Deep in the Heart of Darkness

When Lyndon Johnson was president between 1963 and 1969, the world grew familiar with the “Western White House”–the Johnson ranch on the Pedernales River west of Austin, in the heart of his beloved central Texan hill country. Three decades later, newly elected President George W. Bush began hosting foreign leaders and American officials at his own ranch–this one north of Austin in Crawford, Texas. To make sure that television audiences got the point, Bush aides hung a pompous “Western White House” seal at the town’s elementary school when briefings were held there. Although Bush was ridiculed in the liberal press as a phony rancher–and indeed, many of his activities on the ranch, like ostentatiously clearing brush in the heat of midsummer or signing bills in front of neighbors seated on hay bales, were publicity stunts–there could be no doubt that Bush was an authentic cultural Texan. Although born in New Haven, Conn., George W. Bush grew up in West Texas, absorbed the Texas folk culture, and in most ways is as authentically a Texan as was Johnson.

Two ranches, two Texans, two presidents–yet in governing philosophy, Johnson the Great Society populist could hardly be more different from Bush the corporation-friendly cutter of taxes for the wealthy. The contrast reflects, in part, certain obvious differences between the men; they are of different eras, political parties, and family backgrounds (Johnson’s origins were as modest as Bush’s were patrician). But less obviously, the two Texas presidents represent two entirely different Texas political traditions, entwined in conflict inside a single border and reflected in the differences between Johnson’s hill country and Bush’s Crawford. The dominant culture in much of the hill country has always been that of German-American settlers, many of them descendants of German liberals and socialists of the early 19th century who fled from repression in Europe. In a state dominated by Southern Democrats, many Central Texans supported Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War and voted later for the progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. The historic presence of Southern Populists, black freedmen and the Mexican-American community of San Antonio, alongside the Germans, explains why Johnson Country has long been more like a progressive prairie state than the rest of Texas.

And although Bush, a West Texan, was a newcomer to Crawford when he bought his ranch there in 1999, in political terms, Crawford was already Bush Country. The white voters of McLennan County, although not its numerous black and Latino residents, were among the strongest supporters of Bush in both his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. What is more, since the years before the Civil War, McLennan County has been identified with the intense economic, racial, and religious conservatism of yesterday’s Southern Democrats who are the political and sometimes lineal ancestors of today’s Southern Republicans.

Cultural geography is of little use in analyzing the personalities of politicians–but it is indispensable in understanding their politics. Political leaders are shaped by many influences, but to be successful they must necessarily reflect the values of their neighbors and constituents; if they did not, they would never have risen to high office. Lyndon Johnson grew up in a region shaped by German-American Unionism, liberalism, and anti-slavery sentiment, which does much to explain the remarkable differences between these radically different presidents from Texas. George W. Bush is a product of the Deep South tradition of the cotton plantation country, transplanted to the West Texas oil region.

More important, it explains the particular flavor of conservatism that, following the GOP’s sweep of Congress this fall, now rules Washington. To a degree that has not been the case since the mid-20th century, when Johnson led the Senate and Sam Rayburn the House, a Texan political culture dominates national politics. But it is not the Texas of Johnson and Rayburn that is ascendant today. It is, rather, the Texas of Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey. Even in the Northeast and Midwest, older, rival conservative traditions–the conservative progressivism of the New Englanders, the isolationist and protectionist conservatism of the Midwest–have been replaced by a recognizably Texan (and broadly Southern) conservatism that unites belief in minimal government at home and bellicosity abroad with religious fundamentalism. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to speak of the Texanization of the American right as a whole. And although they influenced the administrations of Reagan and the elder Bush, as well as the House of Representatives after the Republican takeover in 1994, it was not until George W. Bush became president and the vast machinery of the executive branch passed into their hands that the Texan traditionalists and their allies had the power to shape national policy. George W. Bush is neither the first conservative president, nor the first Texan president. But he is the first conservative Texan president, and that makes a huge difference.

