Rick Perry: Interviews with Historians Edward F. Countryman and Greg Cantrell





11-7-11

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, conducted and curated interviews with leading academics on the top GOP hopefuls. They will appear as part of an ongoing series on HNN.

Edward F. Countryman

Edward F. Countryman, University Distinguished Professor, Southern Methodist University, and author of The American Revolution.

In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?

One way to see the whole current impasse is as a rerun of the city and country opposition that runs right back to the respective visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for America’s future.  Hamilton’s vision turned on the presumption that the power established by the Constitution was there to use and presumed an active government, and it continued through Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson and, now, Barack Obama.  Jefferson regarded that power as something to fear (though he did not hesitate to use it during his presidency).  It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan had Jefferson prominently on display in his Oval Office.  I realize that Jefferson, not Hamilton, is celebrated as the progenitor of the modern Democratic Party, but the use the power/fear the power dichotomy runs deep.  Perry also draws on an anti-intellectual (and overtly anti-city and anti-immigrant) tradition that found its strongest expression in Prohibition.

Much has been made of Perry’s threat to secede if liberal policies impede Texas’s rights.  Has the nation ever had a presidential candidate who spoke favorably about possible secession?

Sadly, Jefferson flirted with this notion during the Civil Liberties crisis of 1798, drafting the Kentucky Resolutions.  James Madison, who had crafted the Constitution itself in good part, did not take such a position in his Virginia Resolutions.  John C. Calhoun had presidential ambitions, but his turn toward sectionalism during the nullification crisis ended that.  The election of 1860, with four candidates, one of them a southern Democrat, is a special case.

Over his gubernatorial tenure and now into his presidential campaign, how do you interpret Perry’s relationship with Hispanics and Mexico (in terms of the troubled border situation)?

I find his position inconsistent.  Unlike its California counterpart, the Texas Republican Party has not tended to have an overtly anti-Hispanic attitude, possibly from the recognition of the strong Hispanic population in the state.  As a presidential contender, however, Perry is pandering to the larger anti-Hispanic mood among much of his target demographic.

What’s the most interesting fact about Perry’s career that mainstream media outlets have overlooked?

Unquestionably, his assault on the quality of intellectual life at all levels, from school education to the attempted re-making of the public universities on a business cost-center model.  He claims to want to make education available widely and cheaply.  In reality, if he had his way, school students would waste their time on the non-existent “debate” or “controversy” over so-called intelligent design in an atmosphere reminiscent of the grim schoolroom with which Charles Dickens opened his novel Hard Times.  The universities would cease to be places of innovation and creativity and would merely deliver well-socialized workers to corporate America.

In a wider historical backdrop, how would you compare Perry’s and Bush’s respective visions for Texas?

During the Bush presidency I astonished myself with the realization that I missed Richard Nixon.  Flippancy aside, it’s a commonplace that while Bush was in Austin he could work with its politicians, not a quality he showed in Washington.  Perry represents the current belief within his party that the very notion of arriving at common ground and building from it is wrong.

Greg Cantrell Interview

Greg Cantrell, Erma and Ralph Lowe Chair Texas History, Texas Christian University, and author of Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas.

In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?

I think what’s most noteworthy about his candidacy is his anti-government views.  I don’t believe there’s ever been a major-party nominee who held government in general in such low regard.  Barry Goldwater held many libertarian views, but he respected Congress and the office of the presidency.  There’s little indication that Perry does.  Perry has done his best to dismantle or weaken basic governmental institutions in Texas such as public education.  One of his biggest financial backers, James Leininger, has given tens of millions of dollars to promote “school choice,” which is a euphemism for privatizing education.  His solution for public higher education, apart from defunding it is much as possible, is to implement a draconian system of incentives that measure universities’ “productivity” by how much external grant funding they attract; professors, departments, and programs that don’t measure up are fair game to be eliminated.  Not much place for history or English or music departments at such places.  The same goes for environmental regulations.  By all indications, if given a free hand, Perry would simply eliminate them.

