The Elephant in the Room
Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics
by Wayne Thorburn
Austin: University of Texas Press
310 pp. $29.95 cloth
Steven L. Davis
At first glance, Wayne Thorburn, one-time executive director of Texas’s Republican Party, seems perfectly equipped to write this history of the Party’s rise to dominance in Texas. Yet this book is marred with glaring weaknesses. The first is simply a marketing issue involving the completely misleading subtitle: “An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics.” Buyer beware: there is no “insider” perspective here, no personal reminiscences or behind-the-scenes knowledge that informs this story of Texas’s transformation into a Red state. Instead, Thorburn’s book is a historical overview of Republican activity in Texas that stretches back decades and involves much demographic analysis of the changing Texas electorate. The material is well organized and well presented, making the narrative easy for readers to digest. Though many of the events Thorburn covers in brief detail are already well known for those with more than a passing knowledge of the state’s politics, this book could nearly serve as an introductory text for political science courses studying the ascendancy of Republican power in the state.
Thorburn offers a mild sense of balance in his approach, although he does slip from time to time: For example, his view of University of Texas President Homer Rainey seems less charitable than the facts warrant. Rainey, who was fired in the 1940s by regents appointed by a conservative governor, went on to launch a campaign for governor. Thorburn neglects to mention Rainey’s firing, saying only that he was “removed” from office. Thorburn then denigrates Rainey’s reputation by describing him solely in the terms used by Rainey’s political enemies: “a friend of radical labor and an adherent of the radical left-wing ideology.” In truth, Rainey was a moderate Democrat who aligned with the party’s mainstream values, which included such “radical” notions as a forty-hour workweek and child labor laws.
Meanwhile, in dealing with a Republican politician who gained a notorious national reputation as an extremist— Dallas Congressman Bruce Alger (who served 1955-1965)—Thorburn is far more circumspect. Alger was so far outside the political center that he cast the lone “no” vote in congress for a plan to provide free surplus milk at lunch- time to needy schoolchildren. Alger also sponsored legislation to withdraw from the United Nations and advocated breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Alger was personally combative, and in November 1960 he led an ill-advised street protest in downtown Dallas against Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. The rally turned violent, and the resulting backlash swung momentum to Kennedy in the final days of a close election. Alger’s fellow Republican, Richard Nixon, blamed him for his loss and later described him as “that asshole congressman from Dallas.” Yet while Homer Rainey is portrayed in these pages as a “radical,” Bruce Alger is described solely in positive terms as a stirring success story in the inevitable onward march of Republican dominance of Texas.
Yet the question of political balance is a minor quibble, though one that should be addressed. However, the major problem in Red State is that Thorburn is so enamored with the mythology of Texas exceptionalism that he seems blind to the real causes of Texas’s political transformation.
Thorburn begins his book with a lengthy paean to Texas. He continually emphasizes the individualism of the proud state. Can you imagine, Thorburn asks mockingly, someone wearing a t-shirt that says “Proud to be North Dakotan” or “Proud to be New Jerseyan”? Thorburn’s pages-long recitation of Texas virtues, which quotes approvingly from the state’s travel bureau’s slogan—“It’s like a whole other country”—is startling fervid, considering the academic nature of this book. Wouldn’t it have sufficed for him to simply print the “Pledge to the Texas Flag” at the outset?
In Thorburn’s view, Republicans gained dominance in Texas through a natural progression of political battles fought within the state, such as the 1961 election of John Tower as U.S. Senator and the 1978 election of Bill Clements as Texas’s first Republican Governor since Reconstruction.
Yet this analysis, which treats Texas as the center of its own political solar system, neglects to recognize that the state’s political metamorphosis clearly was part of a broader movement across the American South. While much is made of Bill Clements’s 1978 election as Republican governor, no mention is ever made of similar developments in neighboring states: Arkansas and Louisiana also elected Republican governors in those years, followed by Mississippi and Alabama. In fact, the most reliably conservative “Red State” region of the United States now exists within the ex-Confederate states of the Deep South. What has happened in Texas is not unique, but is rather part of a regional trend.
As most political observers are well aware, it was the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement that launched this political conversion in the Deep South. Lyndon Johnson apparently ruminated that signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts would deliver the South to the Republicans. Whether LBJ actually said those words or not, Richard Nixon certainly understood the consequences of the Democrats becoming the party of civil rights. He launched his own “Southern Strategy” to bring white southerners into the Republican Party.
Reading Red State is like listening to a polite civics lecture by a man who’s good with charts and data, but who seems mostly unaware of a larger world beyond the confines of the lecture hall. In his discussion of Texas’s current one-party rule, Thorburn even seems blind to the rise of the Tea Party, which is mentioned only once in this book.
Yet Thorburn certainly recognizes that ideological warriors can wound a party’s brand. He adeptly describes how, back in the days of the Democrats’ single-party dominance, ideological liberals waged fierce primary battles, knowing that the victor would be assured of election in a Democratic state. Thorburn points out that these leftist oriented candidates undermined the Democrats’ mainstream appeal, causing the party’s power to erode. That’s a sensible analysis. Yet in his chapter on “The Future of Texas Politics,” Thorburn makes no similar analysis in regard to the Tea Partiers today who launch their own ideological purges within the Re- publican primaries. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in political science tos ee that such an approach will not be sustainable for a majority party over the long run. In reading this largely disappointing book, one can’t help wishing for the real “insider” perspective that Thorburn clearly could have provided—had he chosen to. Maybe we can hope for a sequel?
Steven L. Davis is a longtime Curator at theWittliff Collections at Texas State University. His books include Texas Literary Outlaws, J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind, and Dallas 1963 (co-written with Bill Minutaglio).