Texas New Dealers like Johnson and Rayburn, along with technology-embracing reformers like Ross Perot and Bobby Ray Inman, represent the Texas modernist tradition. This Texas is a society eager to embrace the Space Age and the Information Age. The wealth of this Texas is based on the knowledge embodied in science and technology and disseminated by education. This Texas is led, not by good-old-boy businessmen and political demagogues, but by a visionary and earnest elite of entrepreneurs, engineers, reformist politicians, and dedicated civil servants, many of them self-made men and women, often with backgrounds in the military. The economy of this Texas is radically different from that of the other Texas–a high-tech state-capitalist economy, in which government, business, and universities collaborate to promote innovation in computer science, biotech, and other cutting-edge fields, and in which public institutions supply needed investment capital, and expertise in the absence of a native, world-class entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. The leaders of this Texas usually share the pro-military ethic of their rivals and indeed are more likely than the oligarchs and their hirelings, the demagogues, to have served in the military. But the preferred society of these Texans is a broadly egalitarian meritocracy, not a traditional social order stratified by caste and class. Even if they are exclusively of Southern descent, they have little if any sense of Southern identity and no loyalty to the South as a region. They are sentimental nationalists for whom Texan patriotism is wholly fused with American patriotism. They believe that an activist federal government–in the right hands–is an important ally of ordinary Texans.

The Texas of conservatives like George W. Bush and his predecessors is something very different: a society with a primitive extractive economy based on agriculture, livestock, petroleum, and mining, whose poorly educated workers lack health protection and job safety. In this Texas, low wages and inadequate spending on public goods like education and pollution abatement are considered a source of comparative economic advantage. This Texas is a toxic byproduct of the hierarchical plantation society of the American South, a cruel caste society in which the white, brown, and black majority labor for inadequate rewards while a cultivated but callous oligarchy of rich white families and their hirelings in the professions dominate the economy, politics, and the rarefied air of academic and museum culture. This elite tends to be worldly and aristocratic in its attitudes, the working-class majority religious and fundamentalist; both the elite and the majority in this Texas share a profound social conservatism and an attachment to military values unknown anywhere else in the English-speaking world, except in other Southern states. The inhabitants of this Texas are deeply localist and tend to view Washington, D.C., as the enemy.

Geographically and politically, Texas is the westernmost extension of the Deep South. For generations, its economy was based on cotton, picked by a black labor force that was first enslaved and then segregated. The society of East Texas, like that of the Deep South states, was biracial and hierarchical. East Texas had nothing in common with Plains states like Nebraska or Southwestern states like New Mexico or Arizona. It was a clone of the society of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and northern Florida (but not Louisiana, with its unique Cajun element). Texas, a pluralist society in its origins, has become pluralist again as the result of immigration from other parts of the United States and around the world. Texas was not merely part of the South, however, but part of the Deep South during the Confederate Century between 1876 and the 1970s. The Confederates in Texas and similar Southern states lost the Civil War, but by means of terrorist violence they drove out Federal troops and defeated Reconstruction. In the territory of the former Confederacy they created a de facto Confederacy, with the economy of a non-industrial resource colony, the social order of a racial caste society, and the politics of a one-party dictatorship. The Confederate order in Texas was undermined by the New Deal and shattered by the civil rights revolution. But the Confederate tradition continues to influence politics in Texas and, through Texan conservatives in Washington like President George W. Bush, the nation and the world. And that tradition is reflected in the Bush administration’s economic, social, and foreign policies.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, many Americans believed that Bush’s slogan of “compassionate conservatism” and the appointment of Colin Powell, a self-described “Rockefeller Republican,” as secretary of state signaled a shift by the second President Bush toward the political center. Instead, in his first two years in office, Bush was the most rigidly dogmatic conservative ideologue in the White House since before the Great Depression. What distinguished him from his father and Reagan, however, was not his free-market economic agenda. After all, conservatives of various persuasions, along with libertarians who reject conservative social views, supported the large tax cut enacted by Congress in 2001, as well as the administration’s support for the partial privatization of Social Security and school choice. But these familiar issues of the conservative/libertarian right were not what gave the Bush brand of conservatism its unique flavor. Although Bush’s ancestors were Northeastern, the culture that shaped him was made in Texas–a culture that combines Protestant fundamentalism and Southern militarism with an approach to economics that favors primitive commodity capitalist enterprises like cotton and oil production over high-tech manufacturing and scientific R&D. For generations, this synthesis has retarded the social and economic progress of Texas.

