California And Texas Will Decide The 2020 Election

Are America’s political juggernauts really so far apart?

Art by Sophia Valdes

The windiest city in the nation is Amarillo, Texas.

The midpoint of historic Route 66, which ran for decades from Chicago — whose “windiness” is really a reference to its politicians’ oratorical pomposity — to Santa Monica, Amarillo is also home to one of the most famous artifacts of kitsch roadside Americana, Cadillac Ranch.

An array of 10 vintage cars buried halfway into the gently sloping soil of the Texas Panhandle, it’s an enigmatic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek homage to American car culture and the forlorn quality of the open road. Laid out in 1974, the Caddies are arranged so as to illustrate the evolution of their tailfins over time, supposedly oriented at the same angle as the exterior of the Great Pyramid of Giza. For a state with a law-and-order reputation like Texas, visitors are allowed to do something rather unlikely: spray paint the cars, which they do, often with cryptic political messages.

Such an anarchic spirit just off Interstate 40 in one of the most conservative regions of the country may owe itself to the Cadillac Ranch’s creators, the art collective Ant Farm, founded in San Francisco in the late 1960s by the avant-garde, anti-consumerist duo Chip Lord and Doug Michels. Not far away is the hamlet of Happy, Texas (“The Town Without a Frown”) and just down the interstate is the Second Amendment Cowboy, a tall guy in a yellow shirt and ten-gallon hat who looks a bit like Woody from Toy Story and who is most certainly frowning a little.

But in June of last year, a darker icon appeared. Just west of Cadillac Ranch, someone installed a billboard that read, “Liberals, Please continue on I-40 until you have left our GREAT STATE OF TEXAS.” In the ensuing outcry, it only lasted a few days, partly because of its rancorous spirit and partly because it’s a violation of the tenet “Drive friendly, the Texas way.”

We know which liberals the makers of that billboard were referring to, and it ain’t hippies in Burlington, Vt. The sentiment was of a piece with a similar rallying cry that’s heard more and more around the Lone Star State these days: “Don’t California My Texas.” That phrase has become a bumper sticker and a defiant campaign motto of Gov. Greg Abbott — made all the more curious by consistent and brazen attempts by different Texan officials to poach California companies (a more accurate slogan might be “Don’t California My Texas Unless You Make Bushels Of Money And Jobs”).

But whether state politicians like it or not, a number of signs point toward Texas trending in a decidedly Californian direction: bluer and browner.

Getting bigger

Texas grows by more than 1,200 people, every single day.

It is an astounding number of people. Together, Texas and California are  home to some 68 million people, or about one-fifth of the total population of the United States — more than France or the U.K. and as much as Australia and Canada combined. Still, California’s growth has slowed since its 1980s salad days (during which it welcomed 1,700 people per day) and Texas’ has not, and now the Golden State has just shy of 40 million people while Texas is home to nearly 29 million. At current growth rates, Texas will surpass California four or five decades on.

The danger of a California-ized Texas, such as it is, is real. Texas is growing rapidly, and as it does, it’s swelling with people of color and highly-educated professionals, linchpins of the contemporary Democratic Party. With a skyline nearly unrecognizable from a decade ago and a strong tech presence, Austin has lived up to its early-2000s nickname “Silicon Hills.” Since I lived there, in 2004, it has not only surpassed San Francisco in population, but increasingly become the “San Francisco of the South” due to its sanctuary-city status, LGBTQ culture, and food scene. It’s gone from a blue islet in a sea of red to a place that increasingly steers the state’s direction. Nobody there seems to have gotten the “liberals, get out” memo.

Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

 

 

Mere weeks after wind turbines generated more power in Texas than coal for the first time, the consequences of these cultural shifts are becoming ever more palpable. After almost two centuries as a bastion of what its proponents would describe as a hands-off, frontier spirit, Texas is indeed changing. A low-tax, low-services place with a part-time legislature and a brash devotion to personal freedom — in some ways, at least — Texas is becoming downright cosmopolitan.

