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United States

Aug 16, 2011


A hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was at war with itself: not metaphorically, in the way that has often been true, but literally.

Two large and growing armies faced each other in northern Virginia, with other forces scattered west of the mountains, in the first year of the American Civil War.

Politically, there was no doubt about how the country divided. The north was led by Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican Party president; the south was the Democratic Party’s heartland, and while many northern Democrats supported the war effort, the party took decades to recover from the stigma of being responsible for secession. In the tactless words of one of their opponents, they were the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

Fast forward to today, and the political map looks eerily similar.

Compare, for example, the presidential election of 2008 with that of 1896 or 1900: the pattern is the same, but the party labels have swapped over. With a black man in the White House, the deep south is almost as solid for the Republicans as it once was for the Democrats.

And now, for perhaps the first time since George Wallace in 1968, a true son of the Confederacy is in the running for the presidency. Texas governor Rick Perry, who at the weekend announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, has already shot to favouritism; Intrade this morning quotes him at 38.7, ahead of Mitt Romney on 30.9 and the rest back in single figures.

I’m inclined to think that a lot of this is a novelty effect, and that Perry’s star will wane over the next few months. Trying to combine establishment credibility with an appeal to the party’s crazy wing risks satisfying neither: those who want sanity will go for Romney, while the crazies will stick with Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin. But I could be wrong about this.

In any event, it’s remarkable that Perry has as much credibility as he has. Granted Texas has enjoyed economic success under his stewardship, you would still expect that a deep southerner who has explicitly defended the right of secession and aligned himself with hard-line Christian fundamentalists would ring alarm bells in the rest of the country.

Ross Douthat, who in saner times would himself be tagged as a crazy, put it this way in The New York Times: “What Perry doesn’t have, though, is the kind of moderate facade that Americans look for in their presidents. He’s the conservative Id made flesh, with none of the post-partisan/uniter-not-a-divider spirit that successful national politicians usually cultivate.

“Imagine if the Democratic Party nominated a combination of Al Franken and Nancy Pelosi for the presidency, and you have a sense of the kind of gamble Republicans would be taking with Perry.”

But this is what the Republican Party has become. For the past three years it has defined itself as the anti-Obama, and if your vision of apocalyptic evil is a well-educated, softly spoken Black moderate from Illinois, then it’s no surprise if you end up in the arms of someone such as Rick Perry.

I think Matthew Zeitlin in The New Republic gets it exactly right:

“If Rick Perry is nominated, in other words, we will probably finally see the campaign that conservatives have been wanting since the day Obama got the Democratic nomination. And it’s sure to be ugly.”

It won’t be as ugly as 150 years ago, when this contest was fought out on the battlefield. But if the south is still out for revenge then Perry could be its chosen instrument.


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12 thoughts on “Rick Perry: can the south rise again?

  1. JonoMatt

    To quote The Onion:

    “The South will rise again, find the remote and settle back down on the couch”

  2. jaywhar

    Paul Krugman has a good examination of the alleged successes of the Texas economy under Perry here.

  3. michael r james

    Charles, if you are going to quote one conservative NYT columnist you should quote a liberal NYT columnist (and Nobel laureate of economics) on the same topic: (selected extract)

    The Texas Unmiracle
    By PAUL KRUGMAN Published: August 14, 2011

    Mr. Perry will claim that he can restore prosperity to America by applying the same policies at a national level.

    So what you need to know is that the Texas miracle is a myth, and more broadly that Texan experience offers no useful lessons on how to restore national full employment.

    It’s true that Texas entered recession a bit later than the rest of America, mainly because the state’s still energy-heavy economy was buoyed by high oil prices through the first half of 2008. Also, Texas was spared the worst of the housing crisis, partly because it turns out to have surprisingly strict regulation of mortgage lending.

    Despite all that, however, from mid-2008 onward unemployment soared in Texas, just as it did almost everywhere else.

