Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics
by Michael Lind
Basic. 201 pp. $24.00
Good Republican soldier that he is, Trent Lott finally fell on his sword, but the Lott affair itself will not be dispatched so neatly. In the course of a few short weeks in December, the then-majority leader of the Senate managed to suggest that his party was both sympathetic to the Jim-Crow South of 1948 and deeply mistaken in its resistance to affirmative action, a policy that the Mississippian, interviewed in full contrition mode, now declared himself to support “across the board.” How much this episode will damage the political and moral standing of the GOP remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: it has presented a windfall to Michael Lind, whose new book, a polemic against “the Southern takeover of American politics,” could not have been more perfectly timed.
Many of Lind’s arguments in Made in Texas will be familiar to those who have followed his career since his loudly self-trumpeted break from the world of conservative opinion journalism in the mid-1990’s. Like not a few very prolific writers, Lind has begun to repeat himself. One finds elements here of his elaborate paradigm of U.S. history in The Next American Nation (1995), of his conspiracy-minded indictment of the corporate elite and the “overclass” in Up from Conservatism (1996), of the policy nostrums that he (and his coauthor Ted Halstead) hawked in The Radical Center (2001), and of the loathing for the religious Right and the South that has imbued so much of his work.
What saves this slender volume from being an entirely recycled product is his new take on these well-worn themes. As Lind now sees it, getting to the root of today’s most pernicious political and economic developments, especially as they relate to George W. Bush, demands a fuller understanding of the role played in the nation’s recent history by our most outsized and myth-enshrouded state. We must, he insists, delve deep into the dark heart of Texas.
A native Texan himself, Lind is eager to disabuse readers of the image of the Lone Star State they are likely to have absorbed from popular lore and Hollywood. The great geographic bulk of Texas may lie in the Great Plains and the Southwest, but the state’s wealth, power, and population have always been concentrated in its eastern reaches, “the green, well-watered, humid, wooded, and flat area to the east of Austin and the north of Houston and Galveston.” It is in this less familiar quarter of the state, Lind believes, that one discovers its true historical identity. Concealed beneath the costume of the tough, taciturn cowboy is, he writes, “a white-suited Southern planter. Texas is a Southern state masquerading as a Western state.”
As Lind reminds us, Texas played a key role in the Confederacy and, with the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s, adopted a racist regime every bit as brutal and implacable as that of the Deep South. Nor were newly freed blacks the first minority to feel the wrath of the state’s dominant “tribe.” The Anglo-Celtic Protestants who settled Texas (and much of the rest of the South) could point to a long tradition of “conquering and expropriating other ethnic nations,” from the native Irish Catholics of far-away Ulster to the Indians and Mexicans of the New World. From this bloody history of domination emerged, Lind writes, “a people as militaristic as the ancient Spartans,” a fact evident even now, he suggests, in the Southern drawl with which the American soldier so often speaks.
With the withdrawal of Union troops after Reconstruction, political power returned, in Lind’s telling, to the region’s oligarchic establishment, a small class of landowners who, in connivance with investors from more enlightened parts of the country, wished to see Texas and the South as a whole remain a commodity-producing economic backwater. As Lind says of these plantation-style arrangements, “the terms that were negotiated . . . were unfavorable to the Southern white and black majority, but very favorable to the Southern rich, who were given a free hand by the Northeastern elite in crushing dissent within their region, in return for becoming a reliable supplier of cotton, cattle, and (later on) oil and gas.” For the better part of the next century, the South stagnated while the rest of the U.S. industrialized, thanks largely to the gentry’s success in keeping unions out, taxes low, and investment in infrastructure and public services to a bare minimum.
What finally brought down this edifice of racial and class oppression, Lind contends, was federal intervention, a development personified in his account by Lyndon B. Johnson, the outstanding representative of the dissenting “modernist” tradition in Texas. An enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the young Johnson understood the transformative power of what Lind calls “state capitalism.” Only through massive public investment in projects like rural electrification and, during World War II, the manufacture of military wares was the South brought into the industrial age. Later, as President, Johnson would extend this revolution to the realm of race, reclaiming after almost a century the national government’s role as the guarantor of the civil rights of blacks.
Made in Texas leaves no doubt that Lind has done his homework on the history of the post-Civil War South. There are, to be sure, problems with his account. His speculations about the ethno-cultural origins of Southern behavior are often crude, and he is too eager to see a conspiracy, rather than simple shared interests, in the partnership between Southern economic elites and their Wall Street backers. As for the eventual modernization of the South, the federal wage and labor legislation of the New Deal probably had more to do with it than the grand projects of “state capitalism” touted by Lind. But saying as much would take the rhetorical steam from Lind’s own policy agenda, the centerpiece of which is a loopy scheme to repopulate the Great Plains by having the federal government provide the region with broadband Internet connections, high-tech “research bases,” and an “interstate skyway system” of small airports.
