In the wake of Rick Perry’s brain freeze in the most recent Republican debate, people are asking: how did this guy ever become governor of the second largest state? In the first case, we can blame it all on G.W. Bush who made him Lt. Governor and then ran for president. Perry became governor by default when Bush bullied his way into the White House in 2000 and, since then, Perry has found ways to appeal to the voter's instincts.. His debate performance might, at last, even embarrass many inside the state.
There are many other reasons for Perry to have become, and stayed, as governor. One is that Texas is effectively a one party state. For most of the last 150 years since the Civil War, that party was Democrat. In the 1980s and 90s, that party became the Republicans. This means that the normal back and forth of two competing parties doesn't happen in Texas. The fighting is almost all intramural, inside the ruling party. As a result, those chosen to lead are inherently weaker, in most cases, than those who rise through a difficult, competitive process. Perry, and Bush before him, are examples of this system.
The people of Texas are often called some of the most independent thinkers in the nation. Yet, the voters consistently and persistently follow the lead of the wealthy, ruling elite.. Why? That remains an enduring mystery, but many voters seem to have been trained in the idea that “the bossman” always knows best. There is the long voting tradition of deference, which can be traced in England and the "lower classes" deferring to the judgment of the upper classes.
There is also a prevailing mythology in Texas that there exists a one way, a right way, the Texas way, of doing things. Many, if not most, people raised in the state buy into this idea. This has powerful aspects of us versus them, Texas versus the rest of the world or New York, whatever "foreign" influence one might use to fill in the blank. If someone can appeal to the voters on this kind of mythological, nationalistic way, they are in solid. (This kind of attitude, also, can be traced to the Civil War experience, in part, because all of the southern states deeply resented the post-Civil War period and, even though Texas was not very successive as an independent nation before joining the Union, the idea that it could have continued as a nation lives on. Pride, in other words.)
Perry also looks the part of a Texas governor. He looks the part, more importantly, of the modern Texas male: tall, self assured and a bit defiant of anyone who would cross him (including coyotes, which are plentiful in Texas). He is close to a Texas archetype, in fact. It is difficult to imagine someone who looks more like the role in which he is cast. This counts for a lot.
Perry faithfully recites the mantra that appeals to Texas voters: don't raise taxes (we want to spend our own money), don't worry too much about the poor, the elderly, the feeble, find ways to bring jobs into Texas (any job is better than none, for people who have known real poverty when there might not have been enough food on the table) and always, always do what the corporations and wealthy want (this too, is a Texas tradition, dating to the birth of big oil).
When Perry let out the idea that Texas might consider leaving the United States when he was in trouble of not being reelected governor, he helped to ensure his victory. This might be strange, but it appealed to a large segment of the state because, once again, it represented the independent seeking mind set, even while the state depends very heavily on spending by the Federal government. On top of all this, Perry throws his religious beliefs, which appeal to many in the state.
Lastly, Texas is an oligarchy. Like all of the states that temporarily left the Union during the Civil War, it had to gradually evolve as a democracy in the aftermath of being a slave state ruled by big landowners. That transition has not, 150 yrs. later, been completed. The ruling elite have made certain to keep their hands on power and the citizens have not asserted the need, or the power, to displace them. Texas is a state in need of a quiet revolution, but most citizens are more or less satisfied with the status quo. The poor, the imprisoned, the kids lacking good schools and those lacking other social services, don't have much influence and few speak to their cause. For the upper middle class and above in income, it is a comfortable place where they are seldom challenged to do more for the less fortunate.
These are not matters of casual interest to me. I spent more than half of my first 21 yrs. in Texas and southern Oklahoma and five yrs., during and after college, in the state. My roots in the Texas go back to the 1880s when my great grandparents on my mother's side arrived in a covered wagon. Plus, I started my career as a television reporter in Dallas.
Until recent times, Texas was looked on by much of the nation, especially in the east, as a place apart, almost like some kind of foreign land. The rise of Texas as an economic power, along with easy jet travel, has changed that perception greatly. There can be no doubt, however, that Texas is different and wants to stay that way. Perry represents a long line of Texas governors who are generally popular with the voters, but not very effective as leaders and certainly not people whose message and policies would translate well to the rest of the nation. G.W. Bush crossed the divide by going to Andover, Yale and Harvard, spending huge amounts of time outside the state, even while he claimed to be an authentic Texan. Bush, in fact, seemed to really enjoy hitting people in the face with his Texas derived attitudes (“We don’t do nuance.”), but, in the end, it didn’t do him much good.
Perry is a man who is fundamentally unqualified to be president of the United States, even if the nation were to adopt his “business first, business last” attitudes. He has said many times in recent years that he had no desire to go to Washington, DC, the place the Republican right has painted as evil and out of touch with America. Maybe now people will believe he meant it.