The Individualistic Political Culture of Texas
“Honor the Texas flag. I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas. One state, under God. One and indivisible”. I was born and raised in Texas and chances are if you grew up here too these seventeen words are how you began your school day. Reciting this pledge was second nature to me, so much so that I never give much thought to the words or the meaning. Texas’s unique conservative political culture is the reason we recite a state pledge when a majority of other states do not even have a pledge. Texas’s conservative political culture is shaped by traditionalism and individualism. This political culture has impacted regulation in Texas’s political climate. In this essay, I want to examine the individualistic nature of Texas political culture.
Daniel J. Elazar, a leading political scientist, identified three forms of political culture (individualism, traditionalism, and moralism) in his 1972 novel titled ‘American Federalism: A View from The States’. In traditionalism the government intervenes to preserve the existing social order, power is held by a small group of established elites and there is an elitist conception of commonwealth. In individualistic political culture the government only intervenes to create opportunity to promote individual initiatives and entrepreneurship. In his novel Elazar believed each state’s political culture was shaped by its original settlers (Elazar 94-99).
Individualism can be traced back to the establishment of Texas’s independence as the Republic of Texas. Texas’s commonwealth frontier was home to Sam Houston, who led his army to victory against Mexican forces at San Jacinto gaining Texas’s independence, and other averse leaders like him. Their characteristics were reflected in Texas politics where there was a resentment of encroachments on personal rights and most would rather settle their issues on their own without any legal interference. The influence of individualism can be observed in a diary entry written by William Barret Travis, who showed great courage leading his men into battle at the Alamo knowing they would face certain death. On March 9th of 1834 Travis wrote the following: “Started to Mill Creek waters all swimming and prairie so boggy-could not go. The first time I ever turned back in my life”. It is also true that the Texas reputation for toughness in the 1830’s and 1840’s, whether deserved or not, repelled timid prospective immigrants. And many were rejected in the usual process of frontier selectivity. As one recently arrived man wrote in 1839: “This country is full of enterprising and persevering people the timid and the lazy generally return to the States”. In 1846 a visitor found an economic basis for Texas independence, and concluded that the Texans are the most independent people under the whole canopy of heaven the wealth of the old states not excepted (Hogan, 454-455) Regardless of social class individualism became a part of many Texans lives. It was a part of the medical profession where each member of the medical profession operated in a separate independency. Some doctors adopted an armed neutrality system. In 1850 there was no medical organization and according to Dr. Ashbel Smith, there was not any signs of change ahead. Individualism even made its way into religion in Texas. In a report made to Alexander Campbell on the prospects of the Disciples of Christ in Texas it was stated that across all denominations in Texas there was a ‘manly independence’ that was not found anywhere in the United States (Hogan, 455).
The Italian Renaissance is an event that can be compared to Texas individualism. After the Middle Ages a rebirth of culture, learning, art and literature took place known as the Italian Renaissance between the 14th and 17th century. This period marked a turning point in history with dynamic cultural change. Italy was on top of ancient Rome’s ruins and was near the Arabs and Byzantines, which led to the Italian Renaissance being heavily influenced by Greek and Roman heritage. The geographic location of Italy was important to the Renaissance similar to how the frontier location with sparse settlement on an area of newly acquired open and free land was important for individualism in Texas to thrive (“FC76: The Italian Renaissance”). Society in the Middle Ages was communal, God-fearing and group oriented. This was reflected in the art where all of it was religious and faces and bodies had no individual features or detail and were similar to cartoons. Details of the artwork such as perspective and background were non-existent. In contrast, art during the Renaissance was secular and of the artwork that was religious individual details were used to glorify the human form and human accomplishments. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci began to place an emphasis on perspective, background and the individual by doing portraits, which is one of the reasons his painting the Mona Lisa has become so famous. Individualism is also seen by artists beginning to sign their paintings and take individualistic pride because of the shift away from focusing away from religious hierarchy and towards the capabilities of the individual.
