Say what you will about Michael Lind, at least he’s never predictable. That is, of course, unless your prediction is that he’s once again trying to find a way to disagree with everyone else.
Lind first made a splash in 1996 with The Next American Nation, a strident assault on both multiculturalism and its elitist opponents alike. Three years later, in his descriptively titled Vietnam: The Necessary War, Lind chided those across the spectrum who try to “heal the wounds” of a war the author revises as a “justified” attempt to “preserve the military and diplomatic credibility of the United States in the Cold War.”
Before you peg Lind as a reflexive hawk, however, do consider his latest target: the influence of the pro-Israel lobby over US foreign policy. How many apologists for Lyndon Johnson’s war wage blistering assaults on Ariel Sharon’s relentless expansionism? Very few, although that’s probably because, except for Lind, there are almost no fans of LBJ’s foreign policy left.
Lind’s newest target is George W. Bush, a fellow Texan, as well as an equally steadfast opponent of multiculturalism, cultural elitism and dovish revisionism. But Lind clearly holds no brief for our forty-third President. Bush, in his view, is an heir to the worst traditions the Lone Star State has to offer, to a Texas that is a “toxic by-product of the hierarchical plantation society of the American South.”
Lind for his part carries the torch for the Texas “modernists,” figures like Sam Rayburn, LBJ and Ross Perot. In so doing, he manages once again to stake out his own ground. Like many foes of the President, he resents Bush because he’s a swaggering oilman from Texas. But, more uniquely, Lind also rails against him in the name of the “other Texas,” the rural folk who were the proud beneficiaries of New Deal projects of rural electrification and other vast public works.
Even though Lind and his colleagues at the New America Foundation like to position themselves in what they call “the Radical Center,” many of their ideas sound like variations on mid-twentieth-century liberalism, which actually places them to the left of either of the major parties. Unlike Bush or the Democrats, Lind advocates sizable state intervention in the market in order to redistribute wealth, population and even land. Yet, like Bush, a good portion of Lind’s program is really only partly native to Texas soil.
Made in Texas opens with Lind’s stark contrast between two regions close in proximity but miles apart in temperament. The first is the Waco area, which encompasses Bush’s Western White House in Crawford. Known mostly for its twin legacies of racism and Protestant fundamentalism, this benighted stretch of ranches and cotton farms has historically been a seedbed for the KKK and later the Branch Davidians. Lind sees such traditions as matching those of the West Texas culture where George W. grew up, and it’s in his ranch outside Waco where the President now feels most at home.
Just an hour away is the Texas Hill Country, whose regional identity derives from the freethinking, pro-Unionist German settlers of the mid-nineteenth century. “The region in which [Lyndon] Johnson grew up was a land of small hills, small rivers–and small producers,” Lind writes. The author tends to wax rhapsodic about the region. For Lind, the Hill Country is an oasis of “racial and ethnic pluralism,” a world apart from the “black/white caste system” of East Texas and the greater Deep South to which it belonged.
Where to place Texas on the political map has never been a simple question. At times it has seemed to be an extension of the Deep South, but in some places, particularly from San Antonio westward, it seems more representative of the Southwest. But like California, the only state larger in population, Texas has also been a place with a political identity all its own. Together these two states have provided five of the past seven elected Presidents, merely fueling the outsized self-importance intrinsic to each state’s boosterism.
Whether the politics of either place are nationally representative is another story. From the early 1960s through the mid-1990s, California was often viewed as the national political bellwether. The breeding ground of the New Left at Berkeley, the New Right of Reagan and the New Democrats led by Jerry Brown, California by the late 1990s would see the defeat of its extreme right, but only by an extremely conservative Democrat. For now, at least, the state’s political landscape is too ill defined for California to be seen as the nation’s trendsetter.
More multiracial than other states in the Deep South, Texas historically experienced a more complex version of the region’s hallmark conflict between pluralism and white supremacy. Lind pays only limited attention to the place of Tejanos in the state’s racial order, however. Instead, he finds that, differences aside, the history of Texas matches that found elsewhere in what he terms the “Confederate Century” (1876-1970s): an “Anglo-Celtic” elite “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.” Harsh words from a native son, indeed.
Lind is far prouder of the struggle waged by LBJ, Sam Rayburn and other so-called Texas Loyalists during the 1930s. The Loyalists were the pro-Roosevelt faction of the state’s Democratic Party, who were outnumbered by the party’s “Regulars,” ultrareactionaries like Martin Dies and Governor Allan Shivers. The conservative Democrats helped insure that Texas got what they viewed as the best of both worlds: New Deal money for public works projects, but without New Deal social programs or improvements in workers’ rights.
As was the case elsewhere in the New South, when Texas began to develop industrially in the postwar era, it did so as a low-wage, unregulated alternative to the North. But here again, the outlook of the state’s elite thwarted full industrial development of the region. Lind finds that the “pre-bourgeois, aristocratic mentality of the Texan/Southern oligarchy” continues to be resistant to thrift, efficiency and invention. In his view, the high-tech center of Austin, home to Dell Computers, has developed in isolation from the interests of the state’s agribusiness and oil elite.
