Like all glamorous places, Texas breeds hipsters. The West begins in Texas, a place where books and movies are set. Naturally, natives thank their lucky stars they were born here, and so our cities have become big scavenger hunts for authenticity. Outsiders know Austin, but Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Marfa are all full of locals clamoring to find the realest barbecue and tequila.
Texas hipsters are an interesting breed. They’re well-traveled, but they take pride in their towns and insist there’s no place like home. Predominantly liberal, they look past Texas’ red reputation and embrace the varied culture they believe makes this place special. Southern hospitality and borderland diversity mean more to them than guns and football. They often understand why stereotypes of racism and bigotry stick to the state, but they work hard to convince visitors–and themselves–that love is more common than hatred here.
But despite their common love for the greatest state in the union, the divide between Texas hipsters and their small-town counterparts is vast. The name of Austin is sure to elicit scoffs from Texans whose towns have more livestock than people. Hipsters and country folk both tend to understand that they live in a special place, but each believes the other to be a poor representative to outsiders trying to understand what Texas means. Conservatives cast a wary eye at our blue dots on the map, at the complex and lovingly critical attitude of the Texas hipsters who love both Bernie Sanders and Buc-ee’s, and see only the unconvincing facades of liberals in boots.
The culture war between them peaked in the public spotlight of the 2018 Senate race which, though long finished, continues to expose a statewide fight for identity between rural and urban Texas. The Cruz-Beto battle was a rare moment of true symbolism, a little bit accidental and a little bit orchestrated, in which the candidates really represented their target audiences.
To outsiders, it looks so simple: Texas is red, and Texan things are conservative symbols. There seems to be some synonymous relationship between the conservatism of our politics and the cultural icons we produce. It’s an illusion that helped Beto cultivate a friendly, bipartisan image even as he raced leftward. Whataburger and picado banners created an easy distraction from his leftmost beliefs on abortion, weapons and healthcare.
Naturally, his bipartisan image earned the praise of Texas’ urban intelligentsia. From quirky culture rags like Texas Monthly and the San Antonio Current to metropolitan papers like the Dallas Morning News or the Austin American-Statesman, Beto attracted glowing press and sometimes even outright endorsements. Texas culture giants like Ethan Hawke and Beyonce followed suit. He was a real Texan, born and bred, unlike Canadian Cruz. But despite the burgers and El Paso chic, despite the Texas writers and Texas artists and Texas celebrities making Beto the undisputed coolest politician in the state, the people of Texas didn’t think it was enough.
In a very smart move, Beto decorated his campaign with Texan things. The strategy of putting Whataburger front and center really did convince a lot of people—especially Texas natives—because it made him more relatable. Even after Beto’s loss, we should ask what made it so effective, why so many liberals embrace Texas culture instead of scorning it, and what it means to be truly Texan.
Things don’t stay unique for long, but ideas leave their mark on a place. We can get moonshine outside of Kentucky nowadays, and New Mexico hasn’t cornered the market on Hatch chiles for a long time. Here in Texas, you can live your whole life and never see a horny toad outside of museums and pictures—but, if we’re truly a unique place, the idea of Texas shouldn’t change.
When O’Rourke fans insist on loving “all Texans,” we sense that the definition of what it means to be Texan is shifting, rather than growing, beneath our feet. Is a Texan merely someone who lives here? Or is there an unspoken love within the word, filled with hunting and homecoming football and backyard games of Moss until sunset?
In the words of Merle Haggard, they love our milk and honey, but they preach about some other way of living. Texas urbanites happily cling to horses and barbecue, but do they guard the rugged freedom that forged our state with a love so jealous and unflinching that any threat of infringement triggers a swift pushback? Texas Monthly calls itself “the national magazine of Texas,” but when push comes to shove, they treat true Texas nationalists with nothing but ridicule or disdain. Texas breeds companies we all love, such as Schlitterbahn or Blue Bell, but there has to be something more than the milk and honey. Texas is bigger than bluebonnets and Buc-ee’s. We can all enjoy our shibboleths like “Bexar” or “Gruene” and complain about how northerners can’t drive, but every state in the country has names that foreigners can’t pronounce and roads they don’t know. Texas is brash and successful, so we’ve taken to slapping the name on every product we make; as a result, our name risks becoming worn-out and hackneyed. When someone asks why Texas is the best, our answer should be deeper and truer than Whataburger.
Liberals with boots earn their intrigue because the aspects of Texanity they adopt are at odds with the mainstream left. Veganism, for example, is just one crossroads where the American left and liberals with boots diverge. Ribs and rodeo are hardly staples of hipster pastime. Environtalism creates another crossroads: no self-respecting Texan would prefer a smart car over a Ford F-150.
So we must dissect the dissonance. Are chic Texans like Beto and his native target audience merely wolves in sheep’s clothing? Have they learned the walk and talk of Texas just to assault its freedom unnoticed? Or have they just adopted the grass-is-greener mentality of spoiled, ungrateful children who chase the brief enchantments of elsewhere but always return home to complain while content? Or have they traveled, and learned the glamor of other places, but felt the stinging glow of homesickness for the land that reared them, and cannot bring themselves to abandon their state even as they question its reputation? Perhaps liberals in boots harbor a love somehow greater than the patriotism of the blindly faithful because they’ve tested their love and felt it tug them back to a place that their own politics insist they should abandon.
