Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Looming Tower, now a 10-part miniseries on Hulu. His book on Scientology, Going Clear, became a featured documentary for HBO. He writes for The New Yorker and lives in Austin, Texas. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: California and Texas, the two biggest states, are both 39 percent Latino. Hillary Clinton got 62 percent of the vote in California, and 43 percent in Texas. In California, Democrats hold all the statewide offices. In Texas it’s been the opposite for a long time. Obviously demography doesn’t explain the difference between the two states. How do you explain the political differences?
Lawrence Wright: Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in California and will be in Texas in 2020. The difference is they vote in California and they don’t in Texas. Why is that? I asked Garnet Coleman, who’s a Democratic state representative from Houston. He’s black, and blacks vote at a higher rate than whites do in Texas. Why is it that Hispanics don’t vote in Texas and they do in California? He attributed it to Cesar Chavez and the grape-workers’ union, and he said that, when you join a union, you become political. In Texas, we’re a right-to-work state. So it’s very difficult to get into unions. Also, Hispanics in Texas are disillusioned. They haven’t been given a candidate that really speaks to them. There are candidates like the Castro twins, Joaquín and Julián, future possible statewide candidates, but they haven’t offered themselves yet. So we just have not had the kind of motivation that would stimulate a real resurgence of Hispanic voters in Texas. But the state is far more progressive than its elected representatives would have you believe. Part of it also is gerrymandering.
JW: If unionization has been the key to California’s mobilization of Latino voters, which I think is true, it seems like it’s going to be a long time before anything like that happens in Texas.
LW: There has to be something else, because the unions are not going to get a foothold in Texas for the foreseeable future. It has to be the candidate, someone who really speaks to the Hispanic situation.
JW: Let’s talk about Beto O’Rourke, the hope of the Democrats, challenging Ted Cruz.
LW: I just met Beto yesterday, in a greenroom really early in the morning. There are 254 counties in Texas and he’s been to 240 of them. Many of them have never seen a candidate before, and many of them are very red and never voted for a Democrat, but he’s been out, working really hard. He’s a charismatic, attractive candidate, personally charming and appealing. He’s set a record in fund-raising in the last quarter and has out-raised Ted Cruz considerably. He’s young, and he used to play in a punk-rock band—a constituency that hasn’t been tapped in the past. Fluent in the issues. He’s seen as a kind of bipartisan figure. Those are the advantages. The disadvantages are, number one, we’ve never elected anybody from El Paso to statewide office. El Paso is seen as being a distant galaxy. It’s halfway between Houston and LA. And the Republican Party is still very much dominant in Texas, even though it doesn’t represent the real demography of the state. Also going against Beto is the fact that the ticket itself doesn’t have very much weight on the top or the bottom, and so he’s having to carry the whole thing by himself.
JW: If you look at the political map of the United States, you say in your book, Houston, Dallas, and Austin are “blue dots in red Middle America.” But those Democratic strongholds in Texas are quite different from each other.
LW: Austin is probably the most liberal city in the entire southern tier of the United States, from Washington to San Francisco. The attacks on Austin by our conservative political leaders are funny to me: If you look at conservative metrics, for instance entrepreneurship, job growth, and so on, Austin is the clear champion in the state. People are drawn to Austin because of its values and its political culture.
JW: Then there’s Houston. Huge city.
LW: Houston is a coastal city, and it’s now been awarded the title of being the most diverse city in America, because there’s not a single ethnic group that is a majority. Also it is a city that takes in more refugees than any other city in America. Twenty percent of all the people in Houston are born in another country. It’s fantastically diverse and intends to be more so, according to their mayor, Sylvester Turner, their second black mayor. The previous mayor was the only lesbian mayor in the United States. So it confutes a lot of images that people have about Texas and about Houston.
JW: You grew up in Dallas.
LW: I have a particular place in my heart for Dallas. I fled Dallas because it was a right-wing repository, and of course Kennedy was killed there, when I was in high school. I think that assassination did more good for Dallas than any other thing.
JW: That’s a shocking statement: The assassination did more good for Dallas than anything else.
LW: It was a city that was off the rails, politically speaking, and it was full of itself and prideful and there was a kind of corporate fascism that was ruling the city. People accused Dallas of killing Kennedy because they hated Dallas. But Dallas didn’t kill Kennedy; a socialist killed Kennedy. I didn’t even know we had one. It was rare to meet a Democrat. Anyway, Dallas was taken down like no city in America has ever been. There’s a similarity between the words “humiliation” and “humility.” If you can go through humiliation and acquire humility, then you have made use of the tragedy—and that’s what I think happened in Dallas. I think Dallas today is a noble city. I think it’s been able to take suffering and tragedy, and turn it to something good.
JW: Can you give us any sense of the schedule of Texas turning from red to blue—or at least to purple? When might this happen?
LW: It will happen for several reasons. One is that all the cities are blue, and that’s where growth is happening, and a lot of the growth is minority growth. The other reason is that Texans are already far more progressive than our elected representatives. For instance, most Texans want to have undocumented migrants be given citizenship or some kind of green card or something like that that would protect them. Responsible gun ownership: A lot of Texans don’t quarrel with that. But if you listen to our political figures, you would never know that they represent a people that have different opinions.
The other thing is the Republican Party in Texas—I think they have taken an overdose of some kind of hallucinogen that makes them think that they’re living in another future. The Anglo population is diminishing in terms of its presence and influence, and it is almost an entirely Anglo party and they’ve been antagonizing Hispanics for a long time, most recently with the sanctuary-cities bill. The particular feature of that is the “show me your papers” provision, which stigmatizes every Hispanic differently from any other Texans. Then there’s the intolerance towards homosexuals, the opposition to gay marriage. Recently, just a couple of weeks ago, we had the state Republican convention, and they refused to allow a booth to the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republicans. Well, what statement are they trying to make? They are so backward-looking, they’re so hostile to public education, and they’re so focused on socially conservative issues like that bathroom bill that they tried to force through. Those are not winning propositions for a future party. They will become losing propositions when people in Texas go vote. We’re always at the bottom, or right next to it, in voter turnout. When that changes, Texas will turn blue very quickly.