If you're one of my regular readers, chances are you are either from the United States or United Kingdom, though I've been thrilled to receive feedback from those living in South Africa, Guyana, the Netherlands, and Bosnia. I can't say enough how truly glad I am that I've been able to reach people internationally with my thoughts and ideas about subjects that a lot of us spend time thinking about, but for one reason or other don't talk about very often.
A few of you who know a little bit more about me than the average reader have asked me where I call home. You'll catch hints in some of my photographs on the website, but there's no need for me to keep from you that I live in Texas. I was born in El Paso, I spent my childhood living in Texas off-and-on during the summers with my grandparents when my parents would leave on missionary trips, and I've been a North Texas resident for the past eight years (with the exception of my time spent in the Army at Fort Hood).
To be honest, it's been quite a revelation speaking with foreigners in person about where I'm from. Apparently there's this vision of Texas where cowboys still ride the plains lassoing cattle and people settle their disputes on opposite ends of a vacant street with six-shooters strapped to their sides. A buddy of mine from Australia even asked me— in all seriousness— if people in Texas still rode horses to go places more than they used cars.
But it isn't only people from other countries who hold strange ideas about the Lone Star State. Many Americans— especially from the north or either coast— who have never been to Texas often have an image of the state that rarely squares with reality. That problem, I would argue and will argue, carries heavy political consequences.
But this article is both about Texas and not about Texas.
It is about Texas in the sense that I try to convey to "outsiders" some of the reasons why Texans have such a hard time accepting or believing in progressivism, and by extension then, this article is about my experience as a progressive living in the state. But this article is not about Texas, in the sense that many of the reasons why Texans have reservations about the Left are the same reasons why people in other southern states have reservations. I believe, therefore, that talking about Texas is in many ways to talk about other states in the American south.
Another thing about this article: It is not your standard political piece and I hope you won't go into it expecting one. The first part of this article is simply a reflection on my life in Texas, and it must be, in order for you as an "outsider" to get at least a decent idea of what Texas is really like. Because like my Australian friend, it's easy to imagine the Lone Star State as something that it isn't, when you've never been there or have only passed through. The second part of this article is where I tie these bits of experience together to paint a picture of why liberalism has had such a bitch of a time succeeding in this place, and then suggest what can be done about it.
So if you can bear my tour guide approach to the party life, culture, idioms, and history of Texans, along with a few of my detours down Memory Lane, then it is my hope that by the end of this reflection you will be more understanding of my home state and the mindsets of many people in it, as well as be fired-up about the situation the American Left is currently in.
For starters, my first memory happened in the most Texas-place you can think of: an abandoned red caboose me and my parents lived in during the early years of my life when we were poor, right smack dab in the middle of a field of bluegrass. Mom was hanging clothes on the clothesline (tied between the caboose and an oak tree) when I saw a big mound of dirt close by, and being only two-years-old at the time, shouted "Mama!" with excitement and ran over to the mound to show her my impressive stomping skills. I learned very quickly that these mounds of dirt were fire ant hills, and when I began to wail in pain my mother began crying too, as she rushed me from the yard to the kitchen sink. I wonder sometimes if that caboose is still there in the middle of that field.
You may have noticed the picture of the cowboy statue that was the preview for this post when you clicked on the article (if you didn't, the picture is also at the end). That statue is a San Antonio landmark called the "Kallison's Cowboy". My maternal grandfather Ronald McGuffin, who was a famous Texas artist, built and painted that statue. You can find his murals on the sides of buildings in virtually every small town from the South Texas Plains all the way through to the Panhandle. There was a time— in my more immature days as a freshman in college— when I was out partying with some friends one weekend in Austin, and on our way back to Denton we were passing through this spot-in-the-road town at around 1 in the morning. The streets were empty (as most residents were probably asleep), and I was in terrible need of a bathroom after not having seen a gas station for miles. Desperate, I told my buddy to pull over near the town square, and after walking behind an empty run-down two-story building using the light of my phone, I was "doing my business" when I looked up to see my grandfather's signature at eye-level. I had been urinating on one of his fading works of art.
