In “As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, ” New York Times columnist Gail Collins explores the colorful history of the Lone Star state and its growing influence on American politics as a hard-right power-player.
She gives us Gramm and DeLay and Perry and both Bushes, health textbooks that don’t mention condoms, homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny, oil barons and guns and the Alamo, the talk of secession as recently as 2009. In short, stuff meant to make the knees of us Northern liberals knock together.
When she’s at her best, Collins unpacks these issues in a nuanced way, showing how they come to affect those of us beyond the state’s borders. A chapter on how Texas has influenced the textbooks kids all over the country read is particularly good.
But too often, Collins finds herself constructing her argument on shaky supports, the logic in service of her narrative and not the other way around.
For example, a chapter devoted to Phil Gramm, whose political career took place in Texas but who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in Georgia, while interesting, seems to assert that his histrionic opposition to financial regulations stems from the state’s Empty Place ethos.
Crowded Places, like Chicago and New York, need rules and regulations to maintain order. We think about gun control, for instance, because we live shoulder to shoulder with three-million people, and don’t want the person next to us on the Red Line to be packing.
But Empty Places, she explains, have different concerns. If someone, say, breaks into your house, it might take twenty minutes at best for a cop to show up. It might make more sense then to have a gun. Regulations just get in the way when there’s no one there really to regulate.
While a sound parsing of the big-government-small-government debate, Collins fails to explain to a reader how this makes Texas different from Gramm’s home state of Georgia, or Wyoming, or anywhere in Illinois south of I-80.
No doubt our environments shape who we are and what we believe in. But if you’re going to claim, as her subtitle does, that a state has “hijacked the American agenda,” you’re going to need something a little stronger than “Gramm… represents what happened when the empty-places philosophy turned toward financial regulation” and a description of him as someone “in love with the vision of endless financial prairies where Americans could enjoy the blessings of a free market, roaming unfettered by federal regulation like happy mustangs on the range.”
Liberals might ultimately agree with Collins that Texas is throwing its unique heft behind some pretty out-there conservative causes, but they’re basically powerless to stop it once they close the book jacket. And I can’t imagine conservative Texans will be swayed by any of this; on the contrary, I suspect conservatives around America will regard some of the less-pleasant byproducts of Texas’ right-wing tendencies as unfortunate but necessary trade-offs for freedom, a price to be paid for their ideals.
The result is a pretty impotent book. Disappointing coming from one of my favorite columnists, whose last book, “When Everything Changed,” was a very good exploration of the issues faced by women over the last fifty years.
In the past, she has used that witty, butter-smooth prose voice of hers to foster understanding, her acumen to show us where we are in relation to where we aspire to be. In “As Texas Goes…,” though, too many turns of phrase feel bitter and sardonic, her thesis interesting but ultimately inconclusive and unsatisfying. Worst of all, in fighting the simplified bully politics she feels Texas has injected into American life, she engages in the very divisive polemics she warns against. (Eric Lutz)
“As Texas Goes…”
By Gail Collins
Liveright, 288 pages, $26