Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Brief, Pollyanna History of Texas Republicans

National headlines aside, the practical business of campaign season is underway in Texas.  So-called political insiders (of which I am one) are preparing campaigns in anticipation of the primaries next March.  This used to be a very rote process by which one could set his watch.  However, thirty days before candidate filing even begins, debate – and, regrettably, acrimony – has begun between the sub-factions within the Republican Party across the country.  The noise percolates even in the absence of candidates in some parts of the state.  One Facebook post I recently saw made a broad, infantile call for ANYONE to take on “establishment” officials, on the grounds that doing so will “make them listen.”  Whatever.

I will admit that I struggle with resentment over this acrimony.  I used to be a student of it – an objective observer.  But increasingly, I feel as though I and many others are the object of envy.  I have attempted to call these people out, and I have been met not with any correction of the facts as I presented them, but with a blanket attack that I was a liar.  I have been active in Republican politics since I was 16 (that’s 25 years to those of you who don’t know I celebrated the 23rd anniversary of my 18th birthday last May).  I have actually had the opportunity to directly shape policy and “make a difference” at the highest levels of federal and state government.  And yet, my contributions are a pittance compared to the time, treasure and life others have put in for many years.  Worse, many of the people attacking us have been working on behalf of conservative principles for a sum total of 30 months.

I am proud to be a part of the establishment.  I am prouder still that my establishmentness is rooted in a correct, holy understanding that our constitutions set forth an incremental approach to change.  I am as proud as the Constitution’s limits on my passion as I am my passion itself.  Still, I want to better understand this hostility toward the establishment.  My inner history nerd cries out to examine its sources, causes.  I guess I feel that if I can better understand the fracture, I can be an agent of healing it.  Call me Pollyanna, but that’s what goes on in the ol’ squirrel cage between my ears.

I have been spending the past several weeks wading through David Halberstam’s 1994 tome, The Fifties.  I saw another recent social media post stating that the national GOP has been in a civil war for the past fifty years.  Really, it’s been sixty years, and Halberstam goes in depth in explaining the two basic camp’s origins:  northeastern interventionist-internationalist vs. Midwestern libertarian/isolationist.  This tension in the marriage only really appeared in the early 20th century with the arrival of Teddy Roosevelt – the northeastern variety is probably the older spouse, dating back to the abolitionist, pro-government origins of the GOP in the 1850s.

All of this makes for fascinating but lengthy, somewhat dry storytelling (unless you’re a nerd, of course).  What I’m interested in is how this split appears here in Texas.  Besides that of my personal, ethnic Texanism, this importance also comes from the academic theory that however the Texas GOP evolves, so goes the rest of the country.  Texas is in many ways a microcosm of the U.S. 125 years ago during the GOP’s greatest period of hegemony.  We are a place where resources are abundant, where an immigrant workforce does the menial labor while a burgeoning middle class devotes its time to rapid technological advancement, and where the prevailing view is that government should work hard at getting out of the way.

But what makes the Texas GOP unique early in the 21st Century is just how the aforementioned spouses came to lead it.  The traditional, pro-government, egalitarian, pro-big business Republicanism of the northeast was a transplant.  This is the party of George H.W. Bush who heard about the crude oil plays of the Permian Basin after World War II and struck out with elite, New England financial backing.  The fortune he made enabled him to set up shop in Houston and literally build the party from scratch.  With the exception of maybe one R in North Dallas or out in the Panhandle ranch country, THERE WERE NO REPUBLICANS in the state anywhere prior to about 1965.  It was a dirty word.  To be Republican meant you were a sherry-sipping Episcopalian banker out to screw the hardscrabble, teetotaling Baptist Democrat cotton farmer.
At the same time, however, the excesses of Lyndon Johnson’s back-slapping, double-dealing socialism fomented a rift within his party between those same frugally-minded cotton farmers and an Austin elite who truly practiced what they preached when it came to thinking everyone should get a check from the Treasury.  The Great Society and Vietnam became Texans’ understanding of interventionism and internationalism.  The chief Texan critic of LBJ was historian J. Evetts Haley.  His A Texan Looks at Lyndon:  A Study in Illegitmate Power, gave voice and cohesion to those Baptists who knew something was wrong with the President but felt restrained by the group think to express it.  A Texan Looks at Lyndon became a kind of cherished, underground literature among respectable folks, and although Haley attempted campaigns as a Democrat, his writings matched verbatim in places with the rhetoric of Goldwater, Reagan, Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly.  The conservative Republican movement in Texas was born.
In time, George W. Bush, a Texan who nevertheless held a Connecticut birth certificate, rose to transform the state into a Republican monolith in one fell swoop.  But while he held deep convictions about social issues at odds with much of his northeastern Republican pedigree, W nevertheless advocated interventionism, ranging from ‘compassionate conservatism’ to Iraq.  Had he been successful in these policies, the roughshod conservative wing might not be as noisy as it is today.  But Bush struggled, in spite of his convictions.  And today, what Texas Republicans are left with are lost, confused movement-conservatives firing in all directions and an establishment that is only seeing pitchforks.
How can the tension be resolved?  I think basic principles of respect and honest disagreement can aid in the healing process.  Unfortunately, the frustration and fear emanating from the national situation under Obama has infected the two spouses in the Texas GOP.  The exact same tactics used to attack the President’s policies are being turned on any Republican, usually an incumbent, “establishment” officeholder, who is suspect.  Complex policies designed for complex situations are unwilling to be understood and are lied about.  This is the hallmark of liberals, as we saw last summer with HB2.  (Ironically, that bill's complexity was somehow embraced by conservatives, but that's another subject).
But I think the greater way to overcome the current rift is to first realize that the pie of power and influence isn’t as small as many act like it is.  Everyone has a voice across a huge state Republican apparatus.  Repeatedly, I come across grassroots-types who once felt “unheard," and they admit in so many words that is because they were lazy.  They didn’t go to townhalls, club meetings or rallies and interact with their elected officials.  Instead, they sat at home for years and only listened to the evening news.  On the day they quit complaining and started dialoguing, they saw they could have it both ways:  principles and peace.
In the information age, these same malcontents are absolutely terrified of reading or considering a source that might present reality.  I know of community and party leaders who will not follow the official communications of their representatives on Twitter, but who instead take the emailed musings of some privately-funded activist as gospel.  Many of these people are afraid of consensus.  They don’t want to be confused with the facts, and they feel that to “come up with the best we can” is the equivalent of walking outside in their underwear.  J. Evetts Haley was one of the first to suggest LBJ had a vested interest in the assassination of JFK; today, we prefer the dark narrative of Oliver Stone to simple, boring reports from Speaker Boehner’s office about what’s gettable from the White House.
The good news is that we as Republicans have an equally strong history of allowing our faith to guide us, dating all the way back to abolishing slavery.  Embedded in this same faith is the ability to find humility.  To paraphrase Pollyanna:  “We’re not supposed to be glad we’re very rich, are we?"