Austin, Texas was once a laid-back, creative haven full of college students, hippies, affable red necks and university professors. Even the conservative Democrats in power in the late ’60s and early ’70s went to pot-god Willie Nelson concerts.
George W. and Laura Bush, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, Karen Hughes – these people who held the Texas governor’s mansion from 1994-2000 just aren’t Austin’s idea of hip. So how did they captivate the city just a coupla decades later?
The answer reveals much about the too-often-overlooked social and cultural motivations behind our political behavior.
All politics is social. The decisions of American voters are peer-dependent. We vote the way we think our friends and neighbors will vote. We don’t compartmentalize our lives say, "Okay, this is my political box. Here I make decisions based on unemotional reason or factual analyses." No, we are influenced by the news we see and the books we read, by the TV shows we watch, by what our neighbors, friends and co-workers say, by the music we hear.
The Right got this. The Left is only now getting it. At least I hope it is.
The progressive movement would do well to study the Right’s use of the conservative country music that began taking over suburban audiences in the 70s. It was consciously designed in reaction to libertine rock and roll. It promoted patriotism, and exploited the romanticized rural American values embodied in much traditional folk, blues and country traditions, blaming Elvis, the Beatles, Timothy Leary, and the Democrats for these values’ demise.
Think of Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless the USA." It was released in 1984, used that year at the Republican National convention, used by George H.W. Bush in his 1988 campaign, used again in the run up to the Gulf War. It was re-issued after 9/11 and became a best seller all over again. Or think of Toby Keith and the attacks by the country music establishment on the Dixie Chicks.
This kind of country music was the soundtrack for the Rise of the Right, which was as much a social and cultural phenomenon as a political one.
And that brings us back to Bush and Austin. I feel better about my townsfolk if I turn to the truths of fiction to tell this story.
Sarah Bird’s new novel, "How Perfect is That," is set in Austin circa 2003. Sarah writes like she’s the love child of Dorothy Parker and French filmmaker Jean Renoir. Her book tells the poignant and hilarious story of one Blythe Young, castaway wife of Henry "Trey" "Tree Tree" "Double T" Biggs-Dix the Third. The Biggs-Dixes are close friends of the Bushes. Because of that, the Biggs-Dixes are big.
During the time of Bush’s governorship, Blythe was event planner to the Rich and Insatiable. Her company was called "Wretched Xcess." She described the years of Bush’s governorship (they corresponded with the dotcom boom) like this: "That was a heady time when too much was never enough and the clever boys in the backward caps, Teva sandals, and cargo shorts could not burn through their venture capital fast enough. Excess, that’s what my clever boys wanted and that’s what I provided."
There are many clues to the social and cultural phenomena that wreaked havoc on Austin’s spirit and psyche. What happened to singer Gary P. Nunn’s "manly footwear?" Tevas? Great god. Cargo shorts? "Xcess" spelled without the kind of straightforward and honest exuberance Willie’s gang brought to the concept: EXCESS?
Former Gov. Ann Richards had been part of the Willie Nelson "cosmic cowboy" era. George W. Bush beat Ann and helped to temporarily turn Austin into a tulip-crazed funhouse of filthy rich self-importance.
Bush and Laura were The Couple. There’s nothing sadder than small town high society, and Austin’s high society is just that: small. Nonetheless, it’s what we got, and it’s to those parties we will go, newspaper and magazine editors, authors, artists, merchants, athletes along with everyone else. It was hip to love the Bushes. Hipper to know them and to love them. Hippest if they loved you.
And there wasn’t one thing political about any of it. None of these people could have told you a Bush policy. Neither, of course, could Bush.
No, Bush became president in part because Austinites and other Texans told the world how loveable he was. But this was never love. It was fashion.
Bush, it seems, was nothing more than an empty pair of cargo shorts.
The best evidence of the non-political or non-ideological captivation with Bush can be seen in the election results of 2004 and 2006. Bush’s support dropped precipitously in the West Austin state house districts that serve Austin’s wealthy neighborhoods. He earned 10 points less there in ’04 than he did in ’00. In polls, his support continued to plummet in ’06. When the Bush’s weren’t around to go to dinner; when it became harder to say something nice about them in the wake of the Iraq debacle et cetera, the swells dropped him like yesterday’s wide tie.
The cargo shorts were chafing.
And last night at the Netroots Nation party thrown by GQ magazine and Huffington Post, here come some of these same West Austin social butterflies who were once flitting exclusively around the Bushes. Hey, the social elite are the social elite. What’s politics got to do with it?
The Bushes temporarily charmed Austin because they came to town during a time of economic revelry and extreme identity crisis. They answered a social and cultural question, not a political one.
I tell this story because progressives, rationalists that we are, believe people look at facts and spreadsheets and diagrams and pie charts before making political decisions.
Voters don’t do that anymore than the rich pick their favorite restaurant based on the menu. They pick the place it’s best to be seen.
And that’s what we have to make the progressive movement: the place to be seen. And we’d do well to use all the cultural tools at our disposal. How perfect would that be?