Texas in the first two decades of the twenty-first century has been a story of three major trends: dramatic demographic change, a diversifying and maturing economy, and a political system that has struggled to adjust to both. Between 2000 and 2019, the population of the state added more than eight million people, from 20.9 million to 29 million, for a staggering growth rate of almost 40 percent, more any other state. About half of the growth came from natural increase—Texas had one of the highest birth rates of any state—and the other half came from immigration. Of those immigrants, a majority came from other U.S. states, although in certain years (2017–18, for instance), international arrivals outnumbered domestic immigrants. This population growth had far-reaching effects on nearly every aspect of life in the state.
The most significant demographic change was the growth of the Hispanic population. By 2019 the percentage of Texans who identified as Hispanic or Latino was 39.7 percent, up from 32 percent in 2000. This made them the largest ethnic or racial minority in the state, followed by 12.9 percent Black or African American, 5.2 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian. As early as 2005 Texas became a so-called “majority-minority” state, meaning that the ethnic and racial minority population outnumbered Whites (who in Texas are often referred to as Anglos) and comprised 41.2 percent of the population in 2019. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mexican Americans are projected to surpass Anglos as the single largest group in the state as soon as 2022. The number of Hispanics who were undocumented was estimated in 2016 at 1 million. Texas was often at the heart of the challenges posed by illegal immigration and the debate regarding border enforcement, the distribution of state services, sanctuary cities, and the economic, public health, and social costs of drug trafficking and human trafficking.
Because Hispanic birth rates during the first two decades of the twenty-first century were substantially higher than those of Anglos and African Americans (Hispanic births outpaced non-Hispanic Whites 188,980 to 133,431, respectively, in 2010; Blacks had a total of 44,519 for that year), the growth of the Hispanic population kept the average age (approximately thirty-five years old) of Texans among the lowest in the nation, more than three years below the national average. That figure was only partially offset by the arrival of many retirees to the state, often northerners seeking a warmer climate and lower cost of living. The numbers of older Texans were further augmented by the part-time resident retirees (often called “snowbirds”) who spent their winters in South Texas. Life expectancy continued its twentieth-century pattern of rising over time and reached 78.5 years on average by 2019, up from 76.8 in 2001, further contributing to the numbers of elderly people. Moreover, the large population of Baby Boomers—usually defined as those born from 1946 to 1964—began adding their considerable numbers to the ranks of the aging and the elderly. The result of these age-related growth patterns was that Texas by 2020 was characterized by a larger percentage Hispanic population of young people (Hispanics made up almost 50 percent of the population age eighteen and younger by 2020) and a larger percentage of Anglo elderly population (more than 60 percent of the population age sixty-five and older was non-Hispanic White by 2020). As the twenty-first century unfolded, then, Texas faced the challenge of meeting the needs of disparate groups and interests—the need for more health care for the aging population and providing expanded educational opportunities and vocational training for the younger population—and balancing viewpoints and policies regarding low taxes and less government versus calls for more state services and more revenue. Those in their prime working years needed good-paying jobs that would help them support their young children and aging parents and that would produce tax revenue for the state.
Fortunately for Texans, the state’s economy in the twenty-first century experienced several important changes that helped Texas, at least in part, deal with these challenges. The most important trend was the state’s move away from its historical dependence on agriculture and the oil and gas industry and the expansion of such fields as health care and social services; education; professional, scientific, and high tech services; and, for a number of regions, the tourism and hospitality industry. For that large majority of Texans who worked in the non-farm economy, their working lives increasingly resembled those of other Americans. By 2020, 18 percent of these people worked in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector. Education and health services accounted for 11 percent, while approximately 18 percent worked in professional and business services, 9 percent in financial activities, and 4 percent in leisure and hospitality. Of the non-agricultural jobs, 15 percent were classified as goods-producing and 85 percent were classified as service-providing. In other words, Texas, like the nation, had largely transitioned to a service economy. Manufacturing accounted for just under 10 percent of non-farm jobs, with construction comprising another approximately 7 percent. The private sector made up approximately 86 percent of all jobs in Texas, while the government sector accounted for just less than 14 percent. Texas Workforce Commission employment projections through the 2020s identified the professional, scientific, and technical services industry with the highest job growth at a rate of more than 23 percent, followed closely by the health care and social assistance industries at almost 21 percent. Other occupational growth projections included construction (16 percent); mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (almost 13 percent); transportation and warehousing (almost 12 percent); and educational services (10 percent). Overall, employment in Texas in the 2020s was projected to increase by almost 13 percent.
