Texas-sized symbols help Obama

Texans like being on the big stage. Just think of Tommy Tune dancing across a Broadway set. Or envision Roger Clemens staring down batters from atop the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium. Even modest Texans like Lyle Lovett insist on having a “large band.” Our inherent cultural fetish for the big and large is making us all a little giddy this week as the Lone Star State assumes its rightful place in the center of the political universe. Texas is playing a star’s role in a huge drama. Even Texas Republicans, bit players in this pageant, are grateful to have such good seats for such a big, big show.

Texas is a good place to start thinking about the role of symbols and symbolism in politics. We’re awash in state symbols, from our distinguished lone star flag to the beloved yellow rose. There’s also armadillos, long necks, oil rigs, cowboys, bluebonnets, the Alamo and the Cotton-Eyed Joe. There are artists and musicians that symbolize the state’s pluck, from Willie Nelson to Van Cliburn. Texans know and love symbols. We enjoy parading our own in the faces of symbolically challenged neighbor states. But, for some reason, the notion of symbolic politics trips us up. We just don’t get it.

A lot of Hillary supporters and Republicans are complaining that Barack Obama is “all hat and no cattle,” to use an old Texas phrase. He’s got a huge ten-gallon speech, we whine, but we’re not sure there’s any real stock in his corral.

Actually we realize that his spread is growing by the minute and we fear it. So we hypocritically accuse him of symbolic speech. But isn’t it a little bogus and downright un-Texan to criticize Obama for manipulating political symbols. He’s just living the “Remember the Alamo” life.

One of the symbols that Obama is manipulating particularly well is the notion of the melting pot. To the surprise of many, this symbolism may be as strong in Texas as anywhere in America. Real Texans have always been more welcoming of different kinds of newcomers than most Americans. Until the last two years, for example, no significant Texas politician tried to exploit anti-Hispanic sentiment. The early “English First” and similar nativist “movements” never got traction in Texas. Since the days of the Alamo, Anglo Texans and Hispanic Tejanos have lived comfortably as friends and neighbors, speaking whatever language they chose. The only palpable tension I have seen in the past few decades over growth in the number and influence of Hispanics comes from the African-American community in Houston, where there is economic competition. And recently, when the national talk-radio stream flooded Texas with anti-immigration messages, there was an uptick in negative sentiment among some Anglos about Hispanics, but it’s still a small crowd.

Obama is also smart to be so optimistic. Texans have always been a positive-thinking lot. Even when the state suffered during the worst of the oil bust years, polls showed that most Texans persisted in seeing their state headed in the “right direction” rather than careening toward the wrong track. Texas is the ultimate “high self-esteem” state that causes its people to believe that good times are always just ahead. Unlike grumbly rust belt states that fixate on bad news, Texas and Texans can find a silver lining in every challenging situation. Just as Texans once warmed to Republican Jack Kemp’s “Hope, Growth and Opportunity” message, they can rally around Obama’s “Yes we can” message.

Rather than faulting Obama’s skillful use of symbols, we that oppose him must figure out our own symbolic messages. The fact that Obama is dead wrong on key issues may not be enough to limit the size of his spread. There are some big reasons to stop Obama now.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.