The picture, of course, is more complicated than simply an upward-pointing green arrow or a downward-pointing red one. Demographers look at three sources for population gains: a natural increase (that is, births over deaths), domestic migration (people moving in from another state), and international migration. With its high cost of living and housing emergency, California has become a hub of domestic out-migration, which means its population growth is now entirely a function of immigration and of more people being born than dying. This has led many economic analysts to decry a “California exodus,” something of an overblown concern given that there are two-and-a-half million more Californians today than there were in 2010, whereas  states like Illinois have actually shrunk. Still, while both states’ economies remain very strong, no one can doubt that many California companies have either relocated outright or chosen to expand their workforce out of state.

Yet Texas-centric triumphalism pervades. A June cover story by The Economist dove into this topic. It’s largely a fair, if limited analysis — no mention of Proposition 13’s chokehold on property taxes, at best a cursory treatment of Texas’ historical reliance on oil extraction and refining — but at least there is no gratuitous bashing of unhoused or low-income people. In short, both states have work to do, although just how much that registers with you will depend on how much you subscribe to The Economist’s center-right worldview.

“The key question for California is how much a state can take on, and with Texas it is about how little a government can continue to take on,” Ken Miller, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, told the magazine.

Unquestionably, California’s sunny bounty is showing strain under various constrictions, from the human-made housing crisis to the limits of the Sierra snowpack — and that’s before factoring in the proposal to provide universal health coverage or complete the beleaguered high-speed rail. But as it has grown, Texas, too, has begun to display contradictions. A state whose freeway overpasses are so large that you can continue driving at 70 miles per hour as you swoop over eight lanes of traffic still sees itself as fundamentally rural in character, and with open space regarded as near-infinite, suburban sprawl becomes a God-given right. Houston, for all its ethnic diversity and economic diversification, remains tethered to petroleum — which means both gasoline and plastic. (A vision of a world without internal-combustion engines or single-use items has a “This is the future liberals want” bent to it, but it may be capitalism’s prerogative in short order.)

 

A state ostensibly dedicated to personal liberty — it’s very easy to own an exotic pet in Texas, for instance — is also a battleground over women’s bodily autonomy and the ability of trans children to use the restroom. Even after the death penalty has been revealed to be racist and alarmingly error-prone, Texas still executes more people than any other state. Education spending per student ranks second from the bottom, hardly a shrewd investment in the future. And the zeal for the privatization of public goods has saddled Texas with an incomplete network of toll roads that left taxpayers feeling bilked.

To be fair, a majority of Californians support the death penalty. (The state failed to abolish it via ballot measure, spurring Gov. Gavin Newsom to unilaterally suspend it in March.) But this is the legacy of what is arguably the most Republican state in the nation. No Democrat has held statewide office in Texas since 1995, the longest such streak in the nation, and no Democratic presidential candidate has carried it since Jimmy Carter in 1976. (It wasn’t always this way, of course; as recently as 1966, at the height of the Great Society under Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, Texas’ Congressional delegation  contained 23 Democrats and zero Republicans.)

And Texas was virtually synonymous with Bush-era Republicanism. Various places have embodied the national zeitgeist at different times: Boston in the late 18th century, New York at the turn of the 20th century, California during the postwar decades. If anything, it’s Florida — a fast-growing, diverse, purple, Sun Belt state with a seemingly endless parade of bizarre headlines — that comes closest to what Philip Roth called the “indigenous American berserk.” But it’s Texas’ rapid evolution that has the most important consequences.  California may not have to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the resistance for long.

Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

 

 

Leaning Left

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 presidential campaign may be a humdrum affair punctuated by moments of righteous fire, but when he came up short against Sen. Ted Cruz in a squeaker last November, he broke liberals’ hearts nationwide. The $110 million 2018 Senate race in the pole star of American conservatism saw the strongest performance by a Democratic candidate in many years, but if we peek under the hood of Beto’s three-point loss, the scale of the change is significant. Most obviously, the Blue Wave was suburban in nature, and it brought not one but two new Democratic representatives to Texas: one in Houston and one in Dallas. No Democratic congressional candidate had unseated a Republican in Texas since 2006.

