The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism
Fort Worth Weekly
Posted July 9, 2014
by JIMMY FOWLER in Arts
The Tea Party is just the most recent radical-right movement to grip Texas.
Now that the country has reacted with disgust and amusement to the extremist 2014 Texas Republican Party platform, the next logical question is: Where did that platform’s piquant combo of modern alienation, paranoia about the federal government, and antagonism against women, gays, and immigrants originate?
Obviously, hard-right politics in Texas started long before the national emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 and even earlier than the 1980 rise of the evangelical right in the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan. The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism, a sharply written new collection of essays on post-Civil War Texas history from Texas A&M University Press, entertainingly illustrates how a wacky strain of hardcore right-wingers has flourished (if not always succeeded) alongside mainstream Texas conservatives for a good 150 years now.
George Clark, a Democratic primary contestant for the 1892 gubernatorial nomination, ran aggressively on a “Turn Texas Loose!” campaign that rejected all federal taxes and regulations on Lone Star industries and championed the always vague concept of “personal liberty.” Sound familiar? Clark lost the nomination, but over the course of the 20th century, his radical-right descendants — and a lot of other conservatives — jumped ship from the Democrats to the Republican Party and gained control over the convention and primary processes there.
The scholars and journalists who’ve contributed pieces to The Texas Right, edited by Collin College history professors David O’Donald Cullen and Kyle G. Wilkison, cover some of the familiar rogue’s gallery of Texas reactionary groups –– the Jeffersonian Democrats of 1936 and Texas Regular movement of 1944 (both of which despised and worked against FDR’s New Deal federal activism); the Shivercrats of the 1950s (Democratic supporters of Texas Gov. Allan Shivers, a man famously too right-wing for even U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy); and the state chapters of the John Birch Society that flourished especially in North Texas until the 1970s.
In the opening essay, Cullen carefully distinguishes what the book calls “the radical right” from garden-variety conservatives. Texas’ most reactionary groups and leaders, Cullen insists, have always combined “a conspiratorial worldview” with “a suspicion of the democratic process, an emphasis on personal liberty over equality, and on economic individualism over community interests.”
The radical right in Texas also has tended to eschew public debate and discourse, preferring a tactic the book’s contributors call “eliminationalism” –– the systematic “suppression, removal, or extermination” of the political opposition. (Shuttering most of the state’s abortion providers by legislative fiat, anyone?)
All nine essays are persuasive and informative, and, though The Texas Right was published by an academic press, the pieces were written with a general audience in mind: They make you want to learn more about the highlighted individuals and groups. Michael Phillips’ opener, “The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” explores how far-right businessmen and politicians handled both immigrant communities and the state’s African-American population once Reconstruction commenced. Some radical-right leaders worried that newly freed slaves and poor uneducated whites would form a political coalition based on shared economic interests. In an effort to quash that, influential Texas U.S. Rep. John H. Reagan lobbied Gov. J.W. Throckmorton in 1866 to include “racially inferior whites” along with blacks as targets of IQ tests and poll taxes.
In fact, there was a biracial socialist movement called the Populist Party in the 1890s, though it didn’t get very far. As editor/contributor Wilkison shows in his piece “The Evils of Socialism,” reactionary Baptist preacher J.R. Burnett waged a 1900 public war for the souls of poor white and black sharecroppers who’d fallen under the spell of Christian socialist preacher Morgan A. Smith. (There really was such a thing as Christian socialism back then.) In his widely read 1914 book The Devil and Socialism, W.F. Lemmons, another radical- right minister of that era, definitively linked Marxism, Darwinian evolution, and all preferences for “scientific materialism” over a Christian God as interrelated evils. Contemporary evidence of climate change would presumably not fare much better in Lemmons’ eyes.
And the flamboyant hatemongers just keep on coming in The Texas Right. Keith Volanto’s “The Far Right in Texas Politics during the Roosevelt Era” chronicles how Texas oil baron John Henry Kirby co-founded a 1934 precursor to the Tea Party, the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution (SCUC), to combat Roosevelt’s anti-poverty, pro-labor programs. SCUC eventually fizzled, in part because the group’s Southern members discovered that “Northern elites” like the DuPont and Sloan families were helping prop it up. (Apparently, the only thing worse than an FDR socialist was a Yankee of any political persuasion.) Nancy E. Baker’s “Focus on the Family” spotlights Pauline Wells, the wife of a wealthy Brownsville rancher who campaigned passionately against women’s suffrage, warning the Texas Legislature in 1915 that giving “hysterical” women the vote would also lead to “Negro rule” in parts of the state where black women outnumbered white women. George N. Green’s “Establishing the Texas Far Right” recounts how, in 1944, University of Texas president Homer Rainey was fired after a coalition of hard-right Texas businessmen and legislators went on a well-funded tear to purge state universities of liberal elements. Rainey was accused, among other things, of harboring “a nest of homosexuals” in the faculty. (On the bright side, no one suggested the alleged nest-dwellers seek reparative therapy for their sexuality.)
In light of the aggressively reactionary 2014 Texas Republican Party platform, The Texas Right feels like required reading, if only to get a better handle on how far the roots of hard-right ugliness reach down into the history of the Lone Star State. As always with the radical right, the motto seems to be: so many groups to hate, so little time.
Current Reviews for Academic Libraries
The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism, ed. by David O’Donald Cullen and Kyle G. Wilkison. Texas A&M, 2014. 191p index afp (Elma Dill Russell Spencer series in the West and Southwest, 39) ISBN 9781623490287, $50.00; ISBN 9781623490294 pbk, $24.95.
