The Texas Difference

Is Rick Perry a 10th Amendment nutter who wants to deem the entire federal government unconstitutional or is he, as Erica Greider argues, a savvy business conservative who you underestimate at your peril. Both, I would argue. That’s in part because Texas is a bit unusual for a conservative jurisdiction in the United States.

To understand what makes Texas different, start with a more typical state like Alabama. Alabama is poor, which is to say it contains many poor residents. But it’s also conservative, which is to say that Alabama’s prosperous residents have very right-wing views. Since Alabama has so many poor people, it’s actually a substantial net beneficiary of federal largess. Now that largess is generally targeted at low-income Alabamians, so Alabama conservatives don’t really care. And yet, eliminating Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, etc. and lowering taxes would also have a detrimental impact on non-poor Alabamians. Plenty of Alabama conservatives in good standing may own grocery stores, be doctors or hospital executives, etc. So there’s a level of tension between the vision of the ideological purist and the concrete banality that everyone is on some level or other sucking on the federal teat. This tends to either annoy or amuse progressives depending on mood.

But Texas is different! Texas is a substantial net contributor of federal tax money. What’s more, Texas is really big. Having the federal government vanish is, in the Texas context, not just an ideological vision it’s also a totally plausible pro-business initiative in a way that’s not at all the case in the rest of the country. When Rick Perry jokes about secession, it’s not just swagger. An independent Republic of Texas would be a completely viable entity (more people than Ireland or Sweden or the Netherlands or Australia and closing the gap with Canada pretty quickly). So Perry’s ideas, though wild and extreme, aren’t the ideas of an impractical person the way they would be if Bobby Jindal started yammering on about them. From the Texas conservative perspective, complete abdication of the federal role in the domestic economy is a perfectly plausible idea. For most of the rest of us, it would be a total non-starter. Which is exactly what makes Perry’s view so radical. But from where he’s been sitting for the past 10 years, it’s a perfectly serious proposal.