How Texas Runs America

New York Times columnist Gail Collins discusses why the Lone Star State has such an influence on the rest of the country.

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Texas has long had a large national presence, and not just because of its people, now numbering over 25 million. With a penchant for states' rights, Texas has shaped federal policy and the U.S. economy. In her new book As Texas Goes ... How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist formerly at New York Newsday and the New York Daily News, describes the state's history and how its brief era as an independent republic gave rise to today's "Don't Mess With Texas" mentality. Collins recently spoke with U.S. News about Texas's influence on national issues and on other states. Excerpts:

Why does Texas have such a strong influence on the rest of the country?

If you look back over the last 30 years or so, most of the major national agenda, one way or another, came out of Texas. The savings and loan crisis began with regulations that were based on Texas regulations. Our education policies are based on the No Child Left Behind law, which [President] George W. Bush based on Texas education policy. The same is true for environment, for energy policy. And all the land wars the country has been involved in for my lifetime have been led by Texas presidents.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

How have conservatives from Texas shifted the national debate on certain issues?

The political division, at least among regular people in this country, has always been between the empty places and the crowded places. People who think of themselves as living in empty places feel like government is just in the way because they're taking care of themselves because they're in an empty place and they're not bothering anybody. In Texas, even though now it's very big and most of its people live in cities or metropolitan areas, Texas has always been a leading influence in that empty places mentality. So that kind of anti-government, "leave me alone" feeling is very much natural to Texas.

What's wrong with the "empty places" mentality?

There's nothing wrong with it, except if you're not actually in an empty place. It's a real luxury to be able to imagine that you are all on your own and what you do doesn't affect anybody else. States' rights are great as long as what the state does doesn't impact the other states. What I argue in the book is that everything, from its family planning policies to its environmental policies to its gun policies—all those things Texas does have a big impact on people in other states.

What do you hope exposing this information will do?

I'd like to expand the discussion about when states' rights start to scoot over and affect what's happening in other states and in the country as a whole. Also, Texas is going to be a majority Hispanic state in not too long in the future, and the population as a whole is growing by leaps and bounds. And how Texas responds to this, how well they educate these young children, how well they encourage their Hispanic population to take a leading role in politics and in business, is going to have an amazing influence on the rest of the country.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

How has Texas's history shaped its state policies of today?

Texas began as a part of Mexico, and then it had a war for independence and it was briefly an independent country. That vision of itself as an independent country, even though it was really short, shorter than the time Vermont spent as an independent republic, lives in the Texas imagination in a very intense way that this used to be a country by itself, that it's not the same as other states. People in Texas tend to identify as Texans, in a way that doesn't happen in other states. I'm from Ohio, and I love Ohio, but nobody in Ohio says "Don't Mess With Ohio." We didn't study the state constitution or salute the state flag in school.

What are some policies that have been affected by this vision?

Gun rights is something Texas cares a lot about. I think at this point people would agree that whatever Texas wants to do about gun rules is OK for Texas, but when it comes to things like sale of guns, when those guns that are sold in Texas go over the border and are used in crimes in say, California, or in Mexico frequently, then that's something more. Then that's no longer just a Texas issue. It's no longer about states' rights, it's about national issues and national security.