During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the trend towards urbanization and away from agriculture in Texas continued. By 2019 fewer than 3 percent of Texans directly earned their living from agriculture, in contrast, for example, to 1940 when 23 percent of Texans were directly connected with agricultural production. Agribusiness in Texas, however, still held a position of prominence, as Texas ranked third in the nation (behind California and Iowa, respectively) for market value of agricultural products sold and was the number one producer of cattle, sheep, goats, and cotton. In 2019 agriculture contributed more than $21 billion (in cash receipts) to the state’s economy. From 2002 to 2017 the number of farms in Texas actually increased (from 228,926 to 248,416), but the average size decreased (from 567 acres to 511 acres). The estimated market value of land per acre and machinery and equipment, however, more than doubled in that time. From 2002 to 2017 there was a significant increase in the number of small farms (fifty acres or less), many operated by part-time farmers. Technological advancement made farm work more efficient and eliminated many tasks formerly performed by human labor. Many farms and ranches augmented their income by expanding land use for recreation and ecotourism and implemented wildlife management programs. One such program, the Managed Lands Deer Program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, worked with landowners for the stewardship of wildlife and wildlife habitat. Such programs ultimately helped generate significant money for farmers and ranchers, as hunting lease income was estimated to be $697 million in 2018.
Oil and gas remained important to Texas, but its role in the economy had changed. In 1988 Alaska had briefly passed Texas as the nation’s leading producer of oil and gas, although Texas regained its first-place ranking in the 1990s. Still, at the beginning of the new century, crude oil and natural gas production comprised only about 4 percent of the state’s gross economic output. During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, oil prices continued their historical pattern of boom and bust. The price per barrel, at approximately $30 average closing price in 2000, stayed within a few dollars of that figure to 2004, when average closing prices steadily increased from about $41 (2004) up to $99 (2008). Mid-2008 saw prices per barrel reach as high as $145. That same year, the economic crisis that hit the nation drove prices as low as $30 by the end of 2008, only to see them rebound to $81 in 2009. They briefly dipped below $30 again in 2016 before recovering a high of $77 in 2018, only to see them collapse to a low of less than $12 during the global pandemic of 2020.
Despite this volatility, production grew dramatically in the first two decades of the century, driven by two factors. First, massive new reserves were discovered, particularly the Eagle Ford Shale in Central Texas and the Barnett Shale in North Texas. Second, new technologies made it feasible for the first time to recover oil and gas in commercially viable quantities from these new fields and from older ones such as the massive Permian Basin in West Texas. The combination of horizontal drilling and improved methods of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) which was developed by pioneering engineer and wildcatter George P. Mitchell throughout the 1980s and 1990s, produced the greatest boom in drilling since the early 1980s. By 2020, for example, the Permian Basin accounted for almost 40 percent of all U. S. oil production and 15 percent of all U. S. natural gas production. The new technologies and resulting abundance of oil and gas, which had been regarded as a dwindling resource in the late twentieth century, transformed the nation’s industrial landscape in the early twenty-first century so that by the end of the 2010s the United States, with prolific domestic production and export, achieved greater energy security from disruptions in foreign oil and gas markets.