On the topic of partying, as far as Texas goes, not only do you have the nightlife in downtown Dallas, the epicenter of San Antonio, and on 6th Street in Austin, but you also have good times outside the city limits like the San Marcos river float, South Padre Island, and the Terlingua Chili Cookoff (a festival of spectacular debauchery near the Mexican border that only incidentally contains chili and which likely accounts for half of Texas' annual birthrate). Young Texans, a majority of which are between the ages of 18-23, head out the door bound for these hot spots while their parents stand in the doorway covering their faces with their hands and shaking their heads with a slight grin, remembering with embarrassment how they went to those same places "just yesterday it seems".
And what of Texas culture? To the ears of every Texan, the sound of someone saying "Buccees", "Dublin Dr. Pepper", "Blue Bell ice cream", or "Coopers Barbecue" has the same ring as when a European hears the words "Louvre", "Sistine Chapel", or "Da Vinci". We have all attempted to eat the two-pound Round Rock donut and have never felt so good while failing. And yes, we like guns and make no apologies for that fact. Guns in our vehicles, guns in our closets, guns near our beds, guns on our person, guns, guns, guns. A lot of people think this is due to paranoia or some kind of mass-inferiority complex, but those aren't the reasons at all. It is simply that Texans have never been a helpless people and never wish to be.
Our state has produced writers and novelists like Larry McMurtry, James A. Michener, Christopher Cook, Matt Clark, Catherine Coulter, John Graves, and Rose Franken. We even have our own genre of music called "Red Dirt", and revel in the sounds made by its musicians and groups that you as an "outsider" have likely never heard of: Reckless Kelly, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Stoney LaRue, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, on and on the list could go. There is a song in fact, written and performed by the Red Dirt musician Hayes Carll, that, as far as I'm concerned, should be the official ballad of writers from Texas. It is a tune that I hum and sing low to myself when I'm feeling unsure about something I've written and wish to calm my momentary insecurity:
I got a woman she’s wild as Rome
She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon
She crosses a bridge and then sets it on fire
Lands like a bird on a telephone wire
Wine bottles scattered like last nights clothes
Cigarettes, papers, and dominoes
She laughs for a minute about the shape I’m in
Says “You be the sinner honey, I’ll be the sin.”
I’m gonna holler and I’m gonna scream
I’m gonna get me some mescaline
She brings me roses and a place to lean
A drunken poets dream
Our idioms are mostly extinct now, carried away by the tide of modernity, but if you head West long enough you'll still hear some of them from time-to-time in towns so small most Texans don't know they exist: "Pretty as a plate", "All gargle and no guts", "Gussied up", "One bubble off plumb", and of course, "Bless your little heart". What isn't extinct, however, is the spirit behind the idioms. Texans are a plain-talking people. Bluntness is valued, not to the point of rudeness, but is valued nonetheless over excessive pleasantries and "cushioned blows". What many outside of Texas would consider sensitive or tactful ways to approach difficult conversations, is considered in Texas to be disingenuous because it's not "saying what you mean and meaning what you say". This is a strange irony about Texans... we like excess in everything but language.
For the outdoor explorer the Lone Star State offers plenty of scenic escapes, two in particular that come to mind: 1) Palo Duro Canyon, where large mountainous rocks rise like castles from the ground, and the sky at night is so vast that you fear it will swallow you in its mouth of glittering diamonds and not spit you out until sun-up, and 2) Santa Elena in Big Bend, where if you row a boat down the river between the giant cliffs you can hear the eerie sound of nothingness, as not even the whistling of the wind can get through.
To say that Texans have state pride would be an understatement. You will rarely see the women of Idaho, South Dakota, Vermont, Kansas, or any other state for that matter, getting tattoos of said state's outline on their lower back or near their nether regions. But in Texas this is frequent, as are Texas-shaped cocktail glasses and the selling of Texas-shaped pecan pies at rest stops. Those who are perhaps too overly-invested in state pride like to boast that the United States is really nothing more than "Texas and its 49 bitches". Our egos, in short, are bigger than the biggest ten-gallon hat.
