst members of the foreign service, which until recently was a bastion of patrician northeasterners. The Mason-Dixon line might as well run along the Potomac between the Pentagon and the State department.

The dispute over the conduct of the conflict with Iraq is not, then, primarily one between Europe and America. It is a battle between southern and western conservatives, allied with some northeastern intellectuals, and “Euramerica” – Europe plus the northeast, midwest and west coast of the US. The former group is trying to dismantle the post-1945 Rooseveltian world system-built around the UN, Nato and so on – an order never accepted in the south and west.

Installed by the dominant southern and western conservative faction of the Supreme Court, George W Bush, the candidate opposed by most American voters in the election of 2000, has used the power of the presidency to promote the economic and foreign policy agenda of the southern right: a massive tax cut at the centre of domestic policy and, in foreign policy, Protestant-fundamentalist-inspired support for the Likud party of Israel combined with a more unilateral projection of force around the world. From its conception of economics in terms of the exploitation of cheap labour and the plundering of nonrenewable natural resources and its plan to replace the modern social safety net with “faith-based” religious charity, to its minimal-government political theory, its bellicose militarism, and its Bible belt Christian Zionism, the second Bush administration illustrates the centuries-old traditions of the southern oligarchy, of which the traditional Texan elite is a regional variant. Today’s southern right combines the political economy of plantation owners with the fundamentalist religion of hillbillies. In the 21st century, the right in Texas remains a museum of 17th and 18th-century rural British traditions that died out long ago in Britain itself and in other parts of the English-speaking world. The reasons for the persistence of these archaic traditions in southern states like Texas has been poverty, social conservatism, and the absence of immigration of the kind which created diverse melting-pot cultures in other regions of the US.

As long as the influence of the southern oligarchy was confined to the south, it was a menace chiefly to the living standards and liberty of ordinary southerners, white and black alike. But when the vast power of the federal apparatus passed to southern reactionaries and their allies, it gave the southern oligarchs their chance to threaten the peace and well-being of America. Let us hope that this aberrant president – one of the worst in American history – will be followed by others more worthy of the office, who will repair the damage that has already been done.

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