A Politics of Place (2018)
A place carries a continuity of knowledge and passes it from generation to generation. How the place works, what makes it turn.
When there’s disruption in this continuity, learning transpires by costly lessons of what the place will and will not tolerate.
Such learning risks decline. Perhaps demise.
In my late teens and early twenties, I rambled around a region built on agriculture, education and health care with a well-worn copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom in my truck console, an authentic 1964 Goldwater-Miller bumper sticker and anti-government talk shows blaring on AM radio.
That was the late 1990s and early 2000s. A disruptive political period in our region, in which West Texan social conservatism finally divorced the Democratic Party and native fiscal frugality married Republicanism – a party that, outside of Reconstruction and Larry Combest’s coordination with Charlie Stenholm in the 2002 Farm Bill, had made little contribution to the region. The GOP came in to the other side of Texas promising local control and term limits. And, well, you can see how that turned out.
At the time, the incongruence of my developing political identity to my surrounding economic realities never even occurred to me.
Then I grew up.
Driving around West Texas today, one plainly sees a century’s worth of good government.
On long stretches of state highways, expansive landscapes of crops, ranchland and oil fields are proof of America’s historical commitment to policy that incentivized domestic food, fiber and fuel production as a matter of national defense. A defense that can be immediately applied by several military bases. Throughout the region’s constellation of rural communities, school districts are the lifeblood as well as a primary employer. Those communities are often within an hour’s access to healthcare.
Drive on into the rural metropolis of Lubbock and economic times have never been better.
The ‘recession-proof’ city’s top 10 employers are most all government entities, maintaining 20-percent of workforce. Business experience in Lubbock, like the region, remediates whatever one failed to learn growing up in a region in which agriculture, education and medical sectors drive the economic engine. The non-taxable invoices of small businesses providing quality service to these sectors and/or the sectors’ employees are both significant and unquantifiable. In such a place, demagoguery of government is as ironic as Al Gore boarding a private jet to keynote a carbon footprint conference.
One becomes aware of their political dissonance in talking awfully red when the deposits are quite blue. Hardline Hayek devotees in the suburbs (“suburbatarians”) call this a hand-out economy; they also call “hand-outs” that brought massive corporations to their regions “incentives.”
And yet, despite all the surrounding contradictory evidence, anti-government rhetoric resonates today.
Within the bounds of Tom DeLay’s re-districting maps, debates about good government have dried up and voter participation recedes. When the lines were erased, so too was any middle ground.
Campaigns fixate on social values issues. We staunchly oppose abortion and support the Second Amendment. But given the population declines, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that campaigns based on social values assume there’s society in which to hold such values.
To borrow an adage, the more you vote against your place the less you have to come home to.
Drive out of Lubbock in any direction, look closely, and one sees a fight against rural euthanasia.
Westward up and down the Caprock/New Mexico border, arsenic and fluoride levels in depleted water wells necessitate $1-2 million reverse osmosis systems, paid for by 500 water meters or less. Southward to Interstate 20, school funding restraints have invented teacher recruitment from foreign countries. To the north and east, rural hospitals scrape by, or simply close, due to reduced Medicaid reimbursement rates eliminating margins.
Folks who produce the nation’s food, fuel and fiber see their debt-to-asset ratios surging and their place creeping past decline.
A hard, disruptive decade has revealed the region’s toughest drought is political solutions.
DeLay’s lines muzzled conservative Democrats, and Mr. Sam Rayburn’s Texas Democratic Party has taken up an obsession with a perennially losing coalition of urban cultural liberalism and pink jogging shoes.
Likewise, the Texas GOP is obsessed with duping urban and suburban voters with Austin mandates that do little to lower local property taxes, as well as coaxing conservative Texans with social legislation that invariably flop in federal court (a.k.a. the only opposition party in Texas). Or whatever else consultants contrive.
This piece is being written the day before the 2018 Texas primary elections, in which Democratic early voting turnout in large counties is up some 200-percent from 2014. A political reality that the current Republican Party of Texas chairman must find disconcerting, especially since his organization is actively working to eliminate the rural Republican lawmakers that they’ll soon need. The same goes for a governor who’s put up outposts in places like moderate West University Place.
And while membership within a voting bloc that calls itself as conservative may well have its privileges, it also has costs. Giving a bag of feed for a bowl of porridge isn’t conservative, and it assumes the district’s granaries have endless supplies.
Political craftsmen once led our region, as well as other regions. Guided by a politics of place, putting place over partisanship to work for good government. They weren’t Democrats, they were West Texacrats.
Craftsmen who didn’t need or want to use God as a means to a political end. Like U.S. Rep. George Mahon voting with his party 60-percent of the time within a given congress. Stenholm voted for Reagan tax cuts, balanced budgets and Clinton’s impeachment. They worked both sides of the aisle, Interstate 35 and the Mason-Dixon Line. And from this historical legacy of place-over-party came the continuity of former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center) imploring “members, vote your district” each time his gavel struck the dais.
What’s needed most today to revive middle ground in Austin is place-first, party-second West Texacans, East Texacrats, Central Texacans, Coastalcrats, etc, etc.
A politics of place understands good government. That our place wasn’t conducive to straight-line Keynesian big government policy when the state was deep blue; neither is it conducive to straight-line suburbatarian policy now that it’s bright red.
Rural Texan Bob Bullock, who didn’t use a D or R at the end of his career, knew something of continuity of knowledge and politics of place when he said, perhaps prophetically, “If we don’t know where we’ve been, we sure don’t know where we’re goin’.”
A return to a politics of place can make regions work again, make them turn again.
Texacans and Texacrats can make the Texas Legislature great again.
Note: The original version of this piece was first published on QuorumReport.com in October 2015.
Recently, I happened upon a Texas songwriter-musician named David Blake Terrell. He lives in Darrouzett, up in the Panhandle. He wrote a song entitled Prairie Town. You can listen to the full song below.
This is the chorus:
Well, a cowcamp started Farwell
There ain’t much left at Quitaque
We hear that song ‘bout Luckenback
Where nobody’s feeling pain
But of all the little towns in West Texas,
That time forgot about,
It’s a rural route, what the west is now,
when you live in a prairie town
Yeah we do without, but we’re dang proud
That we live in a prairie town
I think about politics of place when I hear this song. I’m dang proud to live up on the prairie. And I bet you’re dang proud of your place, too– and I hope you have as great a song about your place. Texas Forever.