America presents two contradictory narratives that it struggles to reconcile. One is of an attachment to a particular place. In this American dream, we are emotionally tied to the people and land of our communities. The other narrative is of mobility in the service of ambition. In this American dream, we move where the jobs are to realize social mobility. But these dreams point in opposite directions. It is hard to feel attached to where you are if you are always thinking of where you have been or where you are going.
One state that has always tried to dissolve this conflict is Texas, as illustrated by Richard Parker’s beautiful new book Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America. Texas has always had a sense of place—that is why we are told not to mess with it. Texas has also started to become an engine of economic growth. The limitations of Texas’s attempt to combine being somewhere and being successful are apparent in Parker’s gripping story, and suggest that there is still space for new places to attempt new ways to combine place and possibility.
Parker was raised in Laredo and El Paso. He reminisces about the features of Texas life that make Texas its own, distinctive community. There is high school football on Friday nights, parties in the desert, and experiences with the rivers and animals of the unique Texas landscape.
The problem with this attachment to a particular place, though, is that it can seem limiting. Parker writes in the foreword to the book that in the Texas he knew as a child several decades ago “[n]othing much ever seemed to happen.” Parker left the place that he knew for the possibilities that he would not have had in the Texas of a generation ago. He drove to New Orleans, and eventually to Washington, where he became a successful journalist for publications such as The New York Times and The New Republic.
With many professional possibilities realized, though, Parker found himself confronted with the problems that geographical mobility present: emptiness through placelessness. Americans move around a lot, making it hard to form attachments to any particular place. Many Americans move to places that de-emphasize the particularities of their local community. Local life in these places is not defined by their sports team or by their natural beauty—by things only available locally. Instead, local life is defined by cultural products that are more national or more global—think of the Sunday New York Times.
The late sociologist Robert Merton famously distinguished between those Americans that are more “local” and those that are more “cosmopolitan.” But both sides of this American fissure create a life lived less than fully. The local misses what could have been if they had moved someplace distant and different. The cosmopolitan misses that sense of belonging to a place.
Parker recognizes this tension, but tries to dissolve it. Fourteen years after leaving Texas for life in Washington, he returns back to Texas, a place that he thinks has a real sense of itself. Parker writes of the “black-faced doe” that he sees in the yard in his new Texas house. He describes enjoying the Texas outdoors with his family.
Yet Texas does not foreclose professional opportunities for him. Parker remains an active contributor to the elite magazines edited by and located in the places that lack the community that he finds in his home in Texas.
Parker is not alone in seeing this as the appeal of Texas. There have been previous waves of people moving to Texas, and we are now experiencing the latest wave. This “Sixth Migration” of massive human migration to Texas is the larger story of the book, and it is a significant story. Texas attracts these new residents with its Texas-ness. Real estate advertisements tout cowboy hats. The Dallas Cowboys sell out their state-of-the art football stadium. The Friday Night Lights television show featured characters talking of “Texas forever.” Even the legendary 1980s televisions show Dallas is back on the air, selling its twenty-first century brand of Texas bravado. Texas is someplace, not anyplace.
Texas offers not just place to its actual or potential new residents, but professional possibilities. It has added more than two and a half many times as many jobs since 2008 as has New York City. The energy economy has always been a fixture of Texas life, and that has not changed. A majority of the world’s major oil services companies are based on Houston. It is not just energy fueling the Texas explosion. Houston has the largest medical center in the world, and the largest export port in the entire country.
The result is that people are flocking to Texas. Since 2000, Houston has increased its population by about 35 percent, between 5 and 9 times as much as the other major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
This is a testament to the fundamental human—and American—desire to combine place and possibility. But the way that Texas combines place and possibility will not be appealing to everyone. Parker tells of a new Texas struggling to deal with diversity. Parker tells of a new Texas struggling to deal with inequality.
What of a progressive amalgam of place and possibility? There are already places like this emerging around the country, and marketing themselves this way. Many of them are tied to areas dominated by colleges and universities, places like Asheville, North Carolina or Burlington, Vermont.
As Texas combines place and possibility, too, it has done so on a scale that with time will force it to have less place and more possibility. The number of people messing with Texas will mean that Texas will transform into a place like other places. Parker’s book notes that eight out of ten new residents to Texas are moving to the triangle of Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. This Texas Triangle now has the same population as the entire State of Florida.
But the Texas Triangle is an urban area. New residents are living in houses in the suburbs and exurbs. They are driving to school and to work. A tense commute to work in Houston will start to resemble a tense commute in Boston or New York City. What will happen to the Texas that Parker extols, where he can write for The New York Times while still looking out a yard featuring a black-faced doe?
This suggests that places combining—but also maintaining—place and possibility have a lot to offer people. Places that maintain the purity of place but find a way to combine it with the possibilities of economic opportunity will be very appealing. For the first time in American history, rural America has been losing population. If these communities recognize that their unique opportunities still appeal to America—but in different ways than in the past—they can appeal to Americans that want to be somewhere but also want opportunities available anywhere.
Texas became a part of the United States in 1845, but its central role in the American imagination has never been more notable than in the past generation. Our most Texan president in modern times, George W. Bush, left office just five years ago, and another former Texas Governor, Rick Perry, is sure to run for the Republican presidential nomination in two years. With Texas front and center in American life, it is time to start thinking about what has made it attractive to so many Americans—and what other places can learn from it.
David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School