    In June 2011, the Texas unemployment rate was 8.2 percent. That was less than unemployment in collapsed-bubble states like California and Florida, but it was slightly higher than the unemployment rate in New York, and significantly higher than the rate in Massachusetts. By the way, one in four Texans lacks health insurance, the highest proportion in the nation, thanks largely to the state’s small-government approach. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has near-universal coverage thanks to health reform very similar to the “job-killing” Affordable Care Act.

    So where does the notion of a Texas miracle come from? Mainly from widespread misunderstanding of the economic effects of population growth.

    For this much is true about Texas: It has, for many decades, had much faster population growth than the rest of America — about twice as fast since 1990. Several factors underlie this rapid population growth: a high birth rate, immigration from Mexico, and inward migration of Americans from other states….
    But what does population growth have to do with job growth? Well, the high rate of population growth translates into above-average job growth through a couple of channels. Many of the people moving to Texas — retirees in search of warm winters, middle-class Mexicans in search of a safer life — bring purchasing power that leads to greater local employment. At the same time, the rapid growth in the Texas work force keeps wages low — almost 10 percent of Texan workers earn the minimum wage or less, well above the national average — and these low wages give corporations an incentive to move production to the Lone Star State.

    So Texas tends, in good years and bad, to have higher job growth than the rest of America. But it needs lots of new jobs just to keep up with its rising population — and as those unemployment comparisons show, recent employment growth has fallen well short of what’s needed.

    If this picture doesn’t look very much like the glowing portrait Texas boosters like to paint, there’s a reason: the glowing portrait is false.]

  4. michael r james

    @Jaywhar @1.27 pm

    Oops, I only noticed your post after writing mine.

  5. Malcolm Street

    My guess is that Perry will be the Republican candidate. Pawlenty is out, the saner wing of the Republicans won’t accept the batshit crazy Bachmann, the crazy Christian wing of the Republicans won’t accept relative liberal and Mormon Romney (who in another black mark set up a health care system in Mass. that was the model for Obamacare) which leaves Perry as the only person who could bridge both groups.

    He still scares hell out of me…

  6. Charles Richardson

    @Jonomatt: Like it.

    @Jaywhar & Michael: Thanks for that. As I read it, Krugman’s not disputing that Texas under Perry has been an economic success, he’s saying that (a) it’s mostly not Perry’s doing, and (b) the method wouldn’t generalise to the country as a whole. He may well be right about either or both.

    @Malcolm: I think that’s a correct diagnosis of Perry’s appeal, but it doesn’t follow that he’ll win the nomination. You could have said similar things about Joe Hockey in the December 2009 Liberal leadership ballot: he had majority support against both Abbott and Turnbull, but because he came third it did him no good. I’m thinking the same could happen to Perry.

  7. AR

    I had been hoping for a Bachmann/Palin ticket but Perry/Bachmann (as an advocate that women submit to men) will do nicely.

  8. nicolino

    Perry, the religious nutter who holds the record for executions in his state. Yep, Sounds like a good Republican choice.

  9. michael r james


    No way, Jose. There will probably be too much bad blood between Bachmann and everyone else by then. As she herself says, and as Pawlenty noted in the debates, she has no known ability to negotiate anything, with anyone (all those things she espouses, stopping Obamacare, no debt extension etc –she lost every one). Pawlenty could still be in the running for veep. Don’t forget Senator Marco Rubio from Florida is a cleanskin hispanic republican who could have broad appeal too–he is possible veep candidate for any of them including Romney who would need a southerner (& hispanic) and more mainstream guy from the right to pull some Teapartiers back to the fold. And of course Florida is a key state.

    Re Perry, in some ways he is the real deal (unlike GWB he actually served all over the world in the USAF, graduated in an actual real profession–from Texas A&M, the world’s biggest Ag school), fifth gen Texan farmer. But also remember that the rest of America is a bit wary of Texans (Bush was pseudo-Texan, he was really an east-coast preppie gone bad then saved by daddy). I don’t blame them. The native Texans are a bit … weird…and extremely …entitled. (The only state with the right to hold a vote to secede.) Remember LBJ. Bob Katter would be a big hit in Texas! Especially his gun collection.

