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The Texafication of the USA

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Driving north of Austin toward Dallas during the early days of my work on the Observer, suddenly I had one of those counterintuitive ideas that chill your brain. Could it be, I thought, that instead of what we’re working for—Texas growing into a more just, less racist place—the opposite will happen? The United States will become just like greedy, reactionary, racist, poverty-blighted, religion-ridden Texas? It was one of the clichés among us on the Observer that we were dragging our state, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. But lo and behold, as of November 2nd this year, Texas has dragged the United States back into the 19th.

My premonition was hard to credit, back then. After all, we were competing for the bottom among the worst of the Southern states on poverty, unemployment benefits, worker’s compensation, aid for impoverished children, education, health, you name it. Apart from within the Lone Star State itself, the only equally threatening concentration of the same weird forces we were fighting—the book censors, the superpatriots, the fundamentalist zealots, gay-bashers, hate-the-poor greedheads, kill-’em warlovers, and the slick skyscraper men silently servicing, up and down the elevators, the corporations and the banks—was in Southern California. We simply could not have imagined that, after John Kennedy was murdered, presidents from those very two zones of darkness would rule the United States for two-thirds of the next 45 years.

In the ’50s, the liberals in the Texas Capitol fought every other year to head off a general sales tax. In 1961, State Senator Charlie Wilson, the sometime liberal from Lufkin, slipped that tax into law. Now, half a century later, President George W. Bush of Crawford, Texas—having repealed enough taxes on the rich to kill the government, in due course, as the people’s friend, and allegedly given a mandate by his ostensible three-point victory for his second term (not to mention his 3-to-2 victory in Texas)—is proposing to abolish the progressive federal income tax and replace it, so we are told, either with a general sales tax or a flat-rate tax.

When we started out, the major oil companies ruled the politics and politicians of the state. The Texas Railroad Commission served as the production regulator for the international oil cartel. Today the president from Texas and his vice-president from Halliburton and Brown & Root rule the United States, gutting renewable energy projects while promoting coal power and reviving nuclear power, and, as if in our names, waging an illegal war of aggression against 25 million Iraqis 6,000 miles away, half of them aged 14 years or under, to get control of their oil and join the Bushes’ special ally, Saudi Arabia, in fixing the prices for the same international oil cartel.

Those days in politics, as Lyndon Johnson once said to me in the White House about Brown & Root, “It was all cash.†The legislature and the governor’s mansion were servants’ quarters for the corporations and the multimillionaires. Only about 30 rebels in the House of 150 members and a few in the Senate actively, if hopelessly, defended the public interest. In 2004, for the first time, the spending in the race for U.S. president broke a billion dollars, and total federal election spending for the year—most of it, of course, money from the rich and the corporations—fell just shy of four billion dollars. As I asked “What Corrupted Texas?†in Harper’s Magazine in 1957, so now we must ask “What Corrupted the United States?†Big corporations and big money corrupted Texas then and big corporations and big money have corrupted the United States now.

One would have had to stretch it, back then, to call Texas a democracy. Seen as a system unto itself, it was a corrupt oligarchy, endorsed and abetted, rather than challenged, by its mainstream press—in substance, precursive fascism, still democratic in form. After November 2nd last, one now would have to stretch it to call the Texafied United States a democracy. It is a corrupt oligarchy, protected and celebrated by a mainline TV industry that is the first privately owned propaganda system in the history of major modern nations. Instead of stepping forward for national health insurance, Bush II, protected by this propaganda system, is gutting Medicare, letting private corporations betray the workers to whom they owe pensions, and preparing to kill Social Security. In place of the rifles and pistols the Texas Rangers used to keep the Mexican Americans and blacks in line, the Texafied United States deploys the superpower’s nuclear weapons, our helicopter gunships and heat-seeking missiles, and soon to be, our long-range weapons circling every nation on earth day and night in space. After Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, the United States, too, is crypto-fascism with lingering democratic forms, and during Bush II’s second term, depending on the nature and extent of his further uses of force against other nations and against us ourselves, we may be plain fascist.

Many more factors than those in and from Texas and Southern California brought us to this pass, this emergency, but concerning our distinctive contributions from Texas, we may be able to identify some general causes and some turning points.

The liberal-populist U.S. Senator from Texas, Ralph Yarborough, said to me before he died that one thing that’s gone badly wrong is that not enough forward-looking people are running for office. Even when losing, he said, good people, just by running, hold forth before the young the image and the idea of the high-minded public leader advancing good ideas, and that encourages others to run, too.

For decades too long, in my opinion, we have confused the form for the substance, that is, the political parties for the power. The real power belongs to the ever-grabbing wealth-centers, the gigantic corporations, they who and which do the governing and they who and which have systematically destroyed real free-enterprise competition and with it, democracy. We have been insufficiently radical about the control, limitation, and redistribution of excessive wealth and power. The decline of the Democratic Party as the people’s champion occurred because we the people who should have led it instead let our politicians keep compromising with the real power and let the obscenely rich keep getting obscenely richer and let the gigantic corporations keep getting even more gigantic.

