Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On March 2, 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico. Texas has the distinction of having been an independent nation before joining the United States. The history books say Texas joined the Union in 1845. Sometimes I wonder if Texas ever really, fully joined the Union – especially on days like this, when while the US remains in the grips of a capricious, widespread lethal contagion, the governor ended Texas’ mask mandate Tuesday and declared that all businesses in his state can be open – 100% – in a matter of days.
You see, Texas, my beloved home state, is just like America, only more so. And the same can be said of Texas politics, as is plain to see in two things that have been occupying my mind lately: the recent catastrophic power outage there, and an amazing documentary film from Texas called “Boys State.”
As I read about the deadly Texas power loss, it became clear to me the crisis was not like a hurricane or an earthquake. This was a human-caused disaster, caused by a slavish devotion to a rigid, right-wing ideology of deregulation. How can sensible people become so ossified in their views? How can policymakers sworn to protect the public sacrifice public safety in service of ideology?
In short, tribalism.
Being a one-party state, Texas politicians lacked the checks and balances they needed to guard against ideological overkill. This came to me when I considered the movie “Boys State,” a film that explores the farm teams of Texas politics with humor, pathos and drama. Boys State is an immersive civics program run by the American Legion annually bringing about 1,100 17-year-old boys to Austin. Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine were given full access to the event, and they tell a remarkable story of young men coming of age politically. The cameras roll as the angel of idealism wrestles the devil of ambition.
I attended Texas Boys State back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and I loved it. But today’s Boys State, as depicted in the film, shows a politics that is more divisive, more dramatic, more intense than in my day. It is “The War Room” meets “Lord of the Flies.” One of the deep lessons of the film is how easy it is to divide, how difficult it is to unite. The divisions at “Boys State” are wholly artificial. Each boy is assigned to a party – Nationalist or Federalist – at random. There is no ideological framework at all – that’s for the boys to work out.
Some of the boys give speeches crowing about guns or screaming about abortion. One boy even touts secession – perhaps forgetting that the last time Texas seceded it didn’t work out too well. But other young men cut against the hysterical masculinity.
Steven Garza, a Mexican-American, is nominated for governor based on his calls for unity and community; Rene Otero, an African-American, becomes his party’s chair on the strength of a terrific speech in support of prison reform. On the other side, Ben Feinstein is the wheeler-dealer party chair and Robert MacDougall the pro-life, conservative gubernatorial candidate (who confesses to the camera that he is actually pro-choice).
Over the course of the film, you are drawn to these young men, and hope they can grow to become real-world leaders who are more committed to changing the dominant political culture in Texas, and less interested in feeding it.
The boys in the film are mimicking the divisive politics and rigid ideologies that have dominated Texas in past decades.
And tragically, we saw the consequences of such reflexive adherence to right-wing ideology play out in real life with the Texas power outage. The electric grid failed. Millions lost heat. Countless families lacked clean water – or any water at all.
This was not simply an act of nature. Sure, the winter storm was the proximate cause, but the cold in Oklahoma or New Mexico was as record-breaking as it was in Texas, yet their power grids didn’t suffer catastrophic failure.
As my colleague John Avlon noted, Texas politicians’ right-wing ideology caused them to opt out of the national power grid in 1935, making it essentially impossible to bring in electricity from out of state when most in-state power plants froze up.
Millions shivered without heat; pipes burst, water was cut off, roads were impassable. People died: an 11-year-old boy’s family says he froze to death in his bed in Conroe, Texas. In Sugar Land, where I grew up, a house fire – possibly caused by an attempt to heat the home after the power went out – wiped out almost an entire family – a grandmother and three young children: ages 11, 8 and 5, perished. Only the children’s mom survived.
Former Texas governor and US energy secretary Rick Perry seemed to think it was all worth it for the larger cause of right-wing political correctness. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” said Perry. Right, Rick. Tell that to my family and friends in Texas who shivered in the dark for days.
The mayor of Colorado City – a small West Texas town – took Perry’s extremist nonsense and said, in effect, hold my beer. Taking to Facebook, Tim Boyd told his constituents, many of whom were without light or heat, “Get off you’re a** and take care of your own family!” (He later resigned, and apologized if his language has offended anyone).
Really? Folks are supposed to go out and – what, exactly? – generate their own electricity?
Keep in mind these statements are coming from grown-ups: one a former governor and Cabinet member. They make even the most testosterone-addled teen in Boys State look more responsible.
So, yeah, maybe some Texans have taken this whole macho, go-it-alone thing a bit too far. But on the other hand, in the same place at the same time, we saw numerous instances of people coming together.
Doug Condon and Nina Richardson of Austin had placed an order for groceries when the snow and ice hit. Chelsea Timmons, the delivery driver, skidded off their driveway and crashed into their flowerbed. They took her in, warmed her up, and when they realized they couldn’t get her car out, they shared their home and their food with her – for five days – during a pandemic.
Feeding and sheltering a stranded stranger is just as much a part of the true Texas culture as rugged individualism. As the actor Matthew McConaughey said to his fellow Texans, “Right now is the best time to safely check on your neighbors. Go knock on a door, go volunteer. If you’re a ‘have,’ please help out a ‘have not;’ there’s a bunch of ‘em – in your neighborhood, across the street, wherever you can get to, if you can. It is needed. Please do.”
McConaughey – and Doug and Nina – would have been welcome in the Boys State faction that called for common action for the common good; that celebrated unity. This tension – individualism versus communitarianism – is at the heart of the American experience. It is perhaps even more dramatic in Texas, as the film makes clear.
That tension is, I believe, healthy. Or rather, it can be. There is a real power in the drive to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. And at the same time, there is power in the drive to make sure everyone has boots to pull on. If we go too far one way or the other, we lose our balance.
As both the documentary and the power crisis showed, Texas is out of balance.
Hillel was not a Texan. He was a Jewish scholar in Jerusalem in the time of King Herod. But his most famous questions echo across 22 centuries: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” The teenagers of Boys State wrestle with those questions. The current leaders of Texas got them wrong, while lives and fortunes were lost.