Texas in transition: the myths and politics of America’s largest state
Review: God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright is also a moving reflection on the concept of home and identity
Texas: the changing demographics of a state with a growing Hispanic population may soon present a challenge to its Republican dominance
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Future of America
“Writers have been sizing up Texas from its earliest days, usually harshly,” says Lawrence Wright in the opening pages of his captivating new book on Texas.
Big, brash and vast, Texas matters. And not just because of its size. The changing demographics of a state with a growing Hispanic population may soon present a challenge to its Republican dominance. As a result, Texas is forefront in the minds of political analysts across the country, as they try to ponder the future political direction of America.
Award-winning New Yorker writer and long-time Texas resident Wright has set himself the task of getting behind the myths, stories and politics of America’s largest state. The book begins with Wright and his friend Steve cycling around the five Spanish missions scattered along the San Antonio River. The relaxed, meandering style continues throughout, the narrative slowly bringing the reader along on this journey, revealing gems along the way.
Wright begins with one of the definitive moments in Texas’ development – the discovery of oil. In the early years of the 20th century, a wily Texan began drilling a suspiciously sulphurous hill on the Gulf Coast near the Louisiana border.
On January 19th, 1901, a column of black liquid spurted 150ft into the air. “No one had ever seen anything like this,” writes Wright. After the second year of production, the well was producing 17 million barrels of oil a year. The Texan oil industry had begun, as too had the pattern of boom-and-bust that would characterise the state’s economy over the next century as prices rose and fall according to supply, right up to today’s fracking revolution.
The state’s relationship with its natural assets is a recurring theme. The book was completed last autumn just as Hurricane Harvey made its way across the Gulf of Mexico and dumped gallons of rain on Houston. Wright recalls racing to Houston where he was supposed to be rehearsing a new play. When he arrived at the historic Alley theatre dating from 1947, the building was devastated. It would be demolished 10 days later bringing its rich theatrical history with it. Houston is America’s fourth-largest city, but one that has expanded, unfettered, for decades, without planning laws or flood-prevention strategies. With its disdain for regulations, it epitomises Texas’ anti-government ethos, as the city continues to expand relentlessly. “Harvey calls into question the future of Houston,” Wright bluntly puts it.
The Texan commitment to economic individualism and minimal government is explored. The state legislature meets at the Capitol in Austin only every other year in deference to their aversion to government, says Wright. In a typically Texan quirk, those carrying a license to carry a firearm can enter the building without going through the metal detector, allowing many to skip the long line of tourists and visitors. At 35 per cent, Texan gun ownership is close to the national average, though like many states, gun-owners now own multiple weapons, which explains America’s high rate of gun ownership.
A left-wing enclave
Politically, Texas has found itself at the centre of a national debate on gerrymandering. Allegations of illegal districting practices in Texas are currently being considered by the US Supreme Court. The state has 25 Republicans in Congress and 11 Democrats – numbers that fail to represent the true political leanings of a state that is moving increasingly to the left as the percentage of minorities grows. A chapter set on the border which explores Texas’ unique relationship with Mexico is among the most powerful in the book. “Mexico defines Texas in a way that no other state experiences with any other nation,” he writes.
But while Wright’s depiction of some of the powerful personalities of Texas politics and business may feel too specific for some readers, familiar names pop up – from George W Bush to Karl Rove and Hollywood heartthrob Matthew McConaughey who lived briefly across the road from Wright in Austin.
Austin’s status as a left-wing enclave within a red state is also touched on. To many outsiders “Austin is forgivable in a way that living in Texas is not” – as he wryly puts it.
Ultimately, what shines through in this personal account of the contradictions of his home state, is Wright’s inability to live anywhere else. “Part of me had always wanted to leave Texas, but I had never actually gone,” he writes towards the end of the book. As he reflects that his life has been a “provincial life in many ways”, the book becomes, among other things, a moving reflection on the concept of home, identity, and the importance of belonging.
Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent