The Texas Liberal Detector

The Texas Liberal Detector

By Heather Wilhelm - July 30, 2013

In a few weeks, my family and I will be moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas. I realize this is not terribly original on our part. Apparently, everyone else in the country is moving to Texas, too -- according to the Census Bureau, eight of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. call the Lone Star State home -- and a sizable chunk of high-profile pilgrims, it seems, are moving to Austin.

In recent months, both Billy Bob Thornton and “Girls” star Lena Dunham have publicly declared their desire to move to Austin in the future. The series finale of “The Office” showed longtime Scranton residents Jim and Pam leaving for the Texas state capital. According to the latest reports, 150-200 people move to Austin each day. It’s gotten so ridiculous that residents who fear the city will lose its signature weirdness have created the following T-shirt: “Welcome to Austin. Please don’t move here. I hear Dallas is great!”

When I tell people in Chicago that I’m moving to Texas, I get a variety of responses. One is pretty simple: “Why?” Another reply is enthusiastic: “That’s great, I’ve heard Austin is amazing!” But by far my favorite response is one that I’ve come to deem The Heather Wilhelm Instant Liberal Detector™:

Me: “So, I’m moving to Texas in a few weeks.”

Suspected Liberal (suspiciously): “Hmmm. … Where in Texas?”

Me: “Austin.”

Suspected Liberal: “Oh, THANK GOD. Austin is TOTALLY different from the rest of Texas. TOTALLY. DIFFERENT.”

What is politely left unsaid by the now Officially Confirmed Liberal™, of course, is that the “rest of Texas” is a vast, nightmarish blur, populated by an army of sweaty Honey Boo Boos who want to (a) serve you fatty foods at their tacky picnic or (b) take you to church or (c) force you to take a slimy catfish off of a dirty hook or (d) make you show your ID before voting.

It is a place, in other words, where no self-respecting, civilized human being with a high tooth-to-finger ratio would dare to tread. As the website Gawker recently put it, “What is it that makes Texas so attractive? Is it the prisons? The racism? The deadly weather? The deadly animals? The deadly political leadership? The costumed sex fetish conventions? The cannibal necromancers?” These were all very good points for New York City-based Gawker to make, of course, because there are certainly no prisons or race hucksters or hurricanes or giant rats or dodgy politicians or sex fetish conventions or crazy people in New York.


Moving on, it’s safe to say that Texas, particularly when it comes to one side of the political aisle, is often misunderstood. Which brings us to two recent books on the subject: “Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas,” by Erica Grieder, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, and “Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession,” by cranky and cantankerous CNN travel editor Chuck Thompson.

The books have different goals and scopes -- Grieder seeks to explain the successes of the Texas model from a liberal perspective, while Thompson argues for the utter worthlessness of the American South -- but both share a fear of a common specimen: the knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping Southern hayseed. Or, as Thompson puts it, of “hyperventilating ideologues and extremists who want to conflate Bible law with U.S. law.” You know, like that mass of pro-abortion protesters who took to chanting “Hail, Satan!” down in Austin a few weeks back. (Oh, wait. Sorry. Those were “progressives.”)

This deep-seated fear of the ills of religion is intriguing, given that in both books, said ills don’t significantly play out in reality. Texas, as Thompson writes, may be “batshit religious crazy,” but, as Grieder reluctantly notes, “the typical Texan doesn’t, for example, seem unusually homophobic, even when you leave the liberal enclaves such as Austin. Even in the eastern part of the state, which is conservative and heavily religious” -- watch out, humanity! -- “Texans have pushed back against the worst displays of bigotry.” Oh. OK.

This fear of religion is also rather ironic, given that the supposedly superior, more sophisticated blue-state model is, if anything, built on the craziest type of faith -- the kind that persists in spite of direct evidence to the contrary. I hate to break it to the haters, but Austin is a smashing success largely because it’s a part of Texas.

Yes, it’s a fun, liberal city. It embraces progressive stances on banning plastic bags (which, let’s face it, just collapse in the back of your car, letting all the groceries tumble out), promoting sustainable energy (solar panels actually work down there, by the way), and banning smoking in parks (as an aside, I often infuriate my libertarian friends by professing my love of public smoking bans, and I shall do it again here). But Austin, like the rest of Texas, also has a friendly business climate. It does not have a personal income tax. It also happens to be governed by a guy named Rick Perry.

The Texas model, both Grieder and Thompson admit, works, even though they both seem to remain slightly mystified by that fact. In fact, in “Better Off Without ’Em,” Thompson can’t even bring himself to officially include Texas in the list of Southern states he wants to get rid of, for one simple reason: With its booming economy, “we can’t afford to lose it.”

As D.C. grows increasingly dysfunctional and sclerotic, here’s hoping federalism continues to encourage competition and lessons learned among the states. And hey, Texas may not be your particular cup of tea, but it’s certainly doing something right. Even, lo and behold, outside of the city limits of Austin. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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