It's a measure of how tumultuous 2017 has been that Texans are not completely preoccupied with President Trump. This year, the state has endured a mass shooting, a bathroom-bill debate, wildfires and historic floods. Recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in particular, will take years. And with the fifth round of North American Free Trade Agreement talks off to an inauspicious start in Mexico City, there's no need to belabor this point: Uncertainty abounds. While the United States is focused on many other issues as well, it's worth paying attention to what's happening in Texas, because the events that have sent the state reeling may have momentous consequences for everyone. Here are several misconceptions worth extinguishing.
In 2014, Texas led the nation in background-check requests to purchase firearms, with more than 1 million requests filed. "It goes with our history of Texas being a state where people love their guns," Nicole Strong, a spokeswoman for the Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said at the time. Anyone who follows the state's politics can confirm this reputation: Republicans have been in power here for a generation, and they have never been accused of pandering to the gun-control crowd. Gov. Greg Abbott, who was elected in 2014, campaigned on expanding gun rights and pursued open-carry and campus-carry laws the following year. His predecessor, Rick Perry, once shot a coyote while out for a jog.
But Texans, collectively, have the same views on guns as other Americans do: Most think the government has a rightful role in restricting access to them under certain circumstances. According to a June survey from the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans believe that gun laws should be more strict; an October survey from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune found that 52 percent of Texans do, too. And although data on gun ownership is notoriously imprecise, there's no evidence that Texans are armed at a wildly disproportionate rate. In 2012, the General Social Survey reported that 34 percent of Americans have a gun in their home. In Texas, the figure is about 36 percent, according to a 2015 study .
As Princeton's Robert Wuthnow put it in a 2014 book about the state's historical religious landscape, Texas is "America's most powerful Bible-Belt state." A recent history of Texas prohibitionists was called "Making the Bible Belt." Some 31 percent of Texans are evangelical Protestants (across a range of denominations), according to the Pew Research Center, compared with 25 percent of Americans as a whole. Evangelicals' strength here explains the suspicions raised by a 2015 joke from a state Supreme Court justice, who tweeted, amid a national debate over same-sex marriage, that "I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon."
Yes, large-scale migration from the United States to the territory in the early 1800s coincided with the Second Great Awakening, so Baptists and Methodists have always played an outsize role in civic life, as Wuthnow's book explains. (Texas is home to one of Trump's favorite evangelicals, Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas; the church's musical tribute to Trump, "Make America Great Again," will alarm you — and get stuck in your head.)
But Texas is not the beating heart of evangelical America. The largest single religious group here is Catholics; 23 percent of Texans identify as such — and since more than 70 percent of Texas Catholics are Latino, that share will continue to rise as this group grows. Beyond that, the state's faith communities are as heterogeneous as the population itself. Joe Straus, the speaker of the House, is Jewish. Some 422,000 Texans are Muslim, the largest such population in any state, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census.
Trump began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by assailing Mexican immigrants. His signature policy proposal is a border wall, and he insists that a porous border enables illegal immigrants to wreak havoc on the United States, and Texas in particular. His supporters have, needless to say, been happy to vouch for such claims. "Fifty percent of murders in Texas have been linked to illegal aliens," Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes said in 2015, a statement debunked by PolitiFact.
It's all ridiculous, and Texas Republicans knew it — until quite recently. Republican governors such as Perry and George W. Bush were comparatively temperate on the issues of illegal immigration and border security. Their successors, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have been more hawkish; this year's legislative session produced a draconian crackdown on "sanctuary city" policies that protect undocumented immigrants, a group that is roughly 1.65 million strong in Texas, according to the Pew Research Center.
Unauthorized immigration to Texas is primarily a labor force phenomenon. The "criminals" and "rapists" Trump warns about are, for the most part, workers from a culturally familiar country, living in a state with a skeletal safety net and ongoing economic growth. That's not really a problem from a public safety perspective. In fact, Texas's biggest problem with unauthorized immigration is that it has plateaued: In the wake of Harvey, Houston is facing a labor shortfall as it tries to rebuild, since many of the construction jobs have historically been filled by workers from neighboring Mexico.
"Texas has emerged as a prime target for partisan realignment," Thomas B. Edsall wrote in 2013. This is a plausible myth, given the state's rapidly changing demographics — the state demographer's office projects that Latinos, a traditionally Democratic constituency, will outnumber Anglos by 2020 and will be a majority of the population by 2042. And Washington Post columnist George Will warned last year that Republican vote totals are shrinking. "With its size and diversity, our state should be a place where all elections — from local elections all the way up to the President of United States — are hotly contested," Battleground Texas says on its website.
But this transformation is nowhere close to reality. Putting too much faith in this trend enticed the state's Democrats, and their national cheerleaders, to doom in 2014. Battleground Texas, established in 2013, helped contest the 2014 midterms so hotly that Democratic candidates for statewide office, led by gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis, lost by at least 20 points. It's true that Texas is a "majority-minority" state, a young state and an urbanized state. But all those things were true 10 years ago, too, and Democrats have not won statewide since 1994.
In December 2014, Michael Feroli, the chief U.S. economist for JPMorgan Chase, issued a warning: "We think Texas will, at least, have a rough 2015 ahead, and is at risk of slipping into a regional recession." His premise, that low oil prices would drag down the entire state, was widely shared. Paul Krugman argued in 2011 that the Great Recession was slow to hit Texas "mainly because the state's still energy-heavy economy was buoyed by high oil prices through the first half of 2008." And it's true that the Texas economy has done surprisingly well this year in part because the energy industry is rebounding.
But Texas no longer rises and falls on the strength of oil, as it did in the 1980s. The economy has diversified (into manufacturing, services, trade, tech), and it now depends on the globalized economic order that Trump campaigned against. In 2015, Michael Plante, an economist with the Dallas Fed, offered the following not-particularly-terrifying assessment of how the collapse in oil prices over the previous six months would affect the state: "The effects by themselves are not expected to halt job creation in Texas in 2015, but will, nonetheless, be felt in areas heavily dependent on oil production and employment related to the sector." In 2017, we can say that he, rather than Feroli, was right.