The difference between the twenty-first-century oil boom and that of the 1970s and 1980s is that the new boom complemented an economy that had already matured and diversified rather than preventing it from maturing and diversifying. Oil and gas now helped Texas weather national economic downturns—most notably the Great Recession of 2008–09—but when the oil industry itself took one of its periodic dives, it was not the economic disaster for the state that oil “busts” had traditionally been. In 2018 oil and gas extraction only accounted for 1.5 percent of all Texas jobs; by contrast, 11 percent of the state’s jobs were in the healthcare sector, with huge, state-of-the-art medical centers such as the Texas Medical Center in Houston and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas leading the way. By the 2010s Texas had also become a major national hub for high-tech industries, with older companies like Dell Technologies (headquartered in Austin) and AT&T (headquartered in Dallas) being joined by thousands of start-ups. By 2017 the tech sector accounted for 7.2 percent of the overall Texas economy, employing nearly 600,000 workers. The epicenter of the high-tech boom was Austin, which in 2016 boasted nearly 5,000 tech businesses with more than 113,000 employees. By 2020 a significant number of high-profile tech businesses had relocated or announced their relocation to Texas (most came from Silicon Valley in California). Hewlett Packard Enterprise moved its corporate headquarters to the Houston area. Oracle software company relocated its headquarters to Austin. Apple announced the construction of a $1 billion campus in north Austin. Tesla, Inc., founder, Elon Musk (who personally moved to Texas), began construction of a 7.9-million-square-foot Gigafactory for batteries and components for Tesla electric vehicles outside of Austin, and he built the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) facility at Boca Chica on the Texas Gulf Coast. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, with his rival aerospace company, Blue Origin, established his own base of launch operations near the town of Van Horn in West Texas.
The diversification of the state’s economy also manifested itself in the development of the renewable energy industry. By 2019 the state led the nation in wind capacity and generation and had 25 percent of the nation’s wind capacity. From 2000 to 2020 Texas saw a rapid expansion of wind farms, particularly on the Texas plains and along the Gulf Coast. In the 2010s solar power installation rose dramatically for utilities and, to a lesser extent, residential use. Even though solar energy made up less than 3 percent of the state’s electricity generation, Texas still ranked second in the United States in solar energy generation in 2020.
The prosperity that the state enjoyed in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, however, was uneven. Although Texas briefly surpassed the national average in per capita income back in 1981 (fueled by the oil boom of that period), it soon lagged behind, a position that it still occupied in 2016, when the average Texan made about $5,000 less per year than the national average. The most striking disparities were between Texans in the major urban centers versus those in rural areas and along the Mexican border; in 2017 the per capita income in Dallas-Fort Worth was $51,099, whereas in the heavily Hispanic McAllen-Edinburgh-Mission area in the Rio Grande Valley the figure was $24,805. In the mid-2010s, 16 percent of Texans lived in poverty, one in seven lacked health insurance, and the state ranked forty-first in per capital expenditures for health care and in the number of doctors per person. The state ranked fortieth in public-education spending per student and forty-ninth in the percentage of residents having at least a high school diploma.
By virtually all statistical measures of social, physical, and economic well-being, people of color fared far worse than Anglos. In 2016 the high school dropout rate was 9.1 percent for African Americans, 7.5 percent for Hispanics, and 3.4 percent for Whites. Nineteen percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of Blacks, and 8 percent of Whites lived in poverty. Fifty-six percent of Whites reported that they were in good health, compared to 33 percent for Hispanics and 43 percent for Blacks. Forty-seven percent of Black adults were obese, compared to 36 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of Whites. The Black infant mortality rate was double that of Anglos and Hispanics. One-third of non-elderly Hispanics had no health insurance, compared to 14 percent of Blacks and 10 percent of Whites.
A political system controlled by White Republicans—only 4 percent of GOP state legislators were people of color in 2019—often proved unable or unwilling to shape public policies in ways that would address such disparities. Indeed, even as the Texas economy modernized, by many measures its political system lagged behind, seemingly locked in a pattern which, in many respects, resembled the conservative, one-party configuration of the mid-twentieth century. In the final decades of the twentieth century, a conservative exodus from the Democratic party into the Republican party had, for a brief moment, made Texas a two-party state. In five consecutive gubernatorial races from 1978 through 1994, the party in power lost to the opposing party. But the victory of George W. Bush in 1994 signaled an end to that competitive era. By 2002 Republicans controlled the governor’s office, both houses of the legislature, and all eighteen judges of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. As the new century continued, Democrats were increasingly concentrated in the major urban areas, heavily dependent on Hispanic and African American voters for what power the party managed to maintain.
