By Gail Collins – This funny-but-serious political analysis is a good, quick read. The book came about when Collins realized that “Without anyone much noting it,” Texas has “taken a starring role in the twenty-first-century national political discussion.” Certainly, it has produced a goodly number of memorable politicians in the last quarter-century: Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, up-and-comer John Cornyn, Ron Paul, Karl Rove, Rick Perry, ex-President Bush II, and the inimitable H. Ross Perot.
The state has had outsized influence in many spheres, says Collins in As Texas Goes…, subtitling her book “How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” On prosperity: the 2008 economic meltdown was largely the result of financial deregulation inspired by Phil Gramm. On education: although its influence on school textbook content across the nation may be waning, the Texas State Board of Education’s past actions promoted its conservative, anti-scientific, and ahistorical views on a generation of Americans. (At one point, the Board included a member “who believed public schools are the tool of the devil,” Collins reports.) On national energy policy: the state’s representatives, attuned to the needs of the local oil and gas industry, shape national energy policy and denigrate global warming. And, as the New York Times review picked out, Texas leaders have been “entangling us in an occasional war.”
Collins’s theory about the source of Texans’ attitudes are illuminating. “You have to start with the great, historic American division between the people who live in crowded places and the people who live in empty places.” In crowded places, you need rules to protect you from other people’s intrusive behavior; in empty places, you do not. In fact, you don’t want government rules and programs. Tom DeLay was once asked whether there were any government regulations worth keeping, he said, “None that I can think of.” That’s empty-space thinking. And, she says, “The current Tea Party strain in the Republican party is all about the empty-place ethos.”
Ironically, Texans holds fast to their empty-place perspective, even though eight out of 10 of them live in a major population area. Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas. Most Americans probably consider Fort Worth no more than an upstart cousin of Dallas, but its population is larger than that of Seattle, Boston, or Denver.
If you want to read about outsize personalities who sometimes need to lasso it in, and how the country got to where it is in important policy areas, you might enjoy this entertaining and well-researched book. “Don’t mess with Texas” began as an anti-littering campaign slogan, but it’s taken on a larger life and now may need a coda: “but Texas is messing with you.”