Much has been made of Perry’s threat to secede if liberal policies impede Texas’s rights.  Has the nation ever had a presidential candidate who spoke favorably about possible secession?

Perry’s reference to secession was a throw-away line to a Tea Party crowd—a little harmless red meat to the base; he wasn’t serious about it.  Modern-day Texans have long made jokes about secession.  The “Texas Secede” bumper sticker is a common item in these parts.  The fact is, we tried secession in 1861, and it didn’t work out so great, as the graves of 600,000 Civil War soldiers will testify.  What was noteworthy about Perry’s secession comment was that he made it as governor; we expect our political leaders to be more circumspect in their language.  Perry could have responded to the Tea Partier who shouted that Texas should secede by making light of the comment in a friendly way, but throwing that red meat to his base has become second nature to him, and he couldn’t stop himself.  We’ve see that same pattern repeatedly since he announced for president.  (By the way, his answer was factually wrong: Neither Texas nor any other state can secede from the union; not only did the Civil War answer the question in practical terms, but the question was definitively decided by the courts during Reconstruction.  So he displayed ignorance by treating the question with any degree of seriousness.)

Over his gubernatorial tenure and now into his presidential campaign, how do you interpret Perry’s relationship with Hispanics and Mexico (in terms of the troubled border situation)?

It is a big problem with him.  George W. Bush carefully cultivated the Mexican American vote as governor and, to a lesser extent, as president.  Perry has squandered much of that, although Texas Republicans can always count on a certain amount of Hispanic support because there is a strong streak of social conservatism among that group (the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion being but one factor in that conservatism).  The more Perry panders to the Tea Party fringe, the more he alienates Latinos who loathe measures like the Arizona and Alabama anti-immigrant laws and Perry’s own “sanctuary cities” bill, which failed in the most recent legislature.

What’s the most interesting fact about Perry’s career that mainstream media outlets have overlooked?

It is well-known that Perry started his political career in 1984 as a Democrat and that he changed parties in 1989 in order to run for his first statewide office, agriculture commissioner, the following year.  Much has been made of the fact that he was Al Gore’s campaign chair when Gore sought the presidency in 1988.  What people generally assume, I think, is that Perry, like many moderate Southern Democrats, changed parties only when the Democratic Party became too liberal for them.  As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “I didn’t leave the party, it left me.”  But this ignores the timing of Perry’s switch.  Texas elected its first modern Republican governor, Bill Clements, in 1978, more than a decade before Perry switched parties.  Ann Richards, a liberal Democrat, won the governorship in 1990, the year that Perry became agriculture commissioner.  In other words, if you were a true conservative in Texas and not just concerned about how best to be elected, you would’ve become a Republican long before Perry did in 1989.  When Perry chaired Al Gore’s 1988 campaign for president, Gore was already speaking out on climate change and other issues that Republicans, including Perry, now ridicule.  Perry became a conservative Republican when it became politically expedient to be a conservative Republican, and not a minute earlier.

In a wider historical backdrop, how would you compare Perry’s and Bush’s respective visions for Texas?

I think that Bush had a vision for Texas that rested on what used to pass for mainstream Republican principles:  lower taxes, less intrusive government, a business-friendly regulatory environment, etc.  Bush was serious about reforming public education, whatever you may think about his methods.  (The ideas of No Child Left Behind were largely pioneered under his gubernatorial administration.)  It’s hard to see how Perry has much of vision, except for a vision of Texas (and the nation) as the wild, wild West, where institutions of government are weak or nonexistent and only the fittest survive.  So, in Perry’s Texas, if you see a coyote on an urban jogging trail, you don’t call the animal control department (which has been de-funded), you pull out your pistol and blow it away.  You don’t fund education, you let parents save their tax dollars and spend them on their kids’ private school.  You don’t spend tax dollars on highways, you turn highway-building over to private companies who then build toll-roads—tolls that cost the same for the billionaire in his limo as they are for the Mexican American yard-man in his rusty pickup.


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