An Incomplete Portrait of Texas

by Published on

New York Times columnist Gail Collins noticed a certain intrigue about Texas in 2009 when Gov. Rick Perry made this now famous suggestion at a tea party rally in Austin: If Washington, D.C., becomes too much to bear, Texas might be inclined to secede. “Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot,” he added.

Perry and Collins aren’t likely to agree on a single point of policy, but the governor’s statement about Texas is one Collins would no doubt affirm, and an idea she explores in her new book, As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.

The book first acquaints readers with Texans’ adoration for the Alamo and what Collins’ terms “the law of empty places”—a tendency among Texans to see themselves not as residents of a fairly urban state, but as isolated frontiersmen who do just fine without big government. This worldview, she argues, becomes the basis of the national tea party agenda. What follows is a tour of the various political fiascos borne from this ideology, then exported to other parts of the country: deregulation of a range of industries, education “reform,” textbook design, abstinence-only sex education and a relaxation (to put it mildly) of environmental protections.

As Texas Goes… is a helpful survey of the state’s many political contradictions: Where Perry heralds a strong economy with a business-friendly climate, Collins finds “a high- tax state for low-income workers.” For Observer regulars, the book is a useful refresher course, an occasion to pause, shake their heads and remind themselves that another painful legislative session is coming up. For a national audience, the book is a cautionary tale: “If Texas goes South,” Collins warns, “it’s taking us along.”

The chapters that highlight more recent political travesties are particularly prescient. Collins revisits the birth of No Child Left Behind, the federal standards-based education reform signed by President George W. Bush in 2001 and inspired by the model he grew to love in Texas. Collins details how the law’s emphasis on testing failed to increase proficiency and cultivated fear among educators and students. Her observation that teaching to the test works until the test itself is reformed (and scores suddenly drop) is particularly haunting. Just this week, state lawmakers convened to puzzle over a 55 percent passing rate among high school students on the newly instituted STAAR exam. In this and other chapters, Collins touches on the actual toll paid by young Texans, or women or the state’s growing minority population as a result of state policies. It’s refreshing to see a national writer of Collins’ stature draw attention to policies that keep Texas at the bottom of so many lists—school performance, health care, teen pregnancy. But then she worries how those in Vermont might ultimately pay the price.

In some moments, the book appears guilty of the very thing it attributes to the Lone Star State. To say “Texas runs everything” (emphasis Collins’) is to enact the same false bravado and hyperbole as Perry. To her credit, Collins points to exceptions and the fact that other states wield their own brand of influence. But even as she reminds us Texas wasn’t the only state to suggest the Environmental Protection Agency ought to limit regulation, for example, she then returns to her argument that Texas bears the brunt of the responsibility for recent attacks on the EPA.

What Collins describes in the way of environmental or energy deregulation isn’t entirely particular or peculiar to Texas. For decades, national politics have favored corporate largess at the expense of citizens and have increasingly advanced policies that widen the divide between rich and poor. Texas political leaders are exceptionally skillful on this count, as Collins rightly notes. As an oil-rich state with one of the largest populations in the nation, Texas has certainly left a greater footprint than states like Oregon or Wisconsin. But in the end, As Texas Goes… fails to deepen the understanding of the state for those who live here and those who don’t.

The book aims to temper its political seriousness with Collins’ well-known humor, but at times her light-hearted jabs feel flat, even condescending. Texans—being independent minded—recoil at New Yorkers scrutinizing their way of life. Likening the state’s population boom to the reproductive cycle of a jackrabbit doesn’t help. Not to mention that the description is more clichéd than cute—even if the impulse is worthy.

Ultimately, the book feels a little hurried, though Collins had good reason to publish it when she did with a high-stakes presidential campaign looming. As Texas Goes… is a worthy undertaking, but not fully realized. To develop a complete portrait of a state this large and absurd is difficult after only a few years—and even after a lifetime.

Cecily Sailer is a freelance writer and education programs manager for the Austin nonprofit Badgerdog Literary Publishing.

Freelance writer Cecily Sailer lives in Austin.