And then of course there's the state's history. The Alamo in San Antonio: a monument to 250 ragtag stubborn outdoorsmen, militiamen, philanderers, drunks, outlaws, rabblerousers, and even a few prim-and-proper men of means who fought an army of 1800 Mexican soldiers they knew they couldn't beat, all for the prospect of independence. The oil boom of the 1930s: an event that turned poor farmers and ranchers into "sirs" overnight. And of course the tragedy that took place in Dallas, 1963: where the kingdom of "Camelot" lost its king and the nation lost its innocence. Yes, Texas history— as with the history of all other places— is filled with adventure and misfortune and hope and sacrifice and longing and the forging of empires as well as their falls.
But personal history is what makes a place "home", and I've come to discover that whenever and wherever I go for a drive up in North Texas, there's personal history around every corner it seems.
I drive by Lake Ray Roberts, where I remember taking a girlfriend on a third date. When we came to a part of the hiking trail that had a spot long and wide with thick mud, she wanted me to be romantic and carry her across, but my shoe got stuck after three steps and we both fell in. When I drive by Old Irish, I remember the 2010 ROTC Ball, where a lieutenant handed me a cigar and asked if I knew how to smoke it. Being 19 and not wanting to be seen as a boy in the presence of men, I lied and said "Yes" and proceeded to light the cigar without cutting it, to the amusement of the captains and colonels nearby. When I drive by the Waffle House on Bandera Street, I'm reminded of the man in the cowboy hat who used to serve me coffee, and tell me every single time I walked in about how he was going to be a famous movie star someday. The cashier would look at him, remove her cigarette, and say "Every day that you're here darling is a day that dream slips further away." I haven't seen him in any movies but he no longer works at the Waffle House.
On the rare occasions when I drive further north, I spot an old house near a horse ranch in Pilot Point where I used to live while in college. It was $300 a month and I had two housemates: 1) A shady man we'll call "Brian" who was in his mid-40s and had slick black hair, shiny jewelry, and a thick Chicago accent, and 2) A woman in her 70s that we'll call "Meredith" who had Multiple Personality Disorder, and who talked to her dead mother on the phone which was really a spatula. I remember the day Meredith arrived. Her son drove her to the house, handed Brian a year's worth of rent, and then abandoned her. Brian worried about the son never returning, and didn't know what he would do with Meredith when the year was up. He asked me once in a panicked tone, "Will her kid come back and pay another year's rent? Do I want him to? What if she dies in her room? I won't know until it stinks!" "More importantly," I replied, "what if she doesn't give you your spatula back?"
I have said it once already, but it's worth saying again: This is how you know when a place has become your home. When there begin to be memories everywhere you go.
Reading over everything written so far, it becomes clear to me that— try as I may to describe as best I can what Texas is like by describing certain aspects of the state, as well as describing bits of my own life in it— ultimately perceiving Texas accurately is up to you. So a final caution before I move on...
The biggest mistake you could make— in terms of misunderstanding Texas— is assume that the lives of Texans are a cliché country song. While we may not mind a cold beer or two (who does?), our lives are not all about dirt roads, tight jeans, old pickup trucks, and "raising hell". We really are just like you in more ways than you might think. Obviously some Texans are more "country" than others, and that's perfectly fine, but a lot of people who live in Texas are identical to people you would find in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, or Louisiana, except with a little more state pride. I'm a city boy. I've never ridden a horse or cheered at a rodeo or danced at a honky-tonk, and most other Texans I know haven't done those things either. And before I end this section, let me say that we're also not all white. We have a large Hispanic population (and I hope it keeps getting larger), as well as a growing Indian population because of tech, medical, and engineering jobs that have opened up in the state. So don't be surprised when we don't join in on the This-Is-America-We-Shouldn't-Have-To-Press-1-For-English chorus, and don't be surprised if in ten years' time our new favorite side dish is Texas Toast dipped in Tikka Masala. Because while the sky at night may be big and bright in Texas, so are the hearts of the people who live here, which means we've got plenty of room in the Lone Star State for all newcomers.
