If you own a TV, you would have to be the planet’s luckiest person to have avoided infinite viewings of Gov. Rick Perry’s closing commercial of the primary campaign. It got more airtime during the Olympics than curling. “Washington is broken,” the governor began. He was perched comfily in front of a huge Texas flag, wearing the brown bomber jacket he donned for last year’s Tax Day tea-party rallies and has kept in heavy wardrobe rotation ever since. “As the federal government grows more intrusive with mandates and unprecedented debt, we believe that Texans, not federal bureaucrats, know what’s best for our state. That’s why I rejected federal dollars with strings attached, and will fight misguided health and energy policies that will raise taxes on our families. As governor, I’ll always champion our Tenth Amendment, which is supposed to keep Washington from messing with Texas.”
It was a perfectly fine spot, if you didn’t search too deeply into its truthiness or its implications. Certainly it was a fitting close to Phase One of the 2010 campaign in Texas, which was unofficially kicked off by Perry’s tea-party cry for “states’ rights! states’ rights! states’ rights!” last April. On that day, he introduced what became the central—and practically only—theme of his campaign.
“The folks in Washington, D.C,” he said, his Southern accent thickened for the occasion. “They’re overturnin’ our rights, one after another, makin’ choices that would leave our foundin’ fathers scratchin’ their heads.”
It’s been like that ever since—not only in PerryWorld, but in the surprisingly lively campaign of libertarian Debra Medina, and at the tea parties that continue to flame up around Texas. If you noticed, Perry’s big closing ad contained no answer at all to the most traditional question one might ask a candidate for governor: What will you do for the state during those four years if we elect you? Perry’s only response: I’ll fight off an imaginary federal invasion.
It’s an interesting strategy: Separate politics from actual political issues. But it’s one that the Republican Party is adopting nationally (see Congress; hear Rush Limbaugh and Fox News). It’s funny to think that, only 20 years ago, we had a Republican president from Texas whose self-diagnosed weakness was a lack of “the vision thing.” These days, Republicans have a problem the opposite of Bush 41’s: They have nothing but vision. Ronald Reagan’s inaugural line from 1981—“government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”—has been adopted as gospel and stretched to its extreme. Government is broken, the thinking goes. Now let’s break it for good.
Many on the right—and certainly many in Texas—would love to liberate their fellow citizens from the iron grasp of government. But there is no real plan for doing it. Pragmatics have never been a particular concern of the far right, but the new message seems uniquely untethered to reality. That’s true whether you’re on the Rick Perry end of things, turning the governance of Texas into a constant round of “Blame Washington” poker, or further out on the Debra Medina right, where you favor eliminating property taxes and asserting “state sovereignty” through “nullification and interposition.”
And that is going to mean what, exactly, for my utility bills and my kids’ college tuition?
In his history of nativist movements in America, The Party of Fear, David H. Bennett notes this about folks who’ve been attracted to right-wing populist upswellings: They “did not invent the crises of values they saw developing around them. … Their ‘solutions’ to these problems may have been irrelevant, inappropriate, and destructive, but their fears were rooted in reality.”
At the same time, Bennett writes, these movements “have been organized out of the fear that their America was threatened by powerful, sinister, and conspiratorial adversaries.”
Today the powerful, sinister and conspiratorial adversary is the federal government. The federal government is no longer a flawed instrument of the people: It’s commies and queers and colored people and abortionists and terror-sympathizers and illegal immigrants and the intellectual elite and the liberal media all rolled into one. It’s bad. It must be stopped.
How? Well, there’s the Tenth Amendment, you see, and nullification and interposition and Thomas Jefferson and … And if this kind of ludicrously abstract politics flies—even in Texas, even in 2010—then we’ll seriously have to wonder whether the people themselves have, at long last, broken loose from reality.