March 20, 2003
Michael Lind, Author of "Made in Texas"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
If you ever wanted to learn the full lowdown on Bush's roots as a full-fledged member of the Texas Neo-Confederate plutocracy, "Made in Texas" is the book to read. Michael Lind, who wrote the celebrated "Up From Conservatism," offers a trenchant intellectual analysis of the reactionary, right wing roots of Bush in the lone star state.
Lind's central thesis is that -- despite the popular stereotype of Texas as a "Western" state -- Texas is really a state with two distinct traditions. Bush is not a product of the "Western" cowboy heritage (although he is packaged that way). Rather Bush is heir to the Southern economic and political perspectives that were forged during the years of slave-powered cotton plantations (the ultimate in a low-wage economy).
The book casts a wide net in exploring the implications of Bush's Southern style outlook, including his immersion in Armageddon theology.
BuzzFlash learned more about Bush's worldview in Lind's book, sub-titled "The Southern takeover of American Politics," than any book we have read in the last year.
Lind is a Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation. His three previous books of political journalism and history, "The Next American Nation" (1995), "Up from Conservatism" (1996) and "Vietnam" (1999) were all selected as "New York Times Notable Books." He lives in Washington, D.C. and has a ranch in Texas.
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BUZZFLASH: The most fundamental premise in your insightful book, "Made in Texas," is that despite the stereotype of Texas being a Western state, there are actually two major cultural and political traditions that divide Texas. Can you summarize their characteristics?
MICHAEL LIND: Despite its Western trappings, Texas has always been part of the South, which provided the ancestors of the majority of white Texans as well as the dominant culture into which newcomers of all races tend to be assimilated. The demographic center of gravity in Texas has always been East Texas, which is cotton plantation country, not cattle country.
The major exception to the rule is Central Texas -- Austin, San Antonio, and the Hill Country -- where immigrant German pioneers with values similar to those of Germanic Americans in the Midwest and Great Plains were historically more progressive than the dominant Southern conservatives.
BUZZFLASH: How does George W. Bush represent the part of Texas that is an extension of the deep South?
LIND: As odd as it may seem, the West Texas in which George W. Bush grew up was an extension of the Deep South, for the simple reason that most West Texans were of Southern descent and shared Southern conservative values. Immigrants like Bush's Yankee parents were not numerous enough to change the culture; on the contrary, they were assimilated to it. The West Texas in which George W. Bush grew up was a homogeneous society dominated by transplanted Southern Protestants. It was Goldwater country and Reagan country before it became Bush country.
Although he was born in Connecticut, Bush is a genuine cultural Texan, having lived in Texas from infancy. His political values -- ranging from aggressive militarism in foreign policy to small-government ideology and fervent support for laissez-faire economics -- are those of the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian political culture of Texan Southerners.
BUZZFLASH: You contrast Bush to Ross Perot? On economic issues, how do they represent the two different branches of Texas business traditions?
LIND: In "Made in Texas," I argue that Bush and Perot represent, respectively, the rival traditionalist and modernist philosophies of political economy in Texas and similar Southern and Western states. The low-investment, low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation approach favored by Texan conservatives is suited to the interests of the resource-owning oligarchy in a region with an economy based on primary production -- cotton, cattle, oil. The Texan modernists, like Perot, want a high-tech, middle-class society. Finding little support from the wealthy native oligarchy in Texas or the oligarchy's business partners in New York and other global financial centers, Texan modernists, including some with conservative social views, have usually been keen on enlisting the federal government -- including the military-industrial complex -- in the role of a public-sector "venture capitalist" helping to catalyze economic growth in Texas. Indeed, by means of the military, NASA and the Pentagon-supported computer industry, the federal government is directly or indirectly responsible for the high-tech islands in the backward Texan economy. All of this explains why Texan modernists like Perot and LBJ puzzle both the left and the right. Their "Japanese" vision of government-business cooperation to promote the technological modernization of a rural society baffles the social-democratic left, which tends to favor activist government but distrusts business, and enrages the Jeffersonian right, which sees government as the enemy of business rather than its partner.
BUZZFLASH: Can you talk a little bit more about how Bush's economic policies are an outgrowth of the cheap labor/natural resources tradition of the South?
