By Frank Blechman
In 2012, New York Times writer and columnist Gail Collins published a wonderful book entitled As Texas Goes, an examination of the outsized influence of Texas on American national politics and policies. In it, she reviews how the size of the state combined with its conservative political environment has allowed it to influence school textbooks, national health policy, attitudes about immigration and, of course, presidential electoral strategies.
In exploring why Texas adopts the positions it does, she begins, as all things in Texas do, at the Alamo. She notes that the senseless martyrdom created a fog of myth that has defined the state ever since. Regardless of facts, Texas claims to be bigger than anyplace else and its citizens more independent.
For those of us in Virginia able to view all Texans and Texas mythology with distance and humor, we might take a minute to consider one framework that organizes Collins’ book: She explains how in Texas there are two well-defined “ethics” for living.
There is a rural ethic that stresses the value of self-reliance. If you live on the open prairie of West Texas (formerly the domain of the Comanche) where the nearest neighbor is over the horizon and the nearest health care facility is more than an hour away, owning a gun and having a stockpile of supplies makes some sense. You just might have to take care of yourself. No matter how close you are to friends and neighbors, they probably can’t get to you in time to be much help in an emergency. You can live pretty much as you please, and nobody can tell you differently.
And there is an urban ethic. With neighbors on all sides, urban dwellers have to make accommodations. You can’t do whatever you please, but at the same time, you may not need to do everything for yourself. Common institutions exist to meet many common needs. Police provide some level of order and sometimes protection. Health care is nearby. Grocery stores reduce the need to grow your own. In this urban ethic, people give up some liberty and responsibility for themselves to free up space in their their lives for nonsurvival-related activities, and for collaboration in group endeavors.
The irony is that while most people in Texas live in urban areas, they want to pretend that they live by the rural ethic. The want to be, or at least be seen as, rugged individuals, even if they are not…. In Virginia, the “urban ethic” dominated the legislature for the first time in 2020. After the census and redistricting, control of the Commonwealth by urban interests will be even more pronounced…. The new urban ruling class of Virginia does not need to pander to a rural minority. However, it does need to understand it.
To Collins, the irony is that while most people in Texas live in urban areas, they want to pretend that they live by the rural ethic. The want to be, or at least be seen as, rugged individuals, even if they are not.
In Virginia, the line between urban life and rural life is buffered by large swaths of sub-urban life now making up nearly a third of the Commonwealth’s population. Nonetheless, rural residents resent being told that they are “missing” all the good things urban life has to offer. If they wanted those things, they would live in urban areas in the first place. Rural residents are deeply offended by the stereotype that they are ignorant or backwards. They want opportunities for their children. They have hopes for the future as strong any anyone else. Rural residents take justified pride that they, not the city dwellers, have led Virginia for most of its 400-year history. Rural residents are not crazy cowboys like those folks in Texas.
The Virginia General Assembly of 2020 gives some indication of what might happen in Texas over the next two decades. Here, the “urban ethic” dominated the legislature for the first time. After the census and redistricting, control of the Commonwealth by urban interests will be even more pronounced. Already, rural resentment is creating odd alliances among those supporting “second amendment sanctuaries,” those opposing pandemic shutdowns, and those committed to home schooling.
The new urban ruling class of Virginia does not need to pander to a rural minority. However, it does need to understand it.
What do rural folks mean when they talk about “freedom”?
Is it incompatible with urban ideas of the same word?
How can health care best serve rural areas?
Are urban models of fixed facilities the right approach?
When should self-sufficiency be praised?
When is it socially inefficient?
Here in Northern Virginia, we like to praise “diversity.” We like to think that we have accepted that there can be more than one way to do a thing. If we really mean it, we must apply the same principles to the relationships among different parts of our state. And we have to show our respect to those who choose to live their lives differently.
Respect is one thing. It only implies a tolerance or a head nod. Unfortunately those in the rural ethic expect reverence, will try to impose their values on urban dwellers through statues and even constitutional changes, and will lie and cheat to do it. That is the behavior that is intolerable, and it will never be respected.
And those of the rural ethic fear imposition of the urban value. Majority rule fails. What may bridge the abyss to encourage comity?