A moral victory is still a loss, but in the aggregate, the trendlines beneath are dramatic. No fewer than six Texas Republicans won re-election by less than five percentage points, spooking prognosticators who saw the incumbents — almost all of them white, and almost all of them men — cruising comfortably toward another term.

Down in the legislature, Democrats picked up two state Senate seats (leaving a 19-12 Republican majority) and 12 seats in the state House (resulting in an 83-67 Republican majority in that chamber.) Again, if Republicans retained control, why should this be significant? Well, as recently as 2012, the Texas State House contained 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. A gain of only nine additional seats would bring about a Democratic majority, ending the Republican state government “trifecta” that has been in place for a decade.

The Texas Democratic resurgence feels as though it’s on the same trajectory as California, only a much earlier phrase of it. Indeed, California’s Republican Party has all but collapsed, falling to third place in registration behind Democrats and “no preference.”

Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party, once moribund, has become invigorated — and Republicans are running scared. In only the last few weeks, no fewer than four GOP representatives have announced their impending retirements — almost all from suburban districts where Democrats exceeded expectations in the last cycle. Fifteen months before the election, the cautious, nonpartisan Cook Political Report already lists Texas’ swingy 23rd district as “Leans Democratic,” the only such Republican-held seat in the nation.

At the presidential level, a blue Texas is the ultimate liberal white whale, and the combined effects of the 2020 election and decennial census may reveal that the impossible is within reach.

Yet it won’t be frictionless, even at its silliest. As a T-shirt on txhumor.com advertises, “Don’t know if y’all heard, but TX > CA. Chips n’ salsa is better than kale chips n’ hummus, and Whataburger is better than In-N-Out. We don’t mind folks from Cali-land visitin’, but for the love of Willie Nelson, don’t California my Texas.” Chips-and-salsa certainly is tastier, but California has plenty of that — and how odd to cite the pot-smoking liberal icon of country music as an argument against California!

Indeed, Texas is approximately where California was in the 1990s, at a time when Gov. Pete Wilson was campaigning hard on the xenophobic Proposition 187, which would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from making use of many state services. (Contrast that with California’s protective stance toward undocumented residents today.) On other hot-button social issues, Texas has reverted to the mean. With Proposition 8, California remains the only state to have stripped marriage away from LGBTQ people, and while homophobia has diminished considerably in the state, it has in Texas, too. A 2017 survey found that Texans supported same-sex unions, 64-28. In a climate of xenophobia and anti-Latinx political sentiment, coded race panic has become the Texas Republican’s last redoubt, as politicians like Sen. John Cornyn echo far-right anxieties about birth levels and “replacement” at the hands of a nonwhite majority.  This, it should be said, is exactly what animated the shooter in the El Paso Walmart who killed 22 people and injured 24 more on Aug. 3.

And demography, to no small extent, is destiny. To get into the weeds of political gerrymandering for a second, California uses a politically neutral citizens’ commission to draw its Congressional districts while Texas’ method is — well, highly-politicized. Starting with an unorthodox, mid-decade redistricting in 2003, Texas redrew its districts to “pack” as many Democratic voters into compact urban districts as possible, allowing Republicans to run up the numbers in safe districts elsewhere in the state. They now have nowhere to turn as that safety drains away, led by women in the suburbs swiftly shifting their allegiance from red to blue.

It gets grimmer for GOP control. If Texas gains three or four seats after the 2020 reapportionment, they won’t be going to areas like the thinly-populated hardpan surrounding Cadillac Ranch. They’ll be going to places like fast-growing Williamson County, north of Austin. Long a Republican stronghold, it surprised analysts by voting for O’Rourke over Cruz. Meanwhile, Tarrant County — home of Fort Worth — was the most populous county in America to support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But it did so by less than nine points, barely a decade after George W. Bush trounced John Kerry there, 62-37 — and it, too, narrowly voted for Beto. So did Fort Bend County,  sort of the Orange County of Houston, which Clinton won in 2016 — the first Democrat to do so since 1964. (She was the first to win Orange County since F.D.R.)