An individualistic system of capitalism that encouraged private enterprise also emerged similar to what took place along the frontier in Texas (“FC76: The Italian Renaissance”). The Homestead Act of 1862 provided settlers with 160 acres of public land providing that they turned their acres into a private farm. This law made the common man a king in his own domain. Homesteaders became icons of individualism in the American West, although the act was not very successful in helping poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Building and maintain a farm on the frontier in the Far West was not affordable for most even when the land was provided for free. Homesteaders were given incentives to develop their private farms, but due to the rising prices of agricultural equipment, livestock, unpredictable rain, and the quality of the free land was not as good as that occupied by railroads and other settlers along the frontier. After 1862 the rate of farmers moving to the city increased and most of the successful farmers in the West earned their farms by purchasing them from railroads and other large land owners (‘Primary Documents in American History’). In the work of fiction ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll Alice notices a white rabbit go down a hole and when she looks through the hole she accidently falls in and enters into a magical world. In the end Alice wakes up and realizes her adventures in the magical land were all a dream. Homesteaders represent Alice, by following the white rabbit, which can be seen as the Homestead Act leading them down the hole where their successful farmland along the frontier awaits. The future that the Homestead Act was supposed to provide settlers can be seen as the magical world that was supposed to be created by giving settlers land to build private farms. Homesteaders had high hopes for the Act, but in the end having a successful private farm proved to be far from a reality for most homesteaders similar to Alice’s dream of the magical world and her adventures.
Individualism can be seen in Texas’s limited government. The Texas constitution views the powers of the government as highly restrictive and only limited to those specifically outlined in the Texas state constitution and any changes to it require a majority of Texas voters’ approval. Which is why a legislative change that may seem insignificant can require a constitutional amendment and referendum (Samuels). The Texas governor has limited appointment and removal powers, which are considered to be weak. Along with many other Texas elected officials the governor has a plural executive structure where power is distributed across several elected leaders. Texas voters elect the governor, lieutenant governor, Texas State Board of Education, attorney general, comptroller of public accounts, and the railroad, land, and agricultural commissioner (Young).
The Texas political climate is favorable to business where taxes are kept low. Texas remains one of the seven states without an income tax making it one of its key attractions for businesses. On November 5, 2019 Texans voted on a constitutional ban to make it even more difficult for state leaders to impose an income tax in the future, which passed with flying colors. According to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, “This ban on such a disastrous tax will keep our economy prosperous, protect taxpayers, and ensure that Texas remains the best state to live, work, and raise a family”. Two Dallas senators, Royce West and Nathan Johnson, even went as far as to change the language of the income tax ban to apply to ‘natural persons’ and not ‘individuals’ because they believed that by using ‘individual’ corporations may be exempt. While their efforts were unsuccessful, the Legislature amended Texas tax code to define ‘individual’ as ‘natural person’. The Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Texas State Teachers Association have stated that this ban “eliminates a potential source of revenue for public education funding and property tax relief” (‘Texas Voters Say Yes to Ban’). This ban shows how the government acts in line with individualistic values and intervenes to create opportunity to promote entrepreneurship and business rather than the community as a whole.
The Plot of the movie ‘The Hunger Games’ can be compared to Texas’s ban on a state income tax. In ‘The Hunger Games’ there are communities called districts which live under complete rule of the Capitol. They host an annual hunger game where one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to fight to stay alive and it’s broadcasted to all districts. Katniss Everdeen is the main character who was chosen to participate in the annual hunger game. Katniss takes a stand in the game and wins it and in doing so she creates a revolution to set the people free of the Capitol’s rule (‘The Hunger Games’). The state of Texas is under the rule of the United States government similar to how the districts are to obey the Capitol. Katniss can be seen as the majority of Texas winning the election of the constitutional ban on Texas state income tax similar to Katniss wining the hunger game. Katniss just like Texas voters wanted to be free from the rules imposed by a higher authority so she started a revolution to make sure they remain free from rule similar to how the ban was to keep Texans free of a state income tax for a longer period of time. Katniss and Texans both fought for individualistic values. Texas has developed a reputation for contradicting its hands-off approach to regulation by interfering with local control of political issues and blocking local laws.
Texas’s regulation on labor unions under right-to-work laws is influenced by individualism, but primarily by traditionalism. Under the Texas Labor Code a person cannot be barred from employment based off of whether or not they do or do not have membership to a union. Right-to-work laws make it illegal for unions and employers to require payment of union dues as a condition of employment. These ‘right to work’ laws make forming and operating labor unions difficult because given the option people will tend to opt out of payment especially when these union membership dues can add up to a couple hundred dollars annually. These laws are supported by individualism in Texas because many Texans believe requiring payment for something whether they support it or not infringes on their freedom and they want to be able to make their own decisions without being forced to by the government. Also, by having less unions and less union participation, Texas is a more attractive place for businesses. By eliminating union influence, business owners will have more control over their employees and not have to answer to unions negotiating contracts and working conditions for their employees. Typically, this means business owners can get away with paying employees less than if they were to have union representation. On average members of unions make 30% more than non-union members (Rodriguez).
In conclusion, despite the fact that the political culture of Texas is mixed with traditionalism and individualism, in my opinion, its individualistic side is more significant. And it is this side that exerts a greater influence on the policies carried out by the state government and on its residents.
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