Leading the Republicans was James Richard “Rick” Perry, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican from West Texas who had worked his way up the political ladder from state legislator to agriculture commissioner to lieutenant governor, ascending to the governorship when George W. Bush resigned the office to become U.S. president in 2001. Perry went on to win election three times in his own right, serving fourteen years as the state’s chief executive, the longest tenure in Texas history. Perry shrewdly anticipated the state GOP’s turn rightward, and he both rode the swelling tide of conservatism and did his part aggressively to promote its agenda. Aligning himself with social and religious conservatives early in his tenure, he successfully pushed for new restrictions on abortion, expanded gun rights, and legislation hostile to gays and lesbians. Later, his fiscal views comported well with the Tea party movement, which vocally opposed tax increases, fought to limit state expenditures for health care and education, opposed government interference in the private sector, and sought to crack down on illegal immigration.
Historically, the two parties had often found ways to cooperate in Austin, with leaders like longtime Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock making common cause with Republicans like Governor George W. Bush, to reach agreements on issues such as criminal justice reform and education funding. But the poisoning of the bipartisan well began in earnest in 2003, when Republicans in the legislature announced plans for an unprecedented mid-decade effort to redraw congressional districts. Masterminded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugarland, the plan so infuriated Democrats that some fifty of that party’s House members, soon dubbed the “Killer D’s,” secretly fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to deny the Republicans a quorum and kill the bill. Subsequently, when Governor Perry called a special session to try again, eleven state senators fled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a similar effort to defeat the bill. Finally, in a third session, the Republicans succeeded in redrawing the districts, and in the next elections the GOP flipped six formerly Democratic U.S. House seats, completing the Republican takeover of the Texas congressional delegation.
Republicans, however, soon found that governing in such a polarized environment was harder than winning elections. One issue that continued to bedevil state lawmakers was public education. For years the state’s system of funding education—primarily through local property taxes, augmented by biennial appropriations from the legislature—had faced scrutiny from the courts, largely because the system resulted in vast differentials in the quality of education for rich and poor districts. In 2005 lawmakers squabbled through the regular session and three special sessions without passing a school-funding bill. Democrats pointed out that Republicans would not fund education but found time to pass a bill banning gay marriage, and criticism of the legislature mounted. Finally, in 2006 the legislature passed a funding bill that gained court approval, but dissatisfaction with the state government’s performance had grown to the point that in the fall elections, Rick Perry faced a Republican primary opponent in the person of State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Entertainer Richard “Kinky” Friedman soon announced his independent candidacy with the campaign slogan, “How hard could it be?,” and the Democrats nominated former congressman Chris Bell, who had lost his seat in the DeLay-engineered gerrymander. In the contentious election, Perry fought off his three challengers and won with 39 percent of the vote, but Democrats cut the GOP majority in the state House in half, a trend that continued in the 2008 elections, when further Democratic gains reduced the Republican majority in the House to just two seats. Democrats were heartened, but Texas remained a conservative, Republican state. In the 2004 presidential race, Texas voters had given George W. Bush a lopsided 61 to 38 percent victory over Democrat John Kerry. Four years later, without the popular Texan on the ticket, Republican John McCain still notched a comfortable eleven-point win over Democrat Barack Obama and carried the state by a margin of 55 to 44. In politics at the state level, the most significant achievement that Democrats could point to was the defeat in 2009 of conservative Republican House speaker Tom Craddick by a GOP moderate, Joe Straus, whose election was made possible only by a combination of Republican and Democratic votes.
Meanwhile, in the waning months of the Bush presidency, the national economy plunged into the economic crisis that became known as the Great Recession. Only with the help of $12 billion in federal stimulus funds were legislators able to avoid a tax increase (which almost all Republicans had taken a vow never to support). A conservative backlash against the new Obama Administration fueled the rise of the Tea party, which was particularly strong in Texas. In the 2010 elections, with the economy beginning to improve, the Republicans made sweeping gains in the legislature and ultimately achieved a supermajority in the Texas House with 101 Republicans to 49 Democrats. The Texas Senate had nineteen Republicans and twelve Democrats.