With practically 100 of the state’s 254 counties losing population — a Texodus, if you will — more and more power will shift to Texas’ metro areas, which have grown younger and less white, prompting Ted Cruz to proclaim that Republicans cannot assume they will win the state next November. “Don’t California My Texas” may transform from a defiant whoop a la “Remember the Alamo!” into something comparatively feeble and piteous, only with the same racist overtones as “Go back where you came from.”

Incidentally, Texas has 38 electoral votes. If Clinton had won the state, and everything else about the 2016 election had remained the same, the Electoral College would have made her the first female president by  270-268. Without Texas in their column, Republicans are in serious jeopardy of forfeiting the presidency for quite some time.

Suburbanization may be dicey at best for the environment, and inner suburbs in particular may be where poverty is growing fastest in America. But depending on how existentially you regard the 2020 election and Texas’ role in it, the Lone Star State’s burbs may be America’s salvation.

Fates entwined

But there is more to the California-Texas bifurcation than a simple left-versus-right political divide. It’s not about the course America’s future takes as much as the survival of the country altogether. The culture clash goes much deeper into the American psyche, though. California isn’t merely the repository of stereotypical heartland Americans’ antipathy toward a wacky future where manhole covers are rechristened “maintenance holes”; it’s also widely considered ungovernable and on a collision course with catastrophe.

Films like 2012, Escape from L.A., San Andreas, Blade Runner 2049, and the Terminator series either presume or depict the destruction of the Golden State in some fashion — occasionally, in a prurient, almost pornographic way. The End Times current that runs through so much evangelical culture manifests in a fear of Texas turning into California only to meet its demise, and not because earthquakes are contagious. California’s continued economic success flies in the face of a right-wing economic orthodoxy that insists upon cutting taxes and abolishing regulations. We must be on the cusp of disaster, because the dogma insists that it be so.

Granted, small-business owners in San Francisco face occasionally prohibitive barriers, but many of California’s difficulties stem from the fact that there are too many affluent people living here. If affordable, easy-to-build-in Texas were to become California-fied, that would undeniably make life harder for millions of middle-class people who don’t want to spend 40 percent of their income every month on rent, with no hope of homeownership, the cornerstone of the American Dream. California’s homelessness emergency and high poverty rate are grievous failures of public policy, but Texas effectively criminalizes poverty in several ways, most notably jailing people who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets.   

For years now, “San Francisco values” has been a javelin that conservatives have chucked at their opponents in order to delegitimize progressives as somehow un-American. Even stranger is the spectacle of Texas cities getting the same treatment. Such a reframing of who counts and who doesn’t won’t necessarily come from right-wing ideologues, either; in a since-deleted tweet, a New York Times editor claimed that Minneapolis and Detroit weren’t really part of the Midwest and Austin wasn’t part of Texas.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has railed against California’s “far-left policies” even as his state courts Golden State companies. Courtesy of Getty Images

 

 

We can expect more of the same. Just as Los Angeles County has lurched left, so, too, have Dallas and Houston. Increasingly, cities are the engines of economic growth and resistance to the neo-fascist administration in D.C. — if not of culture itself. And California and Texas, border states with increasingly influential Latinx populations, share a common future. Yet to no small extent, Texans think of California as a far-left lost cause and Californians imagine Texas as an ignorant backwater full of cowboy yahoos.

The stereotypes are as unhelpful as they are untrue, a picture as distorted as the so-called California exodus. Right now, Texas is essentially 45 percent Southern California and 55 percent Oklahoma Panhandle, with the Panhandle part stagnant or shrinking and the SoCal part growing at a tremendous clip. They’re far likelier to converge than diverge, and to no small extent, America’s future hangs on that convergence.

Because Democratic government in America can’t be allowed to become like a sedan on the Cadillac Ranch: half-buried in dirt and spray painted over by mourners pining for what could have been.

 

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