I suppose in talking about the culture, history, and party life of Texas— and my relationship to all of those things— what I'm trying to say is something I've said already: Texas has become home. I was born here, it was a frequent destination throughout my childhood, and having been a resident for the past eight years, I've had to admit to myself that Texas is no longer a "temporary base" and probably hasn't been for awhile.
This all being said, I must admit that to be a liberal in Texas is definitely to be an outlier. An "other" among your peers, coworkers, and friends. As one former governor once put it, "It's like being a blueberry in tomato soup. It just don't belong." Sadly, conservatives are not the only ones who feel this way. It angers me when liberals from the northern United States or from coastal urban areas castigate my home for being "where all the backwards people live". To live in Texas and to explore it, is to find that the people here— on the whole— are friendly and hospitable, and that the state is so much more than the tired stereotype of being a magnet that draws all the hicks in America. Do we have problems? Sure. Big problems? Yeah, maybe. But tell me what state you're from and let me dig in that dirt and see what I find.
Of course, there is a huge difference between elite liberalism (your Hillary Clintons, your George Clooneys, and your Paul Krugmans) and populist liberalism (your Bernie Sanders, your Garrison Keillors, your Elizabeth Warrens). Both camps view and treat common people very differently. I normally like to sum up the divide by saying that elite liberals like to wear cufflinks while populist liberals like to roll up their sleeves.
The problem is that L.A./NYC-style glitz-and-glam liberalism has become representative of the Left itself to a lot of people. This form of liberalism is more preoccupied with the gluten-free options at Panera Bread than they are the plight of the blue collar worker, and more preoccupied with making sure every ethnicity and gender pronoun is represented at the top of the corporate ladder than they are with asking why corporations themselves have gotten away with so much in this country. Texans don't identify with this.
And let's not forget, when it comes to progressives reaching out to people in rural areas (in Texas and other southern states), how much of a curse the entertainment industry is to the effort. Turn on the TV and you'll come to the realization that according to most storylines, America is completely comprised of six major cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and sometimes Baltimore. Whenever a television show does take place in a small town, you can bet Woody Harrelson's ballsack that at least one, if not all, of the following tropes will be fully exhausted:
- Backwards townspeople who are socially awkward or who make references to weird things.
- City people who move to small towns having to "adjust", as if moving to a small town was like moving to a different planet.
- Southern women being vapid vixens whose "belle" hospitality is merely a mask hiding underlying devilishness.
- And/or a group of young athletic southern boys who drink underage and drive around looking for other young boys to bully who are either gay, brown, or in band.
Reality TV shows haven't done any better. Over the past five years, reality television has catered hardcore to the "buffoonish southerner" stereotype. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Moonshiners, Duck Dynasty, Swamp People, and Buckwild all present hillbillyish/trailer trash images of southern life that aren't anywhere close to accurately depicting the lives of most people who live in the south. Given the close alliance between the entertainment industry and a political force that is very urban in nature at the moment, it's rough-going for progressives in southern states who try to convince their neighbors that "We liberals really do care and don't look down on you. Promise."
We all knew that one person growing up who would say they were our friend, until other people started to pick on us and then they would join in. Nobody likes that person. More importantly, nobody trusts that person.
The same applies to politics.
If the entirety of political liberalism were embodied by a single person, that person would assure southerners and people living in rural areas that they really were their friend and really did want what was best for them, only to make fun of them behind their backs for their meth, high teen pregnancy, and creationism problems.
So please listen to me when I say that the need for a working class rural brand of liberalism has never been greater. Especially in Texas.
We don't need metropolitan, free market-lite, Silicon Valley, Daily Show, Hillary-Clinton-hugging-Katy-Perry, Buzzfeed liberalism. We need a liberalism that enjoys hunting and likes barbecue and goes to work at a union factory and has the balls to say it wants single payer healthcare and stronger Wall Street regulations. We need outspoken liberals who are military veterans instead of pop stars. We need outspoken liberals who are blue collar women instead of wealthy Sheryl Sandberg-types. We need emergency service workers and restaurant owners and engineers and hockey moms.