In truth, southern conservatives had never accepted the terms of the mid-20th century social contract known as the New Deal. In the realm of political economy, these Southern reactionaries preferred the Old Deal that had existed between the end of Reconstruction and the Great Depression: a laissez-faire economy with minimal federal regulation. These antiNew Deal conservatives have always believed that the poor, instead of being protected by a government safety net, should rely, as they had done before 1932, chiefly on religious charity and private philanthropy. (Dick Armey, a Republican representative from Dallas, spoke for this faction when, in his 1995 book The Freedom Revolution, he compared Franklin Roosevelt to Stalin and Mao; at the time, Armey was the second most important leader in the House of Representatives.)

It was during the 1970s that Southern counter-revolutionaries first began to win important victories in national politics–ironically, by exploiting one of the proudest achievements of the New Deal, the industrialization of the agrarian periphery. By means of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its Central Texan equivalent, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), Franklin Roosevelt and his allies and protgs like Lyndon Johnson brought modernity along with electricity to vast stretches of the backward South and West. Tragically, however, the New Deal Democrats who successfully modernized the South and the West inadvertently gave Southern and Western conservatives an advantage in both politics and political economy in the final quarter of the 20th century. By creating an industrial infrastructure throughout the country, the New Dealers eliminated a major disadvantage of the South and the West. This they had intended to do. But they also gave the low-tax, low-wage states of the South and the West an advantage in competing with the old industrial Northeast for footloose industries.

Economies based on commodity exports, like that of traditional Texas, suffer from wild oscillations caused both by nature and markets. Consequently, instead of rewarding long-range planning and investment and careful design of the sort necessary in manufacturing, such economies encourage a combination of fatalism and speculation. The confusion of capitalism with gambling on the part of the Texan oligarchs, while it has yielded some spectacular fortunes and memorable parties, also produces titanic bankruptcies and business failures. The Texas real estate boom of the 1980s was a typical speculative bubble augmented by unethical business practices. It is significant that the epochal collapses of Enron and Worldcom in 2002 occurred to companies headquartered, respectively, in Houston and in Clinton, Miss.–and that each company’s growth strategy combined good-old-boy politicking with bluffing and swindling on a heroic scale.

The close connection between the Bush family and Enron began in 1988, when president-elect Bush lobbied the government of Argentina on that company’s behalf. Enron’s CEO Kenneth Lay co-chaired the 1990 J-7 economic summit and joined President Bush’s Export Council; as co-chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign, he served as chairman of the host committee of the Republican Convention in Houston. After Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, two senior members of his administration–former Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher and former Secretary of State Jim Baker–were hired by Enron, which also elected Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s wife Wendy to a company directorship. Previously Wendy Gramm had been chair of the Bush administration’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which in 1992 created a legal exemption that enriched Enron by permitting it to trade energy derivatives; after she joined the Enron board, her husband–who had received $100,000 from Enron in campaign contributions–supported laws in 2000 that exempted it from important financial reporting requirements.

Lay, who had become one of George W. Bush’s top fundraisers during his successful 1998 campaign for the Texas governorship, ensured that Enron was the largest corporate contributor to the Bush presidential campaign. Vice President Dick Cheney, a Texas oil man like Bush (in spite of his specious Wyoming residency), had himself held an interest in Enron and run the Halliburton Company that built Enron Field in Houston (home of the Astros). Bush appointed Thomas White, who was vice-chairman of Enron Energy Services while it is alleged to have hidden $500 million in losses, to be secretary of the army.

If Texan state capitalism is represented by the New Deal-era LCRA, Texan crony capitalism is symbolized by Enron, another enterprise that specialized in providing energy to the public. Crony capitalism is the evil twin of state capitalism in developing areas like Malaysia, Mexico, and Texas, in which government, for good or bad, performs many of the functions undertaken in more conventional capitalist communities by a native entrepreneurial elite of investors and inventors. The “good ole boy” network was not an abuse of traditional Southern capitalism; it was traditional Southern capitalism. Bourgeois capitalism is alien to Texas and other Southern states. Instead of bourgeois capitalism, there has been a rivalry between aristocratic commodity sector capitalism, financed by private investors outside of the region, and a technocratic state capitalism that comes in both civilian and military forms. Crony capitalism is the only kind familiar to the Southern oligarchs, descendants of planters who could not balance their books and knights who despised mere trade. The lesson of the Enron and WorldCom scandals is not that capitalism is inherently unworkable. It is that capitalism only works where there are capitalists.

