Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is America Becoming More Texan?

Recently I saw an interesting map of internal immigration within the United States, in which black lines represented people moving into Texas, while red lines represented those leaving. The cities of Austin, Houston and Dallas were three black holes sucking in human bodies from the Midwest, East and West coasts. Los Angeles and San Diego on the other hand were explosions of red as people fled outwards.

This may seem strange to outsiders as California and New York still dominate media representations of the United States. If you believe movies and TV, California remains a paradise of beaches, palm trees and movie stars while New York is a sophisticated metropolis buzzing with music, art and interesting crime. Texas is a nightmare zone of Creationists, hillbillies and death by lethal injection, where towns have strange names, like Chocolate Bayou (pop.60).

Of course it is true that California has great weather and many wealthy people - God’s trade off for this good fortune being frequent forest fires and the occasional earthquake. And in Texas there are indeed many conservative rural areas, while Texans really are the most enthusiastic practitioners of execution in the country- although Californians also kill convicts.

So why then are people leaving California (and elsewhere) and moving to Texas? The reasons supplied by professional analysts/windbags are always the same- taxes are too high in California; a bloated state sector is driving the state to bankruptcy; business opportunities are strangled by red tape, etc. In fact, California is so broke that the state sends out IOUs instead of tax refunds.

Texas on the other hand is a low tax state, with an anti-big government attitude - it’s a lot easier to hire and fire and start your own business here. Indeed, hostility to government interference is enshrined in the Texas Constitution which limits the state Congress to meeting for 140 days every odd year. This makes it difficult for politicians to get anything done, which is precisely what most Texans want. On the other hand, you get fewer social services and Texas is still facing a $13 billion deficit at the end of the financial year: hi-ho!

Still, people vote with their feet and if demographics are any guide, then Texan policies are a success- for now at least. The population of the state grew by 20% to 25 million in the last decade. As a result, Texas will soon gain four new seats in the House of Representatives, giving it more voting power in Washington. By contrast, New York loses one while California remains static for the first time in history.

So is America turning Texan? Is an era of low taxation and high executions looming? Maybe not: naturally, people emigrating here from the East and West bring their own political cultures with them. Williamson County where I live is a conservative place, where judges mete out the kind of harsh punishments traditionally associated with Texas justice. In the last set of elections, however, there was a civil war in the local Democrat party between locals and “outsiders.” Favoring ideology over practicality, these newcomers campaigned for replicating the conditions of the more liberal cities they had so recently abandoned. They are still outnumbered by conservatives, however, and were duly annihilated in the polls.

Then of course there is the joy of “gerrymandering,” whereby politicians carve out electoral districts with completely unnatural shapes to ensure that they contain the maximum number of voters from one party. That may sound like a corrupt manipulation of the democratic system, and it is, but it is also perfectly legal so long as a few rules are observed. Naturally both parties gerrymander whenever they have the opportunity, and right now Republicans are by far the most powerful political force in Texas. Will they attempt to engineer four new Democrat-free zones?

Well, I’ve read a few articles and the professional analysts/windbags reckon the redistricting will split down the middle with two seats going to each party, although most of them admit that in fact they have no clue how things will develop.

Consider this, however: since 1940, 79 seats have moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the Southwest. Thus the growth in power and population of Texas is part of a longstanding trend.  As people have flooded south, however, America has changed radically, becoming more diverse population-wise and much more accommodating to minorities, while Congress has enacted major civil rights legislation. Meanwhile the president who passed the greatest quantity of this socially transformative legislation was Lyndon B. Johnson- a Texan, born and bred.

And so perhaps the only legitimate conclusion to draw is an ancient one, that of Heraclitus: change is life’s only constant and you can’t step in the same river twice. But you will always get your feet wet.

First published 31/12/2010