LIND: From the earliest years of the Republic, the Southern oligarchy feared urbanization and industrialization, because this would undermine their ability to control rural blacks (slave and free) as well as rural whites. They had no objection to machines and technology, they simply wanted it to be located elsewhere and used selectively in a way that did not undermine the South's hierarchical caste and class system. In his First Inaugural Address, Confederate President Jefferson Davis defined the South as "an agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of a commodity [cotton] required in every manufacturing country" and therefore interested in "free trade" with manufacturing nations like Britain, France and the (Southless) United States. Following the Civil War, the Southern oligarchy remained in control of the South and promoted only the infrastructure projects that benefited large farmers and ranchers. It was the federal government, during the New Deal and World War II, that finally industrialized the South from above, with the help of Texan and Southern modernists.
Tragically, however, the federally-sponsored modernization of the South has been incomplete. While federal investment and, later, private capital built up modern highways, factories and cities in the South, the Southern political elite -- formerly Democrat, now predominantly Republican -- kept wages and benefits low. By combining a First World infrastructure with quasi-Third World labor conditions, Texas and the South have been able to lure away industry from the Northeast and Midwest since the 1960s.
Wages and unionization have been further depressed in the South by the entry into the low-end labor market of many unskilled immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, who are grateful to work for little and historically difficult to unionize (this is not a nativist insult, merely an observation of an important fact about today's labor market). Bush, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, and other right-wing Republicans support amnesties for illegal immigrants or guest-worker programs not just to win Latino votes but to provide agribusiness with an enormous pool of non-unionized, low-wage workers. By treating an open-borders immigration policy as a "progressive" idea -- instead of what it is, a cheap-labor subsidy to employers unwilling to provide high wages and good benefits -- American liberals are hurting working-class Americans of all races, including naturalized immigrants already here who are hurt by a loose labor market.
BUZZFLASH: How does crony capitalism fit into this?
LIND: In "Made in Texas" I distinguish between ordinary corruption and crony capitalism. Ordinary corruption presupposes the existence of two legitimate elites, the business elite and the political elite; what is illegitimate is the influence on one of the other. In crony capitalism, by contrast, there is a single oligarchy, with different parts labeled "the private sector" and "the public sector." Crony capitalism tends to be found in formerly rural, semi-industrial societies like Indonesia, Mexico and Texas, where the native land-owning elite moves in to occupy new positions in government and the private sector. Crony capitalism is a greater threat than ordinary political corruption, because the line between the public and the private is faint or nonexistent.
The Enron empire is a perfect example of crony capitalism, at its worst. Enron was as much a creation of Texas politics as it was a creator of Texas politicians like Bush. For their parts, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are not business executives, in the conventional sense. They are career politicians, whose business careers were arranged for them, and their fortunes bestowed on them, by their allies in the Texan crony capitalist oligarchy. Most of George W. Bush's personal wealth comes from a "gift" to him by his partners in the Texas Rangers investment group.
BUZZFLASH: Bush was born an Episcopalian. He became a Methodist after he married Laura. But he speaks and acts like a fundamentalist. What's going on here? Is he really at heart a Southern Baptist, or is that just a role he plays at the request of Karl Rove to ensure that the religious right comes out in great numbers to vote for him in 2004?
LIND: Many Washington insiders have assumed that Bush's religiosity is an act, designed to fool the religious right voters he needs to be re-elected. The evidence indicates, however, that his conversion to a hardline version of Protestant fundamentalism during a midlife crisis in his late thirties was genuine. Cynics in more secular parts of the country such as the Northeast and West Coast tend to assume that this kind of religious belief is limited to ignorant, lower-class people. But in Texas and other Southern States, born-again Christians are found in abundance in the country club and the office park as well as the country church and the trailer park.
BUZZFLASH: Your second chapter is called "The Confederate Century." In what ways is the Bush administration "The Confederate Presidency"?
LIND: The Bush administration is not "Confederate" in the sense of being racist. While many white conservatives may remain uncomfortable around black Americans, segregationist sentiments like those of Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond are fading. But the Southern tradition, contrary to popular belief, was never defined solely by racism (which was shared by most white Americans). Southern notions of military power, masculine and feminine honor, social hierarchy, religious fundamentalism and free-market fundamentalism -- notions sometimes appealing to nonwhite Southerners, too -- have always distinguished the American South.
