Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
Is there anything that unites Americans anymore? In a new report from More in Common US, a nonpartisan nonprofit working to strengthen democratic culture, the organization takes a deep dive into the “dramatic shifts and changes” happening in the state of Texas. A year-long investigation into the seemingly divergent views pushing Texans apart, and the shared values and identity that can bring them together, The Threads of Texas offers a roadmap for a more united future.
Texas is a “weathervane for the rest of the country,” said Noelle Malvar, the study’s senior researcher and author. “If we could figure those changes out in Texas, then we could figure them out for the rest of the United States.” While The Threads of Texas is the organization’s first state-focused study, its findings speak to the broader national conversation on big-ticket items like race, immigration, and the economy.
The study finds seven groups of Texans distinguished by their orientation toward change and charts their course. Here, Malvar tells The Progress Network how understanding these groups could help us reframe contentious issues, why even extreme points of view may contribute to a path forward, and how we can use the study’s findings about Texas to “get out of the noise” in our own communities. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You note in the study that by better understanding the differences among Texans, you’re able to better understand the commonalities as well. What key commonalities did you find, and why do they matter?
NM: If you just read the news coming out of