Riding the Tea party wave, Rick Perry easily beat back a Republican primary challenge from moderate U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and went on to beat Democrat Bill White, a former mayor of Houston, with 60 percent of the vote. Bolstered by these developments, in the 2011 legislative session, Republicans closed a $23 billion budget shortfall by cutting $4 billion from public education and $2 billion from higher education and eliminating 5,700 state jobs. Complicated accounting maneuvers allowed them to defer certain Medicaid payments to a later date and enabled the legislature to finally meet the constitutionally-mandated balanced state budget without raising taxes. As Republicans took the ax to state programs—actions applauded by their Tea party base—they also found time to pursue several items on the conservative social agenda, passing a long-sought-after voter I.D. law and drawing new Republican-friendly congressional and legislative district maps.
As the economic shocks from the Great Recession receded, the Tea party-fueled dominance of Texas Republicans showed few signs of abating. In 2012 former state solicitor general Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz, a Tea party favorite who had never held elected office, handily defeated the conservative, longtime Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst for the U.S. Senate. Although the Tea party was ostensibly a movement for fiscal conservatism, in Texas the overlap between fiscal and social conservatives was such that any differences were hard to see. In the 2013 legislature, the Perry Administration championed a bill that banned abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy and placed such strict requirements on abortion clinics that it would have caused most clinics in the state to close. State Senator Wendy Davis became a hero to liberals when she mounted a dramatic all-night filibuster that temporarily killed the bill, but the Republicans triumphed in the end, passing the bill in a subsequent special session. Perhaps more significant for the overall healthcare situation in the state was Republicans’ success in refusing to expand Medicaid in the state under the terms of the federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, despite the fact that the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of the program. By 2018, 2.5 million Texans who would have been covered under the program lacked healthcare, and experts estimated that over the ensuing decade the state would forego $66 billion in federal funds that it would have received under the program.
When Rick Perry declined to run for a fourth elected term as governor in 2014, his place was taken by the Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, who ran with only token opposition in the primary. In the general election, he defeated Democrat Wendy Davis by nineteen points. Although Abbott was a staunch conservative, his election in some ways was overshadowed by the election of a new lieutenant governor, former radio talk show host Dan Patrick, a favorite of Tea partiers and religious conservatives alike. Now holding its largest-ever majority in the Senate and two-third of the seats in the House, the new legislature, with a fresh infusion of Tea party-backed members, set out to enact an ambitious agenda. In the 2015 session Republicans succeeded in cutting the business franchise tax by 25 percent and gave homeowners a modest property-tax cut. Social conservatives made their clout felt by securing bills allowing the “open carry” of firearms for those with concealed-carry licenses and for the carrying of guns on college campuses.
With conservatives more entrenched than ever in Austin, two Texans eyed the presidency in 2016. Rick Perry, who had already run unsuccessfully in 2012, and Senator Ted Cruz both entered the crowded GOP primary field. Perry’s candidacy soon faltered, but Cruz stayed in the race until the end and eventually lost to Donald Trump. Trump proved popular with Texas Republicans and easily defeated Hillary Clinton in Texas by nine points. The firebrand lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who had chaired Trump’s campaign in Texas, soon announced his agenda for the 2017 legislative session, including an anti-immigrant bill banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” further restrictions on abortions, and a “bathroom bill” that would restrict the use of public restrooms by transgender people. Abetted by the moderate Republican House speaker Joe Straus and his allies, Democrats succeeded in defeating the bathroom bill, but the rest of the conservative agenda passed. Meanwhile, Trump’s Administration energized Democrats, who in the 2018 elections managed to pick up two state Senate seats, twelve state House seats, and two congressional seats. Most heartening of all to Democrats was the race of former El Paso congressman Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, who raised a record $80 million in his longshot race for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz. O’Rourke lost by only 2.6 points, allowing many Democrats to believe that the long-predicted transformation of Texas into a competitive state was around the corner. Their hopes, however, proved mistaken when, in 2020, Republicans again swept the state. Democrats made no gains in the legislature or Congress, and Donald Trump won Texas 52 percent to Democrat Joe Biden’s 46 percent. Democrats’ only real consolation was their victories in the state’s major metropolitan areas, as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and, by a narrow margin, Fort Worth were now in the Democratic column.