Quite apart from racial politics, Southern political culture influenced the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, but was ameliorated by other, non-Southern conservative traditions. Thanks to the decline of Northeastern Rockefeller Republicanism and Midwestern Taft/Dole Republicanism and the rise to power in the GOP of former Southern Democrats or "Dixiecrats," a distinctly Southern conservatism is more powerful today in Washington, D.C. than at any time since before the Civil War. Since 1865 there have been Southern presidents who were not -- at least by Southern standards -- conservative (Wilson, Truman, LBJ, Carter, Clinton) and there have been conservative presidents who were not Southern (Reagan, the first President Bush). George W. Bush is the first Southern conservative President since before the Civil War.
BUZZFLASH: You call your book a story of "dead white males." Why?
LIND: In my introduction, I note that the historical story I tell is largely one of "dead white males" in order to forestall criticism from the left that I have ignored the struggles of blacks, Mexican-Americans and women for justice in Texas. Indeed, I have ignored those struggles, not because they were not important, but because the history of civil rights is not central to my theme, the rivalry between the traditionalists and modernists in political economy in Texas. Because Texas, before the Civil Rights Revolution, was a white-supremacist, patriarchal society, the leading progressive politicians as well as the leading conservatives were almost exclusively white Protestant men. Thanks to the Civil Rights Revolution, that is no longer the case, and Texans like the late Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards and Henry Cisneros are literally -- and belatedly -- changing the face of Texan and national politics.
BUZZFLASH: You discuss the southern white male war culture. How does that reflect upon the administration's Iraq war policy?
LIND: The military values and economic attitudes of the South both reflect the fact that its culture has been profoundly shaped by an aristocratic land-owning elite that considered military service more honorable than participation in trade or commerce. The martial tradition of upper-class Southerners, who have always been over-represented in the U.S. military, combined with the combativeness of Scots-Irish "yeomen," explains the intense martial spirit found in Texas and other Southern states. White Southern men are much more likely than other American groups to support Bush's policy toward Iraq. This is nothing new; from the quasi-war with France in the 1790s until the present, white Southerners have been the most bellicose, and white New Englanders the least bellicose, groups in the population. The difference goes back to the fact that New England was settled by middle-class Puritans with a civilian ethic who disapproved of violence as a way of settling personal or international disputes, while the South was settled by English aristocratic "cavaliers" and their imitators along with Scots-Irish frontiersmen given to feuds, like Andrew Jackson and the Hatfields and McCoys.
BUZZFLASH: You are a fifth generation Texan. George Bush is a first generation Texan, and he spent his high school and college years at elite eastern schools. At this point, would you consider George Bush an honest-to-goodness heir to the Confederate branch of Texas? Or to put it another way, if he weren't a politician, would he hold the same Neo-Confederacy fundamentalist values he espouses as the occupant of the White House?
LIND: As a fifth-generation Texan, I must reluctantly concede that George W. Bush, born in Connecticut but raised in the Lone Star State, is a genuine Texan in his accent, his mannerisms, and his outlook on life. To be more specific, he is an undistinguished, run-of-the-mill example of the dominant social type in Texas, the Southern conservative. Unlike his father, he is not a Rockefeller Republican pretending to be a Pat Robertson Republican in order to win votes. He's the real thing. This should be a lesson, to any Yankee parents thinking about moving their families to Texas: their children may go native.
At the same time, as a ranch-owner from a family of farmers and ranchers, I must also say that George W. Bush's attempt to impersonate a rancher is as unconvincing as that of any frat boy from Dallas or Houston. My friends in Texas and I have been greatly amused to watch the president using his vacation time on his ranch to cut down cedar (technically, mountain juniper) trees with a chain-saw. Real Texan ranchers use bulldozers and chains to take down a lot of cedar trees at once -- and unless they're very poor indeed, they hire professionals to do this very nasty job.
My fellow Texans also enjoy the photo opportunities in which Bush's Crawford neighbors (most of them affluent professionals who live in Crawford, which is really a Waco suburb, not a hardscrabble frontier town) sit on bales of hay in a faux-Western setting while the President gives a speech or signs a bill. I've been telling anyone who asks, "Oh, yeah, I grew up in Texas sitting on bales of hay. Hell, we didn't even know what chairs and sofas were until the 1980s, and we're still not used to them. Before that, when folks came over to visit, we invited them to pull up a bale."
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original