Texas Pays the Price of the Culture War

Texans stay warm by an open fire
Tamir Kalifa / The New York Times / Redux

SAN ANTONIO—The power gave out last Monday night. When we woke up on Tuesday morning, the temperature in the house was dipping below 50 degrees. We bundled our toddler in her warm jammies and tiny bubble coat. The gas and water were still on, so we huddled in front of the stove, boiling water for tea, hoping to raise the temperature a bit.

We were among the millions of Texans who lost power when a massive winter storm brought the temperature down to the single digits. In Houston, a woman and child accidentally suffocated themselves with carbon monoxide trying to stay warm in their car. Two people in Austin died in a fire that likely resulted from an attempt to stay warm. Here in San Antonio, a man in his 70s was found dead, apparently from exposure. Many Texans were without power, water, or both for days, left to choose between the risk of contracting COVID-19 at a shelter and the danger of freezing in their home.

I consider us fortunate. The second night, after the power went out again, we were sleeping with our daughter between us to make sure she stayed warm. We awoke to a soft roar, like the inside of a seashell, and realized that our pipes had burst and the nearby bathroom was filling with water. My wife woke up first and turned the water off before our home flooded. Our roof did not collapse. Our home did not catch fire and burn down, as nearby firefighters struggled with empty fire hydrants. We did not run out of food. We were lucky.

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Nevertheless, as I stood in front of the heating element that morning, waiting for water to boil, I couldn’t help thinking: This is all so incredibly stupid.

The crisis in Texas was preceded by more than a decade of Republican control of state government, as politicians focused on culture-war grievances rather than the nuts and bolts of governance. After the near collapse of the power grid exposed its failures, the state’s political leadership attempted to cover for those failures by doubling down on those same grievances.

None of this had to happen. In the dry language of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Texas, which maintains its own grid to avoid federal regulation, was hit with a cold-weather event “unusually severe in terms of temperature, wind, and duration.” This forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, to resort to “system-wide rolling blackouts to prevent more widespread customer outages.” Unfortunately, “generators and natural gas producers suffered severe losses of capacity despite having received accurate forecasts of the storm.” ERCOT had reserves in anticipation of the storm, but those “reserves proved insufficient” once the cold hit. Many generators had “failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment.”

That description of the cascading failures of Texas’s power grid is not from the past week. It is actually taken from a 2011 report from FERC, investigating an outage during a prior cold snap. The report recommended that “all entities responsible for the reliability of the bulk power system in the Southwest prepare for the winter season with the same sense of urgency and priority as they prepare for the summer peak season.”

Texas officials didn’t feel like doing all that. As The Texas Tribune reports, the state legislature failed to act. Instead of imposing new regulations or mandates, ERCOT issued a set of voluntary “best practices.” Actually winterizing the entire system would have been expensive. The energy companies didn’t want to spend money they did not have to spend, and the politicians whose campaigns they finance didn’t want to make them do it either.

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas during the 2011 storm, recently told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” It’s possible that the freezing cold and rolling blackouts in 2011 didn’t make more of an impact on Perry because he was in California at the time for an event honoring Ronald Reagan, setting himself up for a failed 2012 GOP primary run for president. (Perry was a bad debater and insufficiently callous toward undocumented immigrants.)

I doubt that “We’d freeze to death to own the libs” is a popular sentiment in Texas, but drawing that impression is easy if you’re outside the state, listening to its Republican officials.

As the journalist Brian Kahn noted on Twitter, when California was struggling with much smaller blackouts in late 2020, ambitious Texas Republicans were sneering at the state on social media. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said, “This is what happens when the Democrats are left in charge,” while Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced, “California’s politicians did this, not the heat.” U.S. Representative Dan Crenshaw joked, “Alexa, show me what happens when you let Democrats control energy policy.” And U.S. Senator Ted Cruz said that California “is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity.” Last week, Cruz jetted off to Cancún with his family while his constituents were burning their children’s toys for warmth.

Texas politicians were so interested in California’s struggles last year because California is an easy conservative shorthand for liberalism, and what ambitious Republicans have discerned from the success of Donald Trump is that the best way to attract conservative support is to show that they, too, enjoy it when liberals suffer. Texas has trended blue in recent years, but the Texas GOP remains ruthlessly competent at the work of winning elections even as it fails at governing. That absence of political competition breeds complacency.

Ideally in a democracy, when politicians govern poorly, the voters punish them for it. Real life is obviously more complicated, and politicians who fail at their duties aren’t held accountable for all sorts of reasons. But in the contemporary Republican Party, governance has taken a back seat to waging the culture war. Whether you are a competent public official who serves your constituents well matters less than your ability to illustrate your contempt for the rival party’s constituency in word and deed.

Democrats have their own symbolic politics they use to win the allegiance of their constituents while avoiding or failing at their actual duties—witness New York Governor Andrew Cuomo playing tough guy with Trump but failing to protect elderly New Yorkers in nursing homes from COVID-19, or the San Francisco school board’s obsession with renaming schools rather than focusing on reopening them safely.

But these dynamics are not equivalent—Democrats need a broader ideological coalition to prevail, so they cannot as readily engage in elaborate gestures of contempt for conservatives the way Republicans do toward liberals. California’s Democratic senators and state officials did not take to social media to mock Texans as they froze—Governor Gavin Newsom urged his followers on Twitter to donate and “lend a hand to folks in Texas.”

The elevation of this symbolic politics over competence has had a devastating effect on actual governance in Texas, a state that has been under Republican control since the 1990s. If politicians can win and exercise power simply through expressions of contempt for others, then they have no need to govern well, as the tenure of Texas Governor Greg Abbott makes abundantly clear. Filing expensive lawsuits that kick people off Medicaid in order to stick it to Barack Obama, signing laws defending Chick-fil-A, allowing state-funded adoption agencies to refuse services to same-sex couples—this is the stuff that gets you on Fox News, not attending to prosaic duties such as making sure your state’s utilities will function properly under emergency conditions.

Abbott and other Texas Republicans have attempted to blame the power failures on the state’s reliance on wind power, even though wind provides a smaller percentage of energy for the state than natural gas, and natural-gas generators were no less incapacitated by the cold than wind turbines were. Abbott went on Fox News to announce that the storm “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”

The actual issue, as Abbott has now acknowledged, was the failure to winterize the system despite a decade of advance warning; both wind- and thermal-power sources can operate in frigid conditions when they are prepared to do so. Blaming wind power or the Green New Deal translates a failure of governance into a matter of partisan political identity, allowing Abbott’s conservative supporters to blame liberals for power failures in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since The Lion King was in movie theaters.

Other states have had difficulties with their power grid, but that doesn’t mean those problems all have the same causes. The rolling disaster in Texas is easily attributable to more than a decade of Republican Party rule. Texans in certain parts of the state are facing astronomical electricity bills because then-Governor George W. Bush deregulated the state’s electric system. Neither Perry, nor his successor, Abbott, heeded the warnings from FERC a decade ago.

Being a governor is different from being a federal legislator these days, in that the former still tends to understand that they have actual responsibilities besides posturing. To his credit, Abbott is now calling for the energy grid to be winterized and is meeting with Democrats in the state legislature to help Texans hit with thousands of dollars in electric bills, saying the state has a “responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages.” With the generous aid of the federal government, naturally.

No free-market fundamentalists in freezing foxholes, I guess. But if your party produced years of deregulation and misgovernance that led to a deadly disaster in your state, you might want to change the subject to wind power too.

Waging the culture war didn’t keep the lights on in Texas, but it might keep ambitious Republican failures in office. If politicians don’t fear being punished for not doing their jobs, they won’t do them.