The ascendance of Donald Trump brought hard-right cultural issues to the forefront of Republican politics more than ever, and as governor, Greg Abbott tacked to the political right to ride the Trumpian culture-war wave. He staunchly advocated border security and increased funding to the Texas Department of Public Safety for manpower and surveillance technology. Having signed the sanctuary cities ban into law in 2017, in 2021 he pledged to arrest all migrants illegally crossing into the state, a move that brought criticism from opponents who stressed immigration policy as a point of federal authority, as did his announcement to provide funding for Texas to build its own border wall, an echo of security measures begun by the Trump Administration.
Abbott’s strong position against abortion helped propel further restrictive state legislation, including banning counties and cities from contracting with abortion providers, imposing penalties on doctors who do not give medical treatment to “babies born alive after failed abortion attempts,” and signing a bill that banned abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. In late 2021 he supported a highly controversial law that sought to circumvent Roe v. Wade (1973) by empowering ordinary citizens to sue anyone who received, or who aided and abetted, an abortion.
Abbott’s affinity for causes championed by Christian conservatives did not stop with abortion or immigration. Early in his tenure, he signed the Pastor Protection Act that allowed clergy the right to refuse performing a marriage that would “cause the organization or individual to violate a sincerely held religious belief,” a move that drew heavy criticism from LGBTQ groups who viewed the measure as an attack on same-sex marriage. In the field of education, Abbott supported school choice, which he called a “civil rights issue,” and the use of school vouchers to aid parents in opting for private, charter, or parochial schools rather than public schools.
The triumph of conservatism in early twenty-first-century Texas was in many ways unsurprising, given the state’s long history of valuing rugged individualism. Extending back as least as far as the Republic of Texas, the mostly White, mostly conservative, mostly male people who ruled the state believed that the best way to insure the collective good was to guarantee the widest possible liberties for individuals. Events have frequently challenged this credo, including several notable ones in the first two decades of the new century.
The national recessions of 2000–01, 2008–09, and the economic dislocations associated with the pandemic of 2020–22 all reminded Texans of how intertwined the state’s economy was with the national and even global economy. In all three instances, a complex, modern state was ill-equipped to respond to the exigencies of the times, hamstrung by an unwieldy constitution written by ex-Confederates in 1876 that severely limited the power of the state to respond to an emergency. Other disasters, both man-made and natural, further underscored the limits of the individualistic, libertarian philosophy that has prevailed in the state. When the giant Houston-based energy-trading company Enron spectacularly collapsed in 2001, with its four top executives convicted on felony fraud charges, the state lost 4,000 good-paying jobs, and the state budget suffered accordingly. In 2017 the worst natural disaster (in economic terms) to ever hit the state occurred when Hurricane Harvey, a Category 3 storm, blew ashore near Rockport. After devastating that area, it moved slowly up the Texas coast to the Houston area, where it dumped two feet of rain in twenty-four hours. Two outdated, substandard reservoirs failed to contain their waters, and an astonishing 70 percent of Harris County was underwater at one point. Relatively few lives were lost, but more than 300,000 structures and half a million cars were flooded, and the cost to the state was an estimated $125 billion. Near-universal scientific consensus asserts that man-made climate change has made storms like Harvey much more frequent and severe, but large numbers of Texans disputed their findings, with predictable results when expensive plans to mitigate the effects of such disasters were proposed.
Hurricane Harvey’s destructive effects were rivaled by Winter Storm Uri, a record-shattering cold wave that hit the entire state in February 2021. Much of state saw temperatures well below freezing for five straight days and nights. Ninety percent of the state’s power comes from one electric grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Sixty-nine percent of Texans lost power at some point during the freeze, and nearly half suffered disruptions in their water supply. The storm directly or indirectly caused more than 200 deaths, and the Federal Reserve calculated Uri’s cost at between $80 and $130 billion. Critics were quick to blame the catastrophic failure of the state’s electric grid on the deregulation of the utility sector, a cause championed by free market conservatives in the early twenty-first century, and upon the GOP-controlled Public Utility Commission and ERCOT, whose board is appointed by the governor. The storm provided political fodder for Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke, who announced his candidacy for the 2022 gubernatorial race and promised to make the alleged mismanagement of the grid by Republicans a key focus of his race.
