What's it like to live on a blue island in a red state?
If my regular Austin readers can bear with me for a week – amidst thousands of eyes visiting from out of town – I'll take a moment to examine Austin politics from a broader perspective than I do most of the time, when I'm pondering this particular city budget decision or that curious zoning case. I presume many SXSW visitors wonder how it is that in a state nationally infamous for its reactionary politicians, the capital city of Texas persists in its dogged reputation for youthful innovation, free-spirited culture, and progressive politics.
One simple answer is in the polarization of our national politics; Wisconsin was once a beacon of progressivism, and now Madison inhabits the same blue city/red state dualism of Austin. Austin got there first; the city portrayed in Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place (1961) is already at odds with the then still-rural state culture, and Gov. Arthur "Goddam" Fenstemaker somehow manages to wrest plodding steps of progress out of legislators preoccupied with hard partying, suppressing "communists," and keeping blacks and Hispanics in their places – the latter two tasks pretty much considered synonymous.
Fenstemaker, loosely based on Lyndon Johnson, was of course a Democrat, in the era when old-school Dems ruled the South. Then came the Johnson-wrangled Civil Rights Acts that "handed the South to the Republicans," and the next two decades would see all those conservative Dems (among them an ambitious young Panhandle legislator named Rick Perry) move steadily into the newly dominant GOP. In that context, Austin – long identified with the subordinate liberal wing of the Texas Democrats – suddenly became the intellectual and organizational center of the state party, and the focus of opposition to the new Republican majority.
Just as Yankee Republicans send their children to Ivy League schools for a veneer of culture before they head to Wall Street, so do Texas Republicans still submit their offspring to the University of Texas to soak up a taste of cosmopolitanism, football, and fraternity networking before they return home to run the local chambers of commerce. After a few years of unpredictable seasoning, enough of those youngsters conclude they can't bear returning to San Angelo or Texarkana in order to provide the volunteer shock troops of SXSW. Add them to the burgeoning brown, black, and multicultural immigrants from across the U.S. and elsewhere (185,000 or so then; roughly 850,000 now), and Brammer would no longer recognize the town he helped make famous.
Many of the same changes have come to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth – meaning those still-dominant Republicans at the Legislature see the political future and now spend much of their time figuring out ways to keep it at bay. Enter Tom DeLay – the one-time exterminator and Katy legislator who ended in disgrace, but not before he had rewritten the Texas congressional map to maintain GOP power for another decade. The point was to pack Democratic voters (especially minorities) into mostly urban districts, while anchoring others into suburban and rural GOP bastions. (In Austin, for egregious example, it took several redrawings and finally five congressional districts to subdue the city's Democratic majority.)
Or, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, in a slightly different context: Texas isn't as right-wing as it appears – it's just drawn that way.
As I said, this is not a uniquely Austin predicament. A combination of radical redistricting and minority voter suppression has led to similar polarization all over the country, and a majority Democratic national vote that yet produces a Republican-dominated U.S. House. Add to that a Senate historically weighted in favor of small, underpopulated, conservative states, and you get a country in which comic reactionaries like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan wield influence far beyond their actual public support – and a Congress that routinely subordinates broad public priorities like jobs, health care, and education to Inside-the-Beltway obsessions like military expansion and deficit hysteria.
Where does all that leave us, back home in Austin? It certainly drives a tendency to focus on homegrown issues like land use and affordability, all the while trying to figure out ways not to draw too much attention from the Legislature – where "Austin-bashing" is a biennial, pandering pastime. It also fosters an atmosphere of mostly refreshing, occasionally juvenile cultural rebellion in the spirit of homegirl Molly Ivins' reproach to reflexive progressive earnestness: "We have to have fun while trying to stave off the forces of darkness because we hardly ever win, so it's the only fun we get to have." Newcomers may also notice a parochial tendency to shamelessly applaud any and all references to "Austin" or "Texas" appearing in music lyrics or movie scenery, as well as the unwritten rule that Austinites can say anything bad about Texas we wish, but visitors from elsewhere should watch their tongues.
So if you notice a deep vein of political and cultural bipolarism – populism crossed with pop libertarianism, veganism juxtaposed with chicken-fried steak-ism – in many of the Austinites you meet this week, chalk it up to the curious legacy of growing up in a city that, Janus-like, looks forward and backward pretty much all the time.
I'm told that's also true of Rome.
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