In Texas we had some reason, in the late 1950s, to think we were inhaling sustenance from our illusions. The humanist radical Frankie Randolph of Houston became the national Democratic committeewoman from Texas; Yarborough was elected to the U.S. Senate; upwards to 50 state representatives, led by the delegations from Houston and San Antonio, fought the interests in the Capitol; the eloquent Mexican-American Henry Gonzalez filibustered the racist legislation of the era in the Texas Senate; and what could be seen to be a people’s movement emerged, all in the second half of the fifties.

In 1960, however, Kennedy chose Johnson to be his vice-president, killing almost at once (for in his own state Johnson was a corrupt conservative party boss) the people’s surge in Texas. We fought our way back toward a liberal takeover of the statehouse with Don Yarborough, who was in position to beat Johnson’s man Friday, John Connally, for governor—until the assassins hit Connally, too, on November 22, 1963. In 1970 Ralph Yarborough was defeated for re-election by the power structure’s candidate, Lloyd Bentsen, and the people’s gains and hopes of the ’50s went a-glimmering. Election night, Yarborough drew me into his office and contended intensely for about an hour and a half that he should now be drafted for President. I did not respond. I wonder sometimes now if I should have agreed with him. He was the best of all of us in action.

Jim Hightower, upon leaving the Observer editorship, became Yarborough’s natural successor, and after some years of brilliantly innovative service in lower offices he moved into position to run a winning race for the U.S. Senate against Republican Phil Gramm. I believed, and told Jim, that after a few years as senator he could become a winning candidate for president. The liberal movement drew deep breath and organized behind Hightower for the Senate until Jim suddenly decided, for personal reasons, not to run. The Texas liberal movement collapsed again, this time like a punctured balloon; Hightower even lost his lesser state office.

Attorney General Jim Mattox might have made a great liberal governor, but there was a grave financial question about why he had failed to enforce the law during the enormous savings and loan scandal that could not be ignored, evaded, or dissolved. That, too, was a turning point, when the Observer, which I was then editing for a short spell, did not endorse Mattox for governor. A liberal team had done well statewide as Ann Richards had become governor, and for a time it looked as if the promise of the ’50s might be realized in the ’80s. But then a vacancy occurred in the U.S. Senate from Texas. Governor Richards had the power to appoint anyone she chose as the successor for the interim before the special election. Lloyd Doggett, who was then on the Supreme Court, should have been appointed. Or Jim Hightower. Or Judge Wayne Justice of Tyler. But in the purest act of propitiatory suicide the Democrats of Texas ever generated and countenanced, Richards chose Bentsen’s favorite, Bob Krueger, a hyperconservative former Democratic congressman who promptly lost, of course, to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Little wonder, with such wretched Democratic leadership, Texas went for Reagan both times.

Came along, then, to run for governor against Richards, one George W. Bush. Holed up in a beachside motel in Port Aransas, I watched the two of them on the TV in a climactic “debate.†Ann Richards said NOTHING. George W. Bush said NOTHING. It was one of the most pitiful excuses for a debate I ever saw. It was as if the people of Texas were all either morons or nitwits. Voila! Karl Rove groomed his new Governor Bush, and exploding forth directly from the cumulative failure of the Texas liberal movement, in December 2000 Jim Baker persuaded the Supreme Court to stop recounting the votes in Florida and Bush II began his eight years as the president and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

None of this is to say that any blow for liberty and justice struck in Texas during the past 50 years has been in vain. As the historian Hugh Seton-Watson has written, “There will be no sudden miraculous and sensational victory over the powers of darkness…. Every blow against injustice… should be struck… because it will lessen the volume of injustice in the world.â€

Neither need this extremity now be the end of democracy, or of the United States as we think we have known it. Even facing, to our amazement, fascism, the question recurs: What do we do next? Should we by the millions withhold an agreed-upon portion of our income taxes and put the money into escrow, to disburse when the federal government serves the people again, or farm it out to local and state governments? Build a new country in this one through a continuing program of gradually more massive tax refusal? In the event of another war of aggression launched by this latest president from Texas, who evidently really believes he is the chosen and personal agent of the Christian God, perhaps we should nonviolently occupy Washington as Martin Luther King, Jr. was crusading for us to do 10 days before he was murdered. What do you suggest? Now is the time to say. Could we disparate, touchy, ego-driven, all too human Americans possibly get ourselves together, if the provocation matures, for a general strike? Only in the people cohering is there enough strength among us to take the country back from those who now own and wield it lawlessly and violently against the peace, life, and dignity of humanity. Can we cohere? We did not, for long enough, in Texas. So we will try again, and this next time for long enough, in Texas and in the United States.

Ronnie Dugger is the founding editor and publisher of The Texas Observer and a current member of the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation. He is the author of The Politicians: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson and On Reagan: The Man and His Presidency.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.