George W. Bush is clearly the natural political byproduct of the limited economic and social vision of the Texas elite. But one does have to wonder whether the President’s agenda is truly “made in Texas.” In terms of his foreign policy of wars for global domination, this holds appeal not only to Big Oil but also to military contractors and multinational corporations headquartered across the country. Meanwhile, Bush’s domestic agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy may spark outcries but not calls for the restoration of genuinely progressive taxation. The Democrats, for the most part, have neither opposed the Administration’s foreign policy nor articulated an alternative economic vision.
Lind’s notion of a “Southern Takeover of American Politics” also doesn’t feel so new, as the South took over national politics long ago. After Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964, Nixon won four years later by deploying his “Southern Strategy”; Reagan, the only non-Southerner elected since then, followed suit, and was the preferred candidate of the religious right. Bush, in other words, is simply the latest outgrowth of what then-Republican strategist Kevin Phillips described in 1969 as the “Sun Belt Phenomenon”: “a new, conservative political era [emerging] in the South, Southwest and Heartland.”
In terms of both agenda and political base, there is a direct line from Barry Goldwater through Reagan to Bush. For such figures there is no contradiction between state-sponsored military spending and their paeans to the freedom of the market. Reducing or eliminating social programs while cutting taxes for the rich does not trouble this entourage, for whom voodoo economics is a deeply held religious conviction. The more frightening aspect of this agenda is the degree to which the Democrats have embraced it over the past decade.
Yet while Lind’s Texas-centric analysis distorts the degree to which Bush is a radical departure from the New Right’s past, his discussion of that movement’s future does seem quite prescient. “The rural, the religious, and the white–this was the social base of George W. Bush’s Southern-based Republican Party,” he writes. “Far smaller than the Reagan coalition, this Southern party and its Western wing would have won only the House of Representatives in the 2000 election if not for rural over-representation.” In the midterm elections, the Republicans appealed to only a slim majority of the 39 percent of voters who turned out, making Lind’s analysis of the party’s shrinking base seem all the more hopeful.
The base may be there for the Democrats or for another party, but it’s less clear what sort of alternative agenda it will take to inspire voters to go to the polls. For his part, Lind offers up some thoughtful ideas inspired by the work of the rural modernizers during the New Deal. In the areas where New Dealers once sought to bring electrification, Lind now envisions the massive development of “high-tech infrastructure.” Viewing population decentralization–with the expansion of homeownership–as a positive goal, Lind wants the America between the coasts to be the center of wireless communications and a hydrogen-based national energy network.
Like the party in power, Lind is unafraid to offer up a bold vision, but his is a far more egalitarian one. Placing his “decentralist utopia” in the tradition of FDR and LBJ’s state-led development, and of Lewis Mumford’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s visions, Lind foresees “a post-agricultural Plains in which private wilderness preserves alternate with small towns and federal research bases, which, connected by hundreds of small airports, are home to telecommuting professionals or well-paid service workers.” Our current President stands little chance of engaging the details of such a blueprint, and much less of explaining them to “the boys in Lubbock.”
Lind’s proposal is worthy of both consideration and criticism. Politically, at least, concentrations of population have historically provided the power bases for minority and working-class communities in urban areas. Homesteadlike migrations would surely reduce that strength, and Lind’s vision of the ease with which “immigrants and inner-city poor [would] migrate to the interior and join the middle class of the American heartland” seems rather fanciful. Though based more on his concern for working-class wages than xenophobia, Lind’s calls for restrictions on immigration also will likely anger liberals and pro-business conservatives alike.
The bigger question for Lind, as well as for his colleagues at the New America Foundation, involves how they expect their innovative policy proposals to become part of the national political debate. Boosting rural infrastructure, creating national savings accounts and building a national industrial policy are all ideas that should become part of the discussion. But they are unlikely to do so unless they have a party and a constituency to promote them.
Favorable as he is to FDR and LBJ, Lind tends to give credit only to the politicians and the policy-makers, not to the political coalitions that sustained them. The Democrats still have LBJ’s base behind them, but the party’s strategists shy away from offering anything in the way of bold visions. By incorporating a few of the ideas that Lind and company are proposing, the party of Roosevelt may again become the party of Roosevelt.
Made in Texas works on many different levels. As contemporary history, it deserves a place on the shelf next to Garry Wills’s Reagan’s America, anchoring as it does the limited worldview of the President in its proper time and place. As a biography specifically of Bush, Lind’s book usefully reminds us that even though Mark Crispin Miller’s deceptive simpleton (of The Bush Dyslexicon) may indeed be Bob Woodward’s commanding chief (of Bush at War), the worldview of the Texas elite in truth is pretty damn limited and downright dangerous. Finally, as a policy manifesto, Lind’s work makes an excellent case for the benefits of restoring the New Deal to national politics. Even though the New Deal, like the New Right, was not really made there, Texas may yet again yield a more positive legacy than Enron and the death house.