Still, none of these flaws is fatal to Lind’s account, and the broad outline of what he calls the “Confederate century” rings true. Where he fails, and in doing so makes himself look like the most marginal sort of ideological crank, is in his effort to relate this history to present-day politics. Lind focuses on Texas not just to set the record straight about his home state’s often ugly past but to use that past as a cudgel, directed with tendentious, ad-hominem fury at George W. Bush.
Thus, despite the obvious ways in which Bush is hardly a perfect embodiment of Deep-South Texas—his family’s well-known Northeastern provenance, his personal roots in the state’s western sector, his education at institutions like Andover, Yale, and Harvard—Lind devotes page after page to the President’s one concrete link to that corner of the state: his ranch in Crawford, eighteen miles from Waco. In picking a retreat so close to Waco, Lind informs us, Bush chose to associate himself with a city that was once “one of the centers of lynching in the United States” and “one of the national bases of the Ku Klux Klan,” a place where the Menckenesque satirist W.C. Brann was shot in the back in 1898 for ridiculing “Baptist hypocrisy,” where “local ayatollahs” burned “diabolical LP’s and books” in the 1970’s, and where, in 1993, “David Koresh and his cult” suffered their “apocalyptic immolation.”
Nor is Bush just guilty of occasionally residing in so questionable a vicinity. The more serious problem, to Lind’s mind, is that the President has absorbed wholesale the entire Deep-South-inspired “folk culture” of Texas, a set of attitudes and sentiments that supplies the key to understanding his policies.
Take, for instance, the Bush administration’s much-noted skepticism with respect to international treaties and organizations. Here, Lind insists, one must look past the obvious. Though there were valid reasons for the U.S. to object to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the International Criminal Court, and participation in UN peacekeeping missions, the real dynamic behind the administration’s foreign policy lay elsewhere: in the combination of a President who is a “macho, swaggering, Southern, bornagain Protestant” and the “apocalyptic ideology” of his fundamentalist supporters, who believe “that the United Nations, the European Union, or some other international organization or multinational bloc is under the control of Satan.”
Similar considerations apply to understanding the President’s strong affinity for the state of Israel and his administration’s aggressive demeanor since September 11. As Lind observes,
Like present-day Israel, Texas before the civil-rights revolution was a Herrenvolk (master-race) democracy, combining populism within the majority ethnic nation with the state-enforced subordination of ethnic minorities. It is no coincidence that the products of two similar Herrenvolk societies, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, appear to be most themselves when waging war on behalf of their tribes or relaxing on their ranches.
Lest Lind be misunderstood, blood and soil are not the only factors that, in his view, have driven Bush forward in his response to Arab radicalism. There is also the prospect, irresistible for a commodity-minded Texan President, of “an American takeover of the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields” and of “installing pro-American puppet regimes” throughout the Middle East.
As it turns out, even in his general support for policies like free trade and open immigration—policies endorsed by many liberals and Democrats—Bush is guided by the archaic, pre-modern demands of “Southernomics.” As Lind sees it, thanks to agreements like NAFTA, the U.S. now follows “what was once the foreign economic strategy of the Confederate States of America,” exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods. Nor is it so puzzling that Bush, the leader of “the party of Jefferson Davis,” would welcome immigrants. As Lind writes, “if slavery is not permitted, then employing foreign workers without civil rights—‘coolies’—is the second best solution.”
That Michael Lind cannot see beyond the limits of his own fevered theories does not mean that he is wrong to raise questions about the role of the South in the modern Republican party. As the Lott affair made so embarrassingly clear, the GOP has for too long failed to confront its winking acceptance of the South’s racist remnant. The President undoubtedly spoke in good faith when he declared in December that there is no room in our national politics for segregationist nostalgia—but that principle, if followed in the 2000 campaign, would have kept him from appearing at Bob Jones University with its notorious ban on interracial dating, or from giving a pass to partisans of the Confederate flag.
With the troubling legacy of the GOP’s “Southern strategy” so much in the news of late, one of the most striking things about Made in Texas is Lind’s reticence with respect to the various controversies over race, from school busing to welfare reform, that have roiled American politics in recent decades. Though he notes the Bob Jones University episode and Bush’s difficulty in winning minority votes, he seems to be of the opinion that, even among Southern Republicans, the civil-rights revolution was real. Whatever else may be objectionably Southern about the GOP in Lind’s eyes, he does not suggest, as many commentators have done in recent weeks, that the party’s policies are themselves tainted by racism.
Indeed, after trudging through so many venom-filled pages aimed at George W. Bush and the GOP, I was surprised and pleased to find near the end of the book a passing attack on a certain “liberal orthodoxy”—the one that “views Americans as divided permanently into five quasi-official races . . . and favors racial discrimination against white Americans in favor of nonwhite Americans in college admissions, hiring, and political redistricting.” Trent Lott and other Republicans may no longer be able to see the principle at stake in opposing affirmative action, but Michael Lind does. In this, if in little else, they stand to learn something from their clever, angry, history-besotted foe.