I’m fixin’ to tell you something about West Texas and how some conservative political habits are matched by strong, empathetic bonds among the people out here.

But, first, a word about the expression, “fixin to’,” a great American expression.  “I’m fixin’ to go to town.” “I’m fixin’ to wring your neck.” I’ve always liked the phrase because it speaks to a kind of Zen, non-action action. I’m not fixing the fence, I’m fixin’ to fix the fence. The phrase captures something important about the character of the Southwest. My friend Derek Carroll, a cinematographer, reminds me that the phrase comes from the pioneer need to fix their plows before they plowed. Derek, by the way, is out here in the desert mountains with me. We’re fixin’ to make a little film, but that’s another story.

I’m in Marathon, north of the Mexican border in far West Texas. I’ve been coming out here since I was just fixin’ to grow up. It’s high desert, 5,000 feet above sea level. The air is clean and crisp, the mountains not purple really, but they turn blue when the sun sets behind them and the evening star floats above their peaks.

On the dusty streets of Marathon we greet one another like cousins. The people who live here and the people who visit embrace the kind of solitude the desert imposes. But there’s fellow-feeling, too. Go down to the community barbeques and dances at “the Post,” a county park south of town, and you’ll see it’s what the people hold in common that’s important. Differences disappear like the desert heat at night.

Marathon is in Brewster County, a county that actually went for Obama in 2008. But West Texas’ reputation for conservative politics is well-earned. These are western individualists, and somebody told them a few decades ago that the Republican Party was the party of individualists. Two things cut against that:  they’re not much for corporate bossism out here. And, their squinted eyes have more to do with the burning sun than with the skeptical regard for others. Out here, people will do anything for you, if you need it.

They practice what might be called prairie humanism. Democrats used to be big on it. Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin, Franklin, New Yorkers, understood it and pursued it. Prairie humanists take care of one another, but they stay of out of another’s way, too. Government ought to follow the same path:  solve our mutual problems, but leave us alone in our private lives.

But in recent years Democrats have too often fallen back on wonkish, rationalized justifications of policies.  We forget to articulate the value beneath our initiatives:  empathy. We sound kind of elitist. “We know better than you, so let us tell you what to do.” This will get westerners to say, “I’m fixin’ to wring your neck.”

“Empathy is the grand theme of our time,” writes biologist Frans de Waal in his new book, The Age of Empathy. De Waal recognizes that fear, cruelty and selfish ambition are also at work in humans. But we are not the brutes that Thomas Hobbes claimed. Simple human solidarity and social responsibility make civilization possible.

In politics we are too often divided into schoolyard teams of shirts and skins. We might even forget why we are one team rather than another. Labeling and stereotyping others, we overlook their human qualities. It’s a big mistake.

Because of our shared values of caring for others in the community, because of a kind of bedrock friendliness that underlies almost every encounter out here in West Texas, it is a very calming place to be.

I know if I were in an accident out here, my neighbors would take care of me and get me the care I needed. So it is surprising when that same neighborliness isn’t reflected in political decision-making. Snake bite? Folks here won’t let you die. Isn’t health care reform just a national way of taking care of the snake bite?

We have failed in our political messaging to connect these local practices of empathy to national policy goals. We talk about what “government” will do rather than what we are called to do for one another as free individuals. The desert’s a hard teacher. Everyone here knows they couldn’t survive alone. Isn’t that the progressive message writ simply?

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith