Liberals talk about Texas the way conservatives talk about France, only with more passion and profanity. During an appearance on Don Imus’s radio show in 2007, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “I’m so sick of southern guys with ranches running this country. I want a guy to run for president who doesn’t have a f***ing ranch.” Asked why he was swearing on the air, Matthews said, “I don’t know. I got excited.” F-ing excited.
This is what Texas does to liberals.
In her new book, As Texas Goes . . . : How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, Gail Collins, an Ohioan by birth and a New York Times columnist, says that Texas is running the country and also ruining it. In her view, Texas is “frequently somewhat lunatic,” as evidenced, for example, by “its completely crazy abstinence-only sex education in high school,” “its lunatic war on family planning,” and its board of education’s “overall craziness.”
To be sure, Texas politicians can be unhinged at times. In 2003, Representative Debbie Riddle of Houston asked, “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” Such talk is not only uncivil and theologically unsound but also factually inaccurate. The idea of free education, after all, came from Leningrad, not Moscow.
Texas’s craziness wouldn’t be so ominous but for the fact that, according to Collins, “Texas runs everything.” Whether or not it does, it is clear that liberals want to run everything in Texas. For example: “We,” Collins told Rachel Maddow, “should get to have a little bit of a say about whether or not there is any family planning [in Texas].”
Among the problems Collins finds in the state are “a tax system that favors the wealthy”; lax environmental regulations; a “stupendous lack of enthusiasm for ongoing social services”; the state’s gun laws; its voter-identification laws (“your gun license counts as a voter ID but not your university ID card”); weak labor unions; low voter turnout, specifically among minorities and other traditional Democratic constituencies; “education privatization”; its school textbooks; its style of sex education, which teaches that having sex carries the risk of “transmission of the Ebola virus”; its population growth (surprisingly high for a state where Ebola is an STD); “the almost complete lack of state family planning funds”; “a two-tiered economy in which the failing underclass looks resentfully at the happy sliver on the top”; and “its obsession with states’ rights.” Texas’s problems, you see, are mostly conservative problems. And the cure is liberalism, or what Collins calls “the American agenda.”
The debate, of course, really isn’t about Texas’s problems so much as it is about the Left’s problems with Texas. As far back as 1964, The Nation found “something rotten in the state of Texas.” Twenty years later, Nicholas Lemann deemed Texans to be “sorely lacking in compassion” (i.e., sorely lacking in government social programs). Michael Lind faulted Texas for having “a primitive extractive economy,” “inadequate spending on public goods like education and pollution abatement,” and “a cruel caste society” in which minorities toil for the benefit of “a cultivated but callous oligarchy of rich white families.” A liberal columnist for the St. Petersburg Times said that even friendly Texans “have conservatism’s instinctive meanness.” The late Molly Ivins referred to Texas as “the National Laboratory for Bad Government” (a title more suitable for the District of Columbia).
This last point is an important one. One of the advantages of federalism is that it allows each state to serve as a laboratory of democracy. “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system,” Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, “that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Inevitably, the results aren’t always gratifying. But just because you don’t like the way one state conducts its affairs, that is no reason to subvert the experimental process.
What liberals don’t like about Texas is their inability to transform it. “The rest of the country can’t do all that much to dictate where Texas goes,” Collins laments, “what with states’ rights, states’ rights, states’ rights.” She wants Americans to “work together for our great national goals [i.e., liberal goals] rather than obsessing so much about how we want to be left alone.” Is it any wonder that Texans want to be left alone when New York Times columnists seek to convert their state into a big Massachusetts?
If Texas is inflicting damage on the country, federalism can mitigate the damage. It cannot solve the problems in Texas, but it can contain most of them. Sometimes the best way to settle disagreements is to avoid them. As a general rule, it’s better to localize the problems than to nationalize the solutions. Let Texans mess with Texas.
— Windsor Mann is the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.