The Region Bashers

Forbes , October 29, 2000

NO NEW TEXANS" HAS BECOME A FAVORITE SLOGAN of Democrats, especially since George W. Bush picked then-Dallasite Dick Cheney as his running mate. The slogan sounds nasty—and it's surely intended that way. Its real message is simply "No Texans."

"The contempt for Texas is almost palpable, even worse than the contempt for Arkansas," says John Shelton Reed, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, who studies southern distinctiveness. When Northerners think of Texas, he says, they think of big hair and "frying people" in the electric chair.

And that Texas is not entirely myth. "We don't have the kinds of stark differences we did when the South had de jure segregation," says Reed, "but it's true that one-third of the criminals executed in the past 30 years were in Texas." That reflects genuine differences in cultural attitudes.

How can this be? Why, in our supposedly homogenized culture, does a slogan like No New Texans work? How can Texas itself—not merely Bush's record—become a campaign issue? After all, the conventional wisdom holds that mobility, international markets, national media and economic growth have destroyed regional distinctiveness. You can buy Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Manhattan and Einstein's bagels in Dallas. Everybody watches the same TV shows and listens to standard radio formats. Texans shouldn't differ much from New Yorkers or Ohioans.

Some folks claim that's pretty much the case. "Why Texas Isn't Texas Anymore," reads the headline on a recent New Republic. "Texas exceptionalism," argues reporter Benjamin Soskis, "is increasingly anachronistic," as the oil business ebbs, high-tech businesses boom and the state attracts newcomers.

But all Soskis really does is make a case that Texas is a lot like other fast-growing places in the Sunbelt, and friendlier to immigrants than Pete Wilson's California. The Texas he describes remains distinctive for its optimism and entrepreneurial culture. Soskis doesn't even begin to demonstrate that the state is turning into Iowa or Michigan or West Virginia.

And he certainly doesn't explain why the governor of Texas acts as though it's perfectly normal to name Jesus as his favorite philosopher and thinks it's obvious that entrepreneurs, not the President, created the current economic boom. Bush's unstated assumptions about economics and religion are part of a shared regional culture—the sort we've supposedly lost.

Far from wiping out regional differences, suggests sociologist Reed, mobility and economic dynamism can preserve them. "Regional sorting, particularly in an affluent and mobile society, can enhance regional differences, as people move to places where they like the image," he says. Even when they're making career decisions, Americans have choices about where to live, and they go where they think they'll fit in. In many respects, those who relocate to the South have more in common with native Southerners than with the people they've left behind. And people who leave the South act, on the whole, more like their new neighbors.

Recent survey research by Robert Freymeyer and Kimberly Workman of Presbyterian College in South Carolina suggests, for instance, that the Bible Belt won't be loosening anytime soon. Forty-two percent of natives and 41% of new residents say their religious commitment is "strong," compared with 36% of non-Southerners and 25% of people who leave the region.

People who move to the South tend to be comfortable living where going to church on Sunday is expected. "But maybe they would be a little more surprised by the kinds of churches they find there," Freymeyer speculates. The result: Southern religion is undergoing subtle changes—and becoming more diverse—but it's nonetheless remaining distinctive within the country.

So, "No New Texans" might work, depending on what part of Texas culture it makes people think of. Certainly there's no reason to expect voters to abandon their regional preferences—or prejudices. And don't think it's only Texas politicians who suffer as a result. Ask Michael Dukakis and Mario Cuomo.