Forget the stereotypes – Britain could learn a lot from Texas

Published by The Independent (28th September, 2015)

Texas has always divided opinions. It prides itself on being the best, brashest and most bloody-minded slice of America, a cowboy state easy to caricature that is loved and loathed in equal measures. ‘I hate that place,’ said a New Yorker friend of mine when I mentioned I was going to spend some time there. ‘It’s the asshole of our country.’

His view typifies that of liberal America, which finds strong echo in Europe. The Lone Star state is seen as callous and corrupt, the backward birthplace of a virulent form of crony capitalism filled with bible-bashers. It is infamous for poverty and poor schools, for locking up people and unhealthy enthusiasm for executions. No wonder it produced George W Bush and his disastrous presidency.

The reality is rather different. Those cartoon stereotypes hark back to nineteenth-century roots when an independent republic sought annexation by Washington, which originally rebuffed the overtures. It is the second biggest state in the union; it is also the most misunderstood. Far from exemplifying the worst aspects of the world’s most powerful nation as critics claim, Texas is in many ways a model of success and modernisation.

Dallas has been called ‘the buckle of the Bible Belt’. Yet I discovered the city is home to the country’s sixth biggest lesbian, gay and transgender population after arriving there on the weekend of its pride parade – although in typical Texan style, the celebrations are at a different time of year to the rest of the US. The current sheriff of Dallas County is a gay Latina woman while three hours down the road in the oil capital of Houston, often seen as a haven for ultra-conservatives, a thrice-elected lesbian mayor was the first openly-gay person to run a major American city.

Texas may be a Republican stronghold, yet its four biggest cities are run by Democrats – and they are changing rapidly. The fabulous state capital of Austin has long been famed for its hipsters and music scene, but more recently humid Houston was named the nation’s “coolest city”, praised for its stylish development, strong arts scene and fine museums. It is the country’s most ethnically-diverse city, resulting in a food magazine hailing  ‘America’s new capital of great food’ – although burgers and barbeques still dominated my diet across the state.

These cities are fast-evolving due to interlinked issues of economic success, immigration and smart politics. Since the turn of the century, the state has been thriving; some analysts talk of the ‘Texan miracle’. Certainly, the statistics in what would be the world’s thirteenth-biggest economy are impressive. It has created one in five of America’s new jobs in recent years. GDP almost doubled in a decade, driving up per capita incomes. And it has five of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country; Dallas alone is adding more than 10,000 people a month, as seen by its clogged freeways and a frenzy of construction.

Critics condemn Texas for reliance on oil and low-wage ‘McJobs’. Yet it shielded citizens from the ravages of the last downturn, living costs are low and nearly half new jobs created between 2001 and 2011 were in higher-wage posts. The state is a hub for high-tech start-ups – especially Austin with all its young, college-educated residents – as well as home to 21 of America’s biggest companies, which include retail, technology and transport giants. It is even reducing reliance on the oil industry, while getting double the national average of energy from wind power.

This success is boosted by a comparatively relaxed approach to new arrivals. Texan Republicans might be tough right-wingers, but traditionally they are moderate on immigration. This was shown by George W Bush’s rare intervention when rhetoric hardened during the last White House race, saying migrants built the economy and invigorated America’s soul. He said growing up in Texas shaped such views having seen the state benefit from successive waves of newcomers; ‘immigrants come with new skills and new ideas,’ he pointed out rightly.

Such attitudes – sorely needed in the toxic current Republican debate – are shaped by the state’s dominant pro-business culture, which has led to low taxes and low state spending. Unlike most rivals, Texas levies no income or corporation tax; it also has infamously low levels of health insurance and poor, although improving, schools. ‘The tacit message of the government… is that the state won’t do much to help you, but neither will it get in your way,’ says Erica Grieder, author of a book hailing her home state’s success.

Yet state leaders ignore the idea of non-intervention when needed to fuel their powerhouse economy, happily dishing out subsidies and incentives to lure new firms. And it should be noted the state legislature meets just five months every other year; it is hard not to wonder about the significance of this historical quirk in a place that profoundly mistrusts politicians.

Texas still sometimes seems like a world apart, with its frontier spirit, social conservatism and strange fondness for guns. When I asked some media folk about any movement to end the death penalty, they just laughed at the absurdity of the question. Yet the state is more diverse and less dogmatic than its image suggests. In this age of austerity, antipathy to politicians and mass migration, perhaps we should look more closely at aspects of the model behind those cliches and cowboy caricatures.

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