Other twenty-first-century problems have likewise defied easy solutions. The phenomenon of mass shootings in Texas went back at least as far as the University of Texas Tower Shooting in 1966, but in the twenty-first century the frequency and deadliness of the incidents accelerated. Among the worst incidents were a shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 that claimed fourteen victims; a church shooting in 2017 in Sutherland Springs that took twenty-seven lives; a high school shooting in 2018 at Santa Fe that killed ten; and a 2019 massacre at an El Paso Wal-Mart that killed twenty-three. The shootings sparked what became a familiar pattern. Gun-control advocates blamed gun laws and called for stricter controls, particularly on assault-style weapons. Gun-rights advocates protested that the immediate aftermath of a tragic shooting was not the time for such discussions, and when emotions had cooled, they reiterated their long-held position that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun was a good guy with a gun.
Another modern debate that too often became a point of partisan division was environmental policy. With rare exceptions, Republicans opposed—and Democrats supported— stricter regulations intended to protect air and water quality or the protection of wildlife. The Perry Administration particularly worked to prevent the closure of coal-fired power plants and devised a “flexible permitting” system that allowed older plants to continue operating as long as they were grouped with newer ones. Between 2008 and 2017 the state sued the federal government sixteen times, seeking to water down or nullify federally mandated air-quality regulations. The state compiled a slightly better record of conserving groundwater resources and negotiated a 2011 plan that helped to preserve the threatened Edwards Aquifer, but efforts to curb the practice of “fracking” met with little success, with the legislature actually passing legislation in 2015 preventing municipalities from regulating the procedure. According to 2017 figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas ranked fortieth among the states with the worst pollution.
Two decades into the twenty-first century, then, the question of whether Texas would change to meet the needs of a modern, diverse, economically interdependent society remained an open question. In 2020, two events served to underscore the challenges to realizing this goal. The first event was the nationwide protests sparked by a series of killings of African Americans by police, particularly the death of a former Houstonian, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. Over the space of several weeks in mid-2020, tens of thousands of Texans marched in cities and towns throughout the state protesting police brutality and calling for a more general racial reckoning in the state and nation. Calls for reforms in policing soon expanded to include demands for the end of mass incarceration and the removal of Confederate monuments. To an extent rarely seen in past civil rights protests in Texas, the ranks of the protesters included people of all races and walks of life. Many on the political right denounced the protesters as troublemaking socialists or criminals, and the backlash against the protests may have helped fuel the larger-than-expected victory of Republicans in the state elections of November 2020.
The second event was the global coronavirus pandemic that struck in early 2020. The pandemic highlighted the continuing divide between those Texans wed to an individualist, libertarian mindset and those who thought otherwise. When the pandemic hit, Governor Greg Abbott, heeding federal directives, instituted a partial shutdown of businesses, churches, and schools, and mandated the wearing of facemasks in public to control the virus’s spread. He was soon the target of blistering attacks and widespread civil disobedience from those who believed the restrictions to be an unacceptable violation of individual liberties. In response, in 2021 Abbott reversed course, banning shutdowns and vaccination and mask mandates. By the end of 2021 more than 4.7 million Texans had contracted the virus, and more than 75,000 had died. In the process, vaccines and masks became cultural markers, further dividing Texans along partisan and ideological lines.
The end of the first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a Texas seriously divided along ideological, partisan, religious, racial, and urban-rural lines, and it remained an open question whether the forces of change or those seeking to preserve tradition would prevail. One thing is certain: From its earliest times to 2020, the broad sweep of Texas history has revealed the Lone Star State as a place of astonishing diversity. For the first century-and-a-half of that history, this diversity was seldom acknowledged, and the rule of elite Anglo males rarely challenged; the interests of the poor, of women, and of racial and ethnic minorities went mostly ignored. The history of the early twenty-first century, although only barely visible through a lens clouded by the haze of proximity, suggests that the state’s long journey from a frontier society dominated by individualist, elite, White males to a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural democracy is a journey still very much unfinished.