Modern conservatism, Texas-style
Once solidly Democratic, Texas swung to the Republicans in the 1960s and 1970s and by 1980 was “Reagan Country.” Sean P. Cunningham, an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University, explores the shift and what it means for the nation in “Cowboy Conservatism: Texas and the Rise of the Modern Right,” which will be published in May by the University Press of Kentucky. Here, we ask him about the trend in an email Q&A.
Why did Texas go conservative?
Well, Texas has always been a conservative state, at least in the majority. But until the 1960s, it was also solidly Democratic – and those partisan loyalties usually overpowered ideological convictions. Remember that Texas, as conservative as it was, overwhelmingly voted for FDR four times. It also overwhelming backed LBJ over Goldwater in 1964.
What changed in the 1960s and 1970s was that, for several reasons, most of which involve a collective frustration with national circumstances, most conservative Texans began to prioritize their ideology ahead of their partisan loyalties. Reagan deserves a lot of credit for this, by the way. He was extremely popular in Texas as early as 1968 and his charismatic message helped to slowly alter the perception of the GOP as an elitist, country-club party to a more populist one.
How does the change reflect the birth of modern conservatism nationally?
Texas is a good place to study the birth of modern conservatism nationally because, by the 1960s and especially into the 1970s, it was more demographically, economically, and culturally representative of the mainstream, as broadly speaking as you can get. What you then see is that the birth of modern conservatism at the national level was a multifaceted and complicated process. For some, the issue was race and hostility to civil rights. For others, it was abortion and the perceived assault against Christianity and family tradition. For some, it was about taxes or big government. For others, all of these issues were connected as one fundamental problem of entitlement, irresponsibility, and immorality.
But there was no single issue or moment responsible for the birth of modern conservatism. What drove conservatism in Alabama was different than what drove it in Southern California which was different than Wyoming. The genius of the GOP, especially in Texas, was to formulate a simple, accessible message to speak to all concerns at once.
What does the Texas experience tell us about the future of political parties?
The Texas experience tells us that for a party to be successful, it must always be waging a campaign for voters’ hearts and minds. The party that controls the narrative, that is more effective in marketing its ideas, that is more aggressive in defining its opponents – that’s the party that usually wins.
The Texas experience also tells us to expect the unexpected, and to adjust quickly once change happens. Issues evolve and increase or decrease in salience – this creates a dynamic political culture. Candidates unwilling or unable to aggressively and proactively shape their own image, or at least shape their opponents’ image, usually lose. So in a sense, I think, the future of political parties is directly connected to advancements in marketing and public relations. Political parties are basically becoming PR firms.
Steven E. Levingston
March 31, 2010; 5:31 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: texas and conservatism; texas and the right; texas and reagan
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