Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Although Texas includes a significant portion of the Great Plains, its politics and government have been far more heavily influenced by two other geographic factors: its proximity to Mexico and its situation in the southern United States.

Texas was originally a northern province of Spanish Mexico. After winning their independence in 1821, Mexicans encouraged immigration from the adjacent United States. This policy backfired in 1836, however, when an army of "Texian" Americans under the command of Sam Houston vanquished a Mexican army under General Santa Anna and achieved independence. From that year to the modern era, persons of Mexican descent have been at an economic and political disadvantage in Texas. Their increasing numbers, plus other historical changes, however, have guaranteed their continuing, and growing, importance in the state.

From the revolution of 1836, when Texas declared itself a republic, through 1845 when it entered the United States, to the end of the Civil War in 1865, the state experienced immigration largely from other Southern states. Southern white farmers, moving west, brought their slaves and the economic, political, and social institutions of slavery with them. Texas, like the other Confederate states, was defeated in the war and occupied in a humiliating fashion by victorious Union troops during Reconstruction, which in Texas lasted until 1874. As with the other Southern states, this searing historical experience exercised a dominating influence over Texas society and institutions for well over a century after the end of the war.

The Southern political culture that dominates Texas even today can best be summarized as "conservatism." With some noteworthy exceptions, such as Lyndon Johnson, Anglo-Texans have opposed an active government, especially on behalf of the disadvantaged. They have defined good government largely in terms of low taxes; when taxes are necessary they prefer the regressive variety, such as sales taxes. Anglo-Texans have also been extremely conservative on social issues. Contemporary public opinion surveys reveal that they oppose affirmative action and gay rights, and support prayer in schools and the death penalty, by wide margins.

As in the other Southern states, after the Civil War Anglo-Texans prevented African Americans from voting by statutes, customs, and violence. The schemes created to prevent black political participation also worked to keep ballots out of the hands of Mexican Americans and poor Anglos. The federal government forced Texas to admit all of its adult citizens to the franchise in the 1960s and 1970s, but the legacy of the suppression of voting rights lives on in the extremely low turnout of the state's minority citizens.

The great Spindletop oil strike near Galveston in 1901 inaugurated a period in which Texas became one of the world's important petroleum-producing provinces and the nation's dominant producer. Production taxes on oil and gas, in many years supplying a third of state government revenue, reinforced the resistance of the population to more direct taxes.

The general conservatism of the dominant Anglo population found further expression in two institutional arrangements. First, Texas was a one-party Democratic state until well into the 1970s. Since the Texas Democratic Party was usually dominated by reactionaries, the one-party system served to reinforce the control of dominant ethnic and economic interests. Second, the state constitution of 1876, written by white farmers nursing grievances against the perceived tyranny of the justdeparted Reconstruction regime, "disintegrates" the executive, parceling out legislative and administrative power among several independently elected o.cials. The governor is weak. Moreover, in seeking to foresee and prohibit every possible misbehavior by state government, the authors wrote in specifically circumscribed grants of power and forbade almost everything not mentioned in the document. The result of this specificity has been both a state government that does comparatively little, and one that must amend the constitution to meet every new contingency. As a consequence, by the late 1990s the constitution, at over 80,000 words, was the second longest among the states and had been amended more than 360 times.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Texas had a population of about twenty million, making it the second most populous state in the country. Its economy was robust and diverse. The modernity and prosperity of the state, however, existed alongside political institutions and behaviors that exhibited more apparent than real change.

Texas's petroleum production, the foundation of its economy for most of the twentieth century, declined steadily after the 1960s. By the mid-1980s production taxes were supplying less than 5 percent of state government revenue. The legislature responded by raising the sales tax, whose regressive impact fell most heavily on the poor. Texas remained the only large industrial state without an income tax.

When the national Democratic Party became dominated by liberals in the 1960s, it set in motion a slow party realignment among the state's conservative Anglo population. Minority citizens, now fully enfranchised, tended to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but they still went to the polls in very low percentages. This voluntary abstention meant that the generally greater liberalism of African Americans and Mexican Americans had little impact on elections, and state government remained conservative. By the mid-1990s Republicans filled most state offices.

Nevertheless, the Mexican American portion of Texas's population continues to grow rapidly. If Mexican Americans and African Americans ever began to go to the polls in significant numbers, they could join with the few liberal Anglos in a "rainbow coalition" that might transform the state's politics. At this writing, however, there is no sign that such a transformation is imminent.

See also INDUSTRY: Petroleum, United States.

David F. Prindle University of Texas at Austin

Barr, Alwyn. Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528–1995. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Kraemer, Richard H., Charldean Newell, and David F. Prindle. Texas Politics. 8th ed. Belmont CA: West/ Wadsworth, 1999.

Montejano, David. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.

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