If George W. Bush’s economic program was rooted in Texan crony capitalism, his religious values and views were those of a declining but aggressive minority of Americans: Southern “Bible Belt” fundamentalists. In 2000, Bush received an overwhelming majority of the votes of the shrinking minority of white Protestants and Catholics who attend church regularly and hold traditional religious beliefs. Outside of the business community, his political base was concentrated among Southern “born-again” Protestants. Bush was one of them. And his zeal was shared by other leading conservatives. Tom DeLay, the U.S. representative from Houston who was the House majority whip, told the congregation at First Baptist Church of Pearland, Texas, on April 2, 2002, that President Clinton had to be impeached because he had “the wrong worldview.” DeLay reassured the Baptists that God was using him to promote “a biblical worldview” in American politics and warned the congregation to send its children to schools where they could obtain a “godly education.”

Hostile to the world and encapsulated in its own subcultural network of institutions, Southern Protestant fundamentalism at the beginning of the 21st century had hardly changed from the 1920s, when it took on its present form. Beginning in the 1970s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and later Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition mobilized the so-called religious right–really the white Southern Protestant fundamentalist right, most of whom in previous generations had been conservative Democrats. Although genuine fundamentalists amount to no more than around 5 percent of the U.S. population, the high turnout of religious-right activists in Republican primary elections enabled them to capture the Republican Party by the 1990s.

The mastermind of Bush’s faith-based public policy initiative was an eccentric figure named Marvin Olasky, a journalism teacher at the University of Texas. Like many neoconservatives, Olasky was an ex-leftist. Born Jewish, the son of a Hebrew teacher in Boston, Olasky flirted with communism before converting to Protestant fundamentalism. Olasky held “biblical” views about women, explaining in a newspaper article about the biblical story of Deborah and Barak, “God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, generally speaking. As in the situation of Deborah and Barak, there’s a certain shame attached. I would vote for a woman for the presidency, in some situations, but again, there’s a certain shame attached. Why don’t you have a man who’s able to step forward?” Bush’s domestic policy guru at the University of Texas Journalism School wrote this around the time that the Southern Baptist Convention declared that women should “graciously submit” to their husbands.

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank in Washington, and the conservative Bradley Foundation funded his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992), in which he argued for abandoning 20th-century government welfare programs and turning over responsibility for the poor and needy to Christian charities and other religious institutions. Tendentious and inaccurate, Olasky’s tract was dismissed by serious scholars, but leading Washington conservatives like Bill Bennett and Newt Gingrich–who compared Olasky to Alexis de Tocqueville–treated the tract as a blueprint for a new conservative social policy. George W. Bush claimed to be influenced by Olasky, and promoted the sharing of government funds for welfare programs with religious groups, even before he ran for president on the slogan of “compassionate conservatism” (a phrase devised by Olasky and Republican operatives).

The phrase “compassionate conservatism” disguised Olasky’s radical goal: a rejection of the American tradition of separation of church and state, which he believes was a mistake, in favor of a return to the 17th- and 18th-century colonial tradition of established churches in the British American colonies. “Maybe disestablishment wasn’t such a good idea,” Olasky has suggested. Writing in the Austin American-Statesman on July 5, 2000, he denounced James Madison for supporting the disestablishment of religion in Virginia in the 1780s and praised Patrick Henry for proposing a “multiple establishment” of religion with his 1785 “Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” At least Olasky was honest enough to recognize that Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and other leading Founders were opposed to what he and the contemporary religious right want to do; many conservative Christians simply falsify history and claim that the American Founders (many of whom were deists or unitarians) were devout Protestants like themselves.

Southern Protestant fundamentalists were also responsible for the Bush administration’s major initiative in the area of science and technology: the attempted outlawing of embryonic stem cell research. Unable to persuade Congress to ban therapeutic cloning–largely because of Democratic opposition in the Senate–Bush used his authority over the executive branch to limit government subsidies for stem cell research to research efforts that used only embryos created before August 9, 2001. This compromise muddied the principle–if embryos are little people, why should those created before a certain date be allowed to be destroyed?–and the decision applied only to research funded by the federal government, not to privately funded research. Still, Bush’s decision was a victory for the religious right. In the months that followed, most scientists argued that the number of stem cell “lines” available for research was far smaller than Bush had claimed. Some prominent American scientists even moved to Britain, Singapore, and other countries where fundamentalism was no threat to biomedical research.