The essays comprising this fantastic anthology provide fascinating insights into the rise of Texas conservatism during the 1900s. The contributors note that Texas conservatism preceded the oft-cited appearance of post-WW II Sunbelt conservatives, pushing the movement’s origins back to the radicalization of blacks after the US Civil War and the fears of Texas socialism during the early 1900s. Right-wing megachurch ministers such as J. Frank Norris mobilized Texas religious conservatives during the early 1900s, well before the better-known televangelists of the mid-20th century and prior to the economic conservatives who criticized President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s–all carefully analyzed in this volume. In addition, the Texas Republican Party prospered during the early 1950s, in large part by realigning itself with the anticommunist hysterics of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. In sum, each essay in this volume is indispensible in placing the modern Texas Right in its proper historical context, showing that the concerns of today’s Tea Party are, in fact, little different from the concerns of conservative Texans who preceded them as far back as a century ago.
–T. P. Bowman, West Texas A&M University
Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries.
Texas Books in Review
Volume XXXIV, No. 1 (Spring 2014)
The Texas Right: The Radical Roots of Lone Star Conservatism edited by David O’Donald Cullen and Kyle G. Wilkison
College Station: Texas A&M Unviersity Press, 2014. 191 pp. $50 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Reviewed by Christine Lamberson
This new volume sets out to explain “what informed, influenced, and shaped the Texas Right” from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century. In the opening essay, David O’Donald Cullen argues that the Texas Radical Right both foreshadowed recent national political changes, particularly the break up of the “Solid South” and the subsequent regional rise of the Republican Party, and played an important role in shaping the modern right. Cullen begins by updating explanations for the Radical Right from those focused on post-WWII status anxiety. Instead, he asserts that though a conspiratorial worldview in response to perceived threats was indeed a hallmark of reactionary conservatives, such “class warfare, racial prejudice, and gender bias” were a feature of the Radical Right long before the postwar era. The book aims to show that the origins of the Texas Right are in a much older, Radical Right than what is commonly believed.
After the short introductory essay, the volume features three chapters on the Radical Right before the New Deal era. They discuss strong reaction- ary groups aimed at maintaining the economic and racial power structure in the face of reforming efforts by the poor, immigrants, blacks, and other disenfranchised groups. Two essays
focus on religion and provide detailed examinations of the role played by sev- eral preachers in the Radical Right at the time. These groups used racial and religious rhetoric in ways that are very familiar today, showing how concepts like the religious right are not nearly as new as is often assumed.
The next essays trace the rise of anti-New Deal conservatives in state politics. The essays highlight just how influential wealthy elites were in driv- ing the rightwing response to the New Deal despite the programs’ general popularity. These articles, along with Sean Cunningham’s excellent essay on the paranoid style of the postwar Far Right, bring the narrative into the 1950s and 1960s. Two essays provide a detailed and often overlooked story of the way that Kennedy’s death also seriously hurt the Texas Far Right because of its record of extreme, vocal opposition to JFK.
The final two essays look at the Right throughout the century. Nancy Baker joins recent scholarship in focusing on conservative women. She persuasively shows Texas women’s consistently influential role in shaping the movement. Michel Lind looks at the intellectual traditions of Texas politics arguing for an “ethnocultural explanation” for the rise of the right. He also illuminates the role of oil money in creating an unusual blend of a modern economy with an undisrupted strong strain of traditionalism.
In the opening essay, Cullen writes that understanding the transformation of the Texas Republican Party, of course, requires knowledge of the changing national political landscape as well as developments in Texas. Yet, he says, “the Texas details do remain crucial, and the historical Texas political land- scape rewards its viewers with some of the starkest and most riveting scenery there is.” This volume does an excellent job with the latter. The stories are indeed rich, full of interesting details, and illustrative of important personalities in Texas politics. Unfortunately, it is weaker on the former as those stories are often not clearly connected to the broader national context. For instance, several essays talk about fears of social- ism and unions during the early and mid-twentieth century, fears that were hardly confined to Texas.
Still, the collection’s stated focus is more on illuminating longer roots for the modern right than on making national connections. It is successful at this task when showing how the weakening of the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the state was a longer process than is often recognized. The essays show that wresting the Solid South from Democratic hands started with the Radical Right long before the Civil Rights Movement. On other topics, with some exceptions, most of the essays show precedents rather than origins. The volume variously claims to be arguing that modern conservatism “echoes” the past and that it has its “origins” in the early Radical Right. The two are not precisely the same. Cunningham’s essay explicitly grapples with this issue, explaining that though there are many similarities between the post-1980 Right’s central tenants and those of an earlier Radical Right, a linear relationship is hard to establish. Yet, few of the other essays are as open in discussing this challenge and they would be stronger if they could be more explicit in showing legacies of the earlier right or considering the limitations of the precedents.
Ultimately, this volume will be useful to scholars and students of Texas his- tory, US political history, and conservative politics throughout the twentieth century. Individual essays make connections between those fields and women’s history, religious history, and early twentieth-century racial politics. The historiography of modern conservatism has been slowly lengthening its origin story. This volume successfully pushes that story much further back, but there is still more work to be done in determining the precise relationship between the early Radical Right, in Texas and elsewhere, and the modern conservative movement.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor at Angelo State University. Her research focuses on the relationship between American culture and politics during the twentieth century. Her manuscript examines how politicians and the American public responded to violence in the 1960s and 1970s and the influence of those responses on American politics.