Wright is wrong about Texas: Austin is not Texas

People wait to vote on election day at the JB & Hallie Jester Annex in Round Rock, Nov 8, 2016. Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Over the summer, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright joined the pantheon of writers who exaggerate political reality to tell rich stories and generate discord.

With his story about Texas and its political divides, Wright splits the state into two areas — an urban Texas of city dwellers that is “progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug” and a rural region, or Trumpland, where “Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.” By doing so, he trivializes the state’s real political values and divides.

In fact, while rural areas in Texas are more conservative than metropolitan ones, the state’s urban conurbations — San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston — are ideologically diverse, and do not particularly lean to the left or right. They are absolutely not isolated liberal islands surrounded by conservative seas. Only Austin, where Wright himself lives, is the outlier with its sharp left-of-center tendencies.

The 2016 presidential election returns make this clear.

In the four major Texan metro areas, 48 percent voted for Trump and 47 percent voted for Clinton — hardly a strong left tilt. Of the remaining non-metro counties, 60 percent of the voters cast ballots for Trump — not a runaway right tilt.

Breaking down the major metro areas further, both San Antonio and Houston split the vote 48 to 47 percent in favor of Trump, and Dallas voted 51 to 47 percent for Trump. Austin voters favored Clinton 57 to 37 percent. This is not strong evidence of an urban versus rural divide.

Looking at President Obama’s approval ratings, Texans were pretty much on the same page except for those in Austin. In 2016, President Obama had a statewide “strong approval” rating of 19 percent, and both metro and non-metro regions gave Obama similar approval ratings. Austin again was the outlier, with more than a third of the residents strongly approving of Obama. Similar patterns emerge for other policy issues like transgender rights and border security.

In terms of partisanship, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in major metro regions in Texas is actually 1. This means that there is an equal balance of party followers with 39 percent choosing to identify as Independents. For the non-metro areas, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is .8, with 28 percent of residents identifying as Democrats and 34 percent as Republicans, with the rest — a plurality of 38 percent — being Independents. In Austin, the ratio is 1.5, with 35 percent Democrats, 22 percent  Republicans and 41 percent Independents.

In addition to these election numbers, seeing what Texans thought about prominent political issues facing the nation revealed that Austin is again the exception.

Polling from the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune this year found that support for the right of gays and lesbians to marry was far more pronounced in Austin at 70 percent compared to close to 50 percent for the rest of the state.

Numerous other less-salient social issues continue to reveal Austin’s liberal orientation. Its inhabitants, for example, are far less supportive of a ban preventing Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the country, and far more supportive of Obamacare than rural Texans. When thinking about the future of the country, Austinites are also 20 percent more pessimistic than other Americans in believing that the U.S. is heading down the wrong track.

Of course, there are some areas of policy where all Texans agree.

There is, for example, fairly uniform agreement that the top issues facing the country are the economy, federal spending, security/terrorism, political corruption/paralysis, and immigration.

So, despite occasional disagreement on priorities, electoral and public opinion data make it clear that Texas is not really a state torn between its rural and urban environs as Wright suggests. While other big cities in Texas have politically centrist residents along with many independents, Austinites lean left. They are more liberal than most other Texans — especially those living in the hills, plains, and in other metropolitan cities and communities.

Ironically, two years before Wright’s piece, the New Yorker actually managed to get the Texas story right in 2015 via a satirical article by humorist Andy Borowitz who wrote that “residents of the city of Austin report that they are completely surrounded by Texas, a situation that locals are calling ‘dire.’”

Actual data clearly highlights the differences between the "People’s Republic of Austin" and other cities. Austin is different. Austin is weird. Journalists such as Wright should be wary of furthering the often-told stories of urban vs. rural divides that are now seemingly appearing around the United States. Texans are generally in agreement on most political matters whether living in cities or rural areas.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

Samuel J. Abrams

Professor, Sarah Lawrence College