After 2016, we Democrats might still be under the delusion that we don't need rural people or people in southern states at all. We Democrats might still believe, deep down, that rural = stupid or bigoted. But make no mistake fellow Democrats, we will not win with the cities alone. And you know what? We shouldn't want to. Urban liberals in the north and on both coasts better come up with a plan (or better yet, an attitude change) if the Democratic Party ever wants to see national or state victories again.
Republican politicians in Texas are rich rhinestone cowboys. Their accents are exaggerated, their election ads are predictably folksy, and their social conservatism is completely out of step with how most Texans feel (believe it or not), especially young Texans. They're against marijuana when most of us are for it. They're against gay marriage when most of us are fine with it. They're against abortion when most of us, even with deep reservations, believe it should be a woman's choice. They think illegal immigrants are a threat, when many of us have undocumented Hispanic friends and coworkers who are generous and work hard. So it should be easy-as-pie beating these clowns in an election. But the last time a Democrat was governor of Texas, I still thought Mickey Mouse was real and that my baby sister had been delivered to the hospital by mail.
Why is this?
While a lot of progressives in Texas feel that a large portion of the blame lies with Democrats at the state level, I really can't help but think that the main reason Texans shy away from liberalism is because of the message being sent by liberals nationally. Mainly, that Texas is one of those states that's a "lost cause" and that it's best to just batten down the hatches in the West and East coasts. Should it be a surprise, then, when people perceived as "lost causes" start acting accordingly? Further exacerbating this problem, as mentioned before, is a loyally liberal entertainment industry that constantly derides and scorns literally half of the nation. Combine this with the lies that the Right already tells its base about liberals (we want to ban guns, the pledge of allegiance, and dinner table prayers), along with the actions of "social justice warriors"— mostly found on college campuses— who genuinely are totalitarian in the way they think the country should be run, and what you get is a loss in Texas every. single. time.
With this in mind, Texas Democrats, you really have the opportunity next year to blaze a new trail and lead the rest of the party, by setting an example of what progressive populist liberalism can look like and how it can win. 2018 (and 2020 for that matter) should be a time when we on the Left ask ourselves "How best can we serve those in poor rural communities and how best can we repair our image with southerners in general?" In regard to Texas, state Democrats can accomplish this by speaking to Texans about issues that most Texans care about: using the "rainy day fund" to replace old infrastructure that's contaminating the drinking water in small towns; legalizing medical marijuana for people whose doctors have recommended it, and at least decriminalizing recreational use of marijuana so that we don't fill our prisons with nonviolent "drug offenders"; and finally, creating an easier path to citizenship for Hispanic individuals and families who wish to enjoy the full benefits of being an American, instead of walling them off. The worst thing state Democrats could do next year, is squander the opportunity we're being given by resorting to empty boosterism. That is, eschewing serious discussion of issues and policy in favor of baseless optimism, sloganeering, and preaching to our own choir.
As for myself, I guess I'm like most other blue people living in a sea of red, in that I'm doing the best that I'm able to do for "the cause" while still working full time (and doing so abroad no less) and maintaining a personal life. I do my best to spread the word about candidates on social media, I give money, I display stickers, I phone bank, and of course, I vote. But I guess I wonder each time I go through this process every two years in national and state elections what it's all for. Not in a cynical sense per se, but in a sober sense. I always wonder at first "when Texans are ever going to take an interest in liberalism" only to then wonder when liberalism will ever truly start taking an interest in Texans. It feels like this vicious circle that I'm too inadequate to make any significant dent in.
In conclusion, this is my state. My home. This is Texas. Our problems here, as liberals, are real and we don't need our "brethren" on the outside making them worse with snide remarks and shitty attitudes. We know we have problems. Abstinence education, creationism, restrictions on reproductive rights, union-busting, voter suppression, gerrymandering, obesity, meth addiction, and an underfunded public education system, to name just a few. But even though we have problems, we are not our problems. And that's what seems to be missing from the national conversation about our state, the south, and rural people in general.