MADE IN TEXAS
George W. Bush and the Southern
Takeover of American Politics
By Michael Lind
Basic. 201 pp. $24
Despite his invocation in the title, George W. Bush is not the subject of Michael Lind's new book so much as its leitmotif. This is a collection of historical and political essays about Texas. Lind views his native state as wracked even today by half-a-dozen struggles between enlightenment and barbarism. There are age-old wars between reformers and racists, between Texans of German descent (generally progressives, in Lind's view) and "Anglo-Celts" (generally racist louts), between Austin ("an island of intellect in a sea of Southern anti-intellectualism and Protestant fundamentalism") and elsewhere, between high-tech modernizers (a "visionary and earnest elite of entrepreneurs, engineers, reformist politicians, and dedicated civil servants") and the "feudal system" of the Texas oil patch, between Democrats and Republicans. For Lind, President Bush ("this aberrant president -- one of the worst in American history") symbolizes the dark side of all these dualities.
There is plenty to deplore in the Texan political tradition. Lind often identifies it vividly, as when he notes that, for much of the state's short history, "the most successful political formula . . . consisted of the folksy Scots-Irish hillbilly populist style in politics enlisted in the service of the commodity economics and racial hierarchy favored by the Anglo-American ruling class." He's right, too, to denounce the market-rigging that arises in commodity economies in general and Texas's oil economy in particular. That Texan oil elites may put their own interests above those of the country at large is a worry that the Enron-funded nabobs in the Bush administration have done nothing to dispel. And the president himself, through his refusal to identify the buyer of Harken Energy stock to whom he owes virtually his whole fortune, has earned himself a modest mention in any book on Southern political corruption.
Yet in addressing Bush's shortcomings, Lind is frequently simplistic and unfair. Our New Haven-born and Andover-, Yale- and Harvard-educated president may well have been marked by his career in Texas. To say, however, that Bush "emerged from the same Southern tradition that produced Strom Thurmond and George Wallace" is laying it on a bit thick. Lind often writes as if segregationist and other anti-social sentiments were airborne ailments to which people are doomed by geography and tribal affiliation. "The George Herbert Walker Bush Library at Texas A&M in College Station, like the younger Bush's ranch," he writes, "is in the heart of the historic Texan lynching belt." Meanwhile, Lind's Good Texas -- the one surrounding Austin and Lyndon Johnson's ranch -- has been "a haven over the generations to an assortment of freed slaves, eccentric inventors, early free-thinkers, anarchic hillbillies, and college-town hippies." Distinctions between the good and the bad Texases are, often as not, arbitrary and whimsical. Thus, the free-wheeling country singer Willie Nelson gets adduced as a visitor to the (good) Texas town of Luckenbach -- not as one born, raised and resident just over the line from (bad) McLennan County, site of the president's Crawford retreat and mecca to the Timothy nation's McVeighs.
Lind likes to hector his reader with generalizations. "Protestantism in itself," he writes, "is not the source of the bourgeois ethic. (Max Weber's attempt to link the two was simply incorrect.)" Some will love that "simply." Others will hear in it a Mister-Know-It-All voice, which dominates the book for long excursions into peripheral enthusiasms. Dozens of pages are given over to lamenting "the Israelization of American foreign policy" at the hands of "ex-leftist, mostly Jewish neoconservatives and reactionary white Southern Protestant fundamentalists." The ideological underpinning of this alliance is, Lind thinks, Zionism's essential resemblance to Jim Crow. "Like present-day Israel," he writes, "Texas before the Civil Rights Revolution was a Herrenvolk (master race) democracy, combining populism within the majority ethnic nation with the state-enforced subordination of ethnic minorities." Lind concludes his book with the suggestion that a new federal Resettlement Administration engineer a vast population transfer from America's coastal cities to the empty stretches of the Great Plains.
Lind often bites off more argument than he can chew. On one page, he insists that the New Deal's "state-capitalist developmental projects in the South and the West" were its most important legacy; on another, that the New Deal "made only a dent" in the South. On one page, the ostentation of Southern elites comes from a British-American culture "untouched by bourgeois and Puritan influences during its formative years in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries"; on another, "the South's religion is seventeenth-century British Cromwellian Puritanism as modified by nineteenth-century British Darbyist dispensationalism." Just as often, Lind damns Texas through an over-generous assessment of conditions elsewhere. He complains that recently retired Sen. Phil Gramm wanted Mexican guest-workers for "industries which white Southerners consider undignified and fit only for non-white laborers, native or foreign." (As if the dynamics of immigration were different in Boston or Barcelona or Brisbane.) He laments that Texas's universities have historically been in the hands of the "planter class." (As if those in New England were historically proletarian strongholds.)
Lind is an engaging, excitable writer, and he is on to something. Whether the South's historic failings have been given national scope by our current president -- by our last two, in fact -- is a question eminently worth posing. But Lind's criteria are too arbitrary, his worldview too Manichean, to permit him to give a satisfactory answer. *
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.