Talking Texas with Gail Collins


A version of this story ran in the August 2012 issue.

In her new book, As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, New York Times columnist Gail Collins examines the political influence of Texas on the nation. The Texas Observer interviewed Collins during her book tour in Texas.

Texas Observer: To pose a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is it that Texas just happens to be a beacon in a growing national conservative landscape, or has the state made a concerted effort to steer national politics?

Gail Collins: It’s always an American tendency to presume there was a plot of some sort, and there’s not a plot on the part of Texas to take over the world. But there is a synergy there. In part, it has to do with Texas’ desire to control its own destiny to a degree that it steers the entire destiny of the country. I’m sure if it was possible to eliminate any global warming rules from every enterprise having to do with Texas, then Texas might not care if the rest of the country was into global warming or not. But Texas business interests really, really care about global warming, and they’re certainly driving the country.

TO: Perhaps natural to Texas are the contradictions that bubble up, some of them absurd or unbelievable, some of them tragic. Is there one you use when you talk about the state?

GC: There are many, many points at which Texas has benefitted from federal public works projects. Even today, Texas could not run its [economy] if it wasn’t importing the product of the university systems in other states that spend more on their systems than Texas does. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t come here, but I’ve never heard a thank you from Texas. A little acknowledgement would be nice.

TO:You touch on President Johnson in the book. He’s a great example of the contradictions you’re exploring in Texas, but he’s also a great example of an iconic Texan who rose to the national level and advanced progressive policies. How do you factor in other liberal icons: Jesse Jones, Ann Richards, or Sarah Weddington?

GC: For a long time, you had in Texas a Democratic Party that was made up of both conservative and liberal elements. But when the Republican stigma vanished and the conservative Democrats could leap over to the other side, [the state Democratic Party] was so outnumbered. The liberal Democrats were only able to succeed on the statewide level, at times, because they had that conservative Democrat ballast there to give them numbers. Since that dissolved, they’ve been flopping around like flounders on a beach waiting for the demographics to save them. It’s really kind of pathetic.

TO: Is there any lingering effect of their work, or has their power been so sufficiently diminished that it’s difficult to see any impressions they left?

GC: They’re pretty marginalized. I must say they’re wonderful people, and I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with them, but they need to find their own way back. Clearly, they understand their future road to success hinges on developing the Hispanic vote. In Texas, you’ve got this monstrously huge state with a huge birth rate, which is going to become majority Hispanic very soon. Texas, to its credit, doesn’t have the ideological hysteria about immigration issues that you see in some other places along the border. But it’s also a state that can afford to do anything it wants to do when it comes to improving its education system, its health care system. If Texas chose, using the best of its heritage, to incorporate and educate the upcoming Hispanic majority … Texas would be leading the country to a great new place. The state has that capacity. Or it could just take us all down into a ditch. Whatever it chooses. But I can’t help noticing you’ve got four new congressional seats in Texas, and Hispanics, who are almost entirely responsible for the growth, are going to get maybe one of those, if they’re lucky.

TO: As you travel outside Texas promoting the book, what’s the prevailing assumption about the state that you find yourself correcting?

GC: I get very disturbed when people presume that because I’m critical of the politics of Texas that I’m critical about Texans as people. There’s a tendency to extrapolate, which I work fairly hard to correct when I’m out there.

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