The NAFTA Superhighway
In my conversations with people in Texas, it seemed that the privatized nature of the road was what got folks the angriest. Bad enough that drivers would face tolls, that ranchers would have their land cut out from under them, but all for the financial gain of a foreign company? "If you liked the Dubai ports deal, you'll love my TTC land grab," taunts an animated Rick Perry on one anti-TTC website. The cartoon goes on to portray Cintra as conquistadors clad in armor riding in to steal Texans' treasure.
"What really drives this is economic," activist Terri Hall told me. "It's about the money. We're talking about obscene levels of profit, someone literally being like the robber barons of old. And this is one thing that government actually does well, build and maintain roads."
Hall is an unlikely defender of the public sphere. A conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian who home-schools her six children, she first got interested in road policy when TxDot announced plans to toll the road near her house, which runs into San Antonio. Outraged, she brought it up with her local State Rep, and when that didn't work, she began organizing. She founded the San Antonio Toll Party (like the Boston Tea Party, she notes) by pamphleting at intersections and calling friends. "It's really like the old days, during the American Revolution...just fellow citizens trying together to effect change."
Hall soon became part of the broader anti-TTC effort, and though she originally thought she was just fighting a corrupt local government, she's come to view her battle in a much broader context. "There are big-time control issues," she said. "Someone is really jockeying around to control some things here in America. It explains the open borders, it explains our immigration issues, it explains our free-trade issues, what it's doing to the middle class.
"It really all started with NAFTA," she continued. "There've been people like Robert Pastor and the Council on Foreign Relations. All these secretive groups." She laughed nervously and apologetically. "It sounds like a conspiracy. But I do know there are people who have tried for a long time to go to this global governance. They see there's a way to make it all happen by going to the heads of state and doing it in a secretive way so they can do it without a nasty little thing called accountability. So they won't have to listen to what We the People want."
Hall had arranged to meet me in the San Antonio exurbs, in a home design center that doubled as a cafe. Outside, a thunderstorm lashed the windows with rain. As she spoke, her newborn son propped next to her swaddled and napping, it occurred to me that she was living the twenty-first-century version of the American dream. She and her husband had moved to Texas from California in pursuit of cheap housing, open space and a place to raise their family. Their web-design business was successful; their children healthy. Why, I found myself thinking, was she so upset about a road?
Ric Williamson must often ask himself the same thing. Just as the White House was blindsided by the opposition to the Dubai ports deal, just as NASCO was shocked to find that a simple schematic map attracted angry phone calls, just as the Commerce Department was shocked to find a simple bureaucratic dialogue the subject of outrage, so too have Perry and Williamson seemed ambushed by the zealous opposition of people like Hall.
But what people like Williamson don't seem to understand is how disempowered people feel in the face of a neoliberal order whose direction they cannot influence. For corporatists within both parties (Williamson, it should be noted, was a Democrat while in the Statehouse), selling port security or road concessions to a multinational is inevitable, logical, obvious. To thousands of average citizens in Texas and elsewhere, it's madness or, worse, treason. Both the actual TTC and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway represent a certain kind of future for America, one in which the crony capitalism of oil-rich Texas expands to fill every last crevice of the public sector's role, eclipsing the relevance of the national government as both the provider of public goods and the unified embodiment of a sovereign people.
For Williamson, this is progress; for Hall, it's an outrage and a tragedy. "We have so little control over our own government," she told me, the alienation audible in her voice, thunder punishing the air outside. "We are really the last beacon of freedom in the world--the land of the free and home of the brave--and we're letting it slip away from under our noses."