George Herbert Walker Bush had been derided for absence of what he memorably called “the vision thing.” But George W. Bush’s advisers, if not Bush himself, were visionaries with visions to spare. During the early 1990s, ensconced in the first Bush administration, foreign policy gurus like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney constructed a plan of what the 21st-century world would look like, a plan almost hallucinatory in its vivid detail. The United States must maintain its status as the sole superpower by spending more on its arsenal than most of the other major military nations combined. Overriding international law and diplomacy, the United States would wage “pre-emptive” wars against regimes that might pose speculative threats, even if they did not threaten the United States and its allies with imminent danger. The United States would free itself from its pusillanimous British and European allies and dispatch bombs and justice in solitary grandeur everywhere except in the Middle East, where the United States would share regional domination with Israel.

This strategy broke with American foreign policy tradition, but it had the support of two groups of former Democratic constituencies: ex-leftist, mostly Jewish neoconservatives and reactionary white Southern Protestant fundamentalists. These two groups now dominate the right wing of the Republican Party and have controlled the foreign policy of the executive branch for the first years of the 21st century. The Wolfowitz-Bush doctrine of unilateral militarism, influenced by the unilateralism of the Israeli government, was easily identified with the preferred foreign policy tradition of the American South, dating back to the earliest years of the Republic. If it seems bizarre to both establishment conservatives and mainstream liberals, it is only because no Southern conservative had been elected to the White House between the pre-Civil War era and 2000.

White Southerners are not isolationists or pacifists. On the contrary, from the 18th century until the present, they have been more eager than white Northerners to support American wars abroad. As John B. Judis has pointed out in The American Prospect, in a Gallup poll last August, 24 percent of Southerners agreed with the statement: “The United States should send troops even if none of our Western allies supports that action.” Only 15 percent of Midwesterners agreed. While Midwesterners were almost evenly divided–47 percent in favor and 44 percent against–Southerners favored an invasion of Iraq by 62 percent to 34 percent. But the support of white Southerners for military intervention abroad is not to be confused with internationalism. Rather, it takes the form of unilateral militarism, which is compatible with a contempt for civilian diplomacy. White Southerners have always been represented above their proportion of the U.S. population in the armed forces–and greatly under-represented among members of the foreign service, which until recently was a bastion of patrician Northeasterners. The Mason-Dixon line might as well run along the Potomac between the Pentagon and the State Department.

Installed in a lawless manner by the dominant Southern and Western conservative faction of the Supreme Court, George W. Bush, the candidate opposed by most American voters in the election of 2000, used the power of the presidency to promote the economic and foreign policy agenda of the Southern far right: a massive tax cut as the centerpiece of domestic policy, and, in foreign policy, Protestant-fundamentalist-inspired support for the Likud Party of Israel, combined with consideration of schemes for an American takeover of the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields. From its conception of economics in terms of the exploitation of cheap labor and the plundering of non-renewable natural resources and its plan to replace the modern social safety net with “faith-based” religious charity, to its minimal-government political theory, its bellicose militarism, and its Bible Belt Christian Zionism, the second Bush administration illustrates the centuries-old traditions of the Southern oligarchy, of which the traditional Texan elite is a regional variant. Today’s Southern right combines the political economy of plantation owners with the fundamentalist religion of hillbillies. In the 21st century, the right in Texas and the South remains a museum of 17th- and 18th-century rural British traditions that died out long ago in Britain itself and in other parts of the English-speaking world. The reasons for the persistence of these archaic, pre-modern British cultural traditions in Southern states like Texas have been poverty, social conservatism, and the absence of immigration of the kind which created diverse melting-pot cultures in other regions of the United States.

As long as the influence of the Southern oligarchy was confined to the South, it was a menace chiefly to the living standards and liberty of ordinary Southerners, white and black alike. But when the vast power of the federal apparatus passed on Inauguration Day 2001 to Southern reactionaries and their allies, it gave the Southern oligarchs their chance to threaten the peace and well-being of America. Let us hope that this aberrant president–one of the worst in American history–will be followed by others more worthy of the office, who will repair the damage that has already been done by the Southern Right.

Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic Books, 2003).

Michael Lind is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic Books, 2003).

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