One wonders whether a blue Texas would still be Texas. True, Texas has not always been Republican, and yes, O’Rourke’s coattails dragged some Democrats into offices they hadn’t held before. The rural Republicans are dying out and the urban Democrats are reaching either the age or the motivation to vote in force for the first time in many races throughout the state. Even some older country-dwellers, like my farming kinfolk, cling to the New Deal promises that won their parents. Progress—the old antagonist of so many classic Westerns—marches forth, and if Cruz loses in 2024 his replacement will have D-TX by his name on TV. But, without the fierce love of freedom that has earned so many conservative politicians such insults as “hardliner” or “far-right,” will the connotation of “Texan” stay the same? Can Texas Monthly dethrone Bob Wills with feminist rap stars from Houston? We were born from war against Mexico; will our intelligentsia, far more enamored with Mexican culture than rural Texas culture, preserve our image?
The answers to these questions, I believe, lie in another: What does it mean to be a real Texan?
I’ll admit, debating connotations is shaky argumentative territory because the proof is too widespread and unoriginate to be cited. I can cite no footnote for the claim that gun and property rights have their place at the heart of Texas identity. I can only point to the general perception of our state and the 2018 election, in which the people of Texas showed that cultural know-how does not a true Texan make.
Ironically, a certain nativism tinges the Texas hipster. Texas liberals admirably see people instead of numbers when they look across the border, and they are quick to grant new arrivals the title of Texan. But lest we forget, most native Texans voted for O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s patriotic yet unique persona made him an icon for liberals with boots; how many punk fans are proud to call themselves Texan? O’Rourke personified the pick-and-choose rebellion of urban Texas by loving the state but rejecting the stereotypes. You won’t hear any punk rock at rallies for Chip Roy or Ted Cruz; there, country music still rules. O’Rourke appealed to those who loved their birthplace but wanted to change its rootin’ tootin’ redneck image.
For the most part, those who want to change the way we think about Texas were born here. O’Rourke’s policy plans drew ire from Tea Partiers, such as those in my own family who warned, head-shakingly, that he wanted to make us like California. (Here, the unexpected nativism becomes plainer.) One can’t help but entertain the question: if Beto ran the place, and guns were harder to buy and the unborn were easier to kill, what would distinguish us from our great rival on the coast? Spicy ketchup? A Chicago corporation now controls Whataburger, so maybe not. Bluebonnets? They can grow in other states, too. If liberals with boots were born elsewhere, would they move here and call themselves Texans? I cannot answer for vast swaths of culture; that’s a question for each Texas hipster alone. But those who support bigger, more secular government here while denying the fears of Californizing our state should ask themselves whether the Texan symbols to which they cling are deep enough to keep Texan identity intact. If we love this place just because we were born here, and we like businesses and flowers and products just because they were born here, too, we can’t be sure that we truly love this place at all.
I am reminded of so-called California refugees, or the Tongan immigrant living in Euless who said he came here because “I had Texas in my heart.” Can those of us who wish that Austin were just San Francisco plus Buc-ee’s ever claim to love Texas that much? If we say we love this state just because we grew up playing with Whataguy action figures, it seems arrogant to try and dampen the freedom that beckons to faraway travelers yearning for the place they dreamed of, where hints of the Wild West still linger and friendliness abides with a fierce hatred for tyranny. More Texans who moved here from other states, especially California, voted for Cruz because they already know what it’s like to be ruled by politicians like O’Rourke. Regardless of their birthplaces, O’Rourkes are everywhere, but Cruz is what sets us apart.
Texan-ness isn’t just a twist of flavor for one’s identity, like lemon in your tea. Like it or not, the name of Texas means freedom. At least, it should. It seems like every time we juice the name, it gets a little drier. A native Californian who moves here with Texas in his heart seems more Texan to me than a Houston native who shops at HEB for good cilantro. We can love the things born here, but we should remember the enterprising, creative spirit that bore them. The milk and honey will stop flowing when our way of life stops being free. It seems the true spirit of Texas is not inherited, but earned; we, the offspring of fighters and settlers, are all too restlessly eager to change the legacy they left us. The non-natives, for whom the dream of Texas still lives, tend to cherish freedom more dearly.
Even if we disagree about how much individual freedom Texans should enjoy, we recognize that freedom is Texan. Regardless of how we feel about constitutional carry, when we hear that over a dozen states allow it, but Texas is not one of them, aren’t we a little surprised? Packed in the subtleties of platitudes like “what Texans really want,” we hear an uphill struggle to uncouple Texas from its freedom-loving image.
Texas is a symbol, and like all symbols, ours was born naturally, not artificially. Try as we may, we cannot remake Texas in a new image and expect authenticity. Personally, I think T-Bone Walker and Freddy King deserve higher thrones in our musical pantheon than any country star we’ve ever produced, but their rank isn’t up to me. In my opinion, pecan may be one of the worst pie flavors we’ve ever cooked up, but it belongs to us. So what does it mean to be a real Texan? The answer seems thinner and more diluted for natives than for those who come here seeking freedom. All I can say is that the mass effort to strip the love of freedom from Texas pride reeks of artificiality and insincerity. Texan stuff is not enough. We need the spirit of rugged freedom in which our state was born, and we should guard it from politicians looking to replace the true meaning of our symbol with flashy trappings to hide tyranny. Without that freedom, our symbolic meaning will fade and we’ll become just another place like anywhere else.
Image by Mandy Shelton from Galway, Ireland – Beto, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78167579