    They genuinely believe they have cracked the secret to the perfect state. You can kind of understand why, though as Krugman explained, it is an unsustainable trick dependent on non-stop wildfire growth (a lot of which is parasitized from the other states), cheap labour from Mexico and the fluke of oil resources (prior to its discovery they were a backwoods). Similar to Australia they are in denial that it is unsustainable (it is a big place and seemingly lots of everything). They have, and rely upon, one of the world’s largest artesian basins for a frightening majority of their water but they are running it dry a lot faster than it is replenished, and even more than most Americans they refuse to stop wasting water.

  10. Malcolm Street

    Charles – the difference between the US Republican party and our Liberals is that the divisions are much starker and deeper, as is true of the country as a whole. Note also the role of non-compulsory voting and religion in determining who is electable – as I’ve said before if they put Mormon Romney up large sections of the Christian Right won’t vote for him, either not voting at all or (possibly) voting for a breakaway party.

    Michael R James – Bachmann’s non-compromise style, her greatest appeal to the Tea Party, is her greatest weakness as the reality of her being a potential Republican presidential candidate approaches. FFS, on TV a couple of days ago she was saying Congress shouldn’t have raised the debt ceiling – she’s learnt NOTHING from the damage the Tea Party brinksmanship did, including the US rating downgrade. She has no real governmental experience, unlike Perry, who has several years running a major state and hence has had to learn at least something about the responsibilities and compromises of being in command. As for a perfect state – Texans have believed that forever.

  11. Malcolm Street

    Perry threatens the Fed: (http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/08/16/perry-under-fire-over-veiled-bernanke-threat/)

    “At a campaign stop in the heartland state of Iowa on Monday, Perry said he would consider any attempt to boost the US economy before the November 2012 elections as “almost treasonous” and invoked the specter of mob justice.

    “If this guy [Bernanke] prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know what y’all would do to him in Iowa — but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” Perry told supporters.

    “I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous — or treasonous, in my opinion,” Perry told supporters at a backyard get-together, with US President Barack Obama not far away on a campaign-style swing through Iowa.”

  12. michael r james

    Yes, Malcolm, Perry has already put his foot-in-mouth. I would guess that someone who has spent his entire political career in the peculiar state of Texas might simply have no real conception of the need to change. I suspect the attitude is “what’s good for Texas is good for the US of A”. Though they may be eons apart, think of Joh-for-PM and the deluded Queenslanders who thought his “popularity” (actually an outrageous gerrymander) up north could be replicated nationwide.
    Even if Perry is smart enough he is probably too old (not that old at 61) in the sense of dogs in relation to new tricks.

    Romney has not only been around for longer on the national political stage but as governor of a mixed liberal state will have always had to be more sophisticated in policy formulation, as his version of universal medical insurance shows (not that he is allowed to talk about it).
    I’m over-generalizing about Texas and Texans but there is a fair bit of truth to it. I was once offered a job in Dallas–great facilities and potential career path (the University of Texas system is the second largest university system in the world after U. California) but no thanks. Austin, or even San Antonio just possibly but never Dallas or Houston. In Dallas it is actually reality that in the CBD you really do need to catch a taxi to cross the street (the streets are so wide and there is often no provision for pedestrians that it is dangerous and difficult to cross using your legs). Not to mention their absurd gun law (this actually attracts other Americans to move there; in times past Houston has been murder capital of the US, it is better today I think). Michael Duffy wrote a piece a while ago lauding the road-based culture of Texas as exemplified by Houston where he spent all of 36 hours on a weekend (doh!). But a few seconds googling revealed that, despite building more roads than almost anywhere else, it has the US’s 6th worst road congestion. (Having said that, there must be a few Texans who think because there is a plan/movement to build HSR to link their population triangle of Dallas/Forth Worth-Houston-Austin-San Antonio.) Indeed it is a textbook case of proving that building more roads can never solve that problem but don’t try telling Texans.
    In fact, that is the biggest issue and why I could never live there: you just cannot or dare not (especially if they are “carrying”) try to tell a Texan there is anything, even of minor significance, wrong with Texas.


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