• Texas Political Culture

    Texas Political Culture

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Political culture is a shared system of values, beliefs, and habits of behavior with regard to government and politics. Multiple cultures may coexist in a society, but typically one culture is dominant and those dominant values, beliefs, and habits of behavior affect all members of society.

Cowboy CapitolTexas combines the individualistic and traditionalistic political cultures. A legacy of the state's western frontier heritage, the individualistic political culture celebrates individual achievement—the lone cowboy riding the range, the singular sheriff, the "one-fight, one-Ranger" attitude. Government activity is encouraged only to the extent that it creates opportunity for individual achievement. The traditionalistic political culture, emphasizing deference to elite rule within a hierarchical society and traditional moral values, represents the values of 19th century Southerners who migrated to the rich cotton land of East Texas. Government activity is discouraged unless it reinforces the power of society's dominant groups. 

Taken together, individualism and traditionalism make Texas a politically conservative state, hostile to government activity, especially government interference in the economy. Government is expected to stay out of people's affairs, and when it does get involved, it should be controlled locally. Unemployment CartoonGovernment should spend little and tax little, if at all. Individual businesspeople should control their own fate and the economy. Texas political culture mixes economic conservatism with a conservative approach to social life, in which government becomes a barrier against any change to the political and socioeconomic hierarchy that might result from individual competition. However, while individualism and traditionalism generally reinforce a conservative political environment, they can also exist in uncomfortable tension with one another. For whereas the individualistic thread in Texas culture stresses individual freedom from government intrusion, the traditionalistic thread can foster the government's promotion of particular moral values upon those very same individuals. In the case of such conflicts, which value trumps?
At their most extreme, individualism and traditionalism blend with a philosophy of social Darwinism, a belief in survival of the fittest—absent governmental interference, those who rise to the top deserve it, and those who fall to the bottom also deserve it. It is not the government's responsibility to pick them up. Social Darwinists believe that poverty results from natural selection and is therefore not something to be fixed by government. With individual opportunity comes individual responsibility, a sentiment captured in the expression urging a person to "pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps"...a very Texan way of putting it.

However, there is also a strong populist streak in Texas political culture that believes government power should be used to protect individuals from exploitation by powerful corporations, excessive wealth, or government itself. This populist streak sometimes mixes with liberalism, which endorses government intervention as a welcome force in society. Populism and liberalism are real parts of Texas political culture that influence the state's government and politics, but they have typically remained subordinate to the dominant conservative political culture rooted in individualism and traditionalism. 

Leave Me Alone Chili

bowl of chiliPolitical culture, like bowls of chili, are not homogeneous throughout the United States, (e.g., true Texans do not put beans in their chili). For example, there is a bowl of moralistic political culture popular in the northern portion of the United States, in which the government is the primary ingredient for promoting the public welfare and using its authority to improve the social and economic well-being of it citizens. Or, if you live in the central part of the nation, you may prefer a bowl of individualistic political culture. This recipe cuts down on government involvement in citizens’ private activities and is heavy on the importance of individual and private initiatives. Residents in the southern tier of states from the East coast to New Mexico relish the traditionalist political culture. In this culture, government acts as a preservative; keeping traditions and the existing social order safe from change. Only top chefs from established families or influential social groups should make this chili.

Texas has its own unique bowl of political culture. It combines a mixture of traditionalistic and individualistic ingredients with a dash of the Old South and the frontier experience. This activity focuses on how the ingredients that make up Texas political culture are reflected in its public policies and practices.

Virtual Roundtable

Texas political culture combines the conservatism of the South with the individualism of a frontier state. Both contribute to a philosophy concerning government that "less is more." Does Texas political culture help or hinder state government when facing the challenges of the 21st century?

Elise Hu, Journalist & Political Reporter, Austin, TX


Jonathan Neerman, Former Chairman (2008-2011) Dallas County Republican Party.


Jim Hightower, Populist & Political Commentator, Texas Agricultural Commissioner (1982-1991)


Allan Saxe, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington


Jessica Lavariega Monforti, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Texas – Pan American


Additional Resources


Texas Almanac
“The source for all things Texas since 1857.” Portions of this annual compilation are available for free online, including information on state and local government, regional demographics, educational and environmental issues.


Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.
This 1985 Pulitzer prize-winning novel tells the story of several retired Texas Rangers and their adventures driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. The book was later made into an award-winning television miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.


Giant (1956), directed George Stevens.
Rock Hudson stars as the confident, stubborn young ranch baron Bick Benedict, who weds Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), an eastern socialite, and moves her to his sprawling West Texas cattle ranch. Also stars James Dean as Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes it rich in oil, the new commodity in Texas. Adapted from Edna Ferber's classic novel, director George Stevens won his second Oscar for this ambitious epic of the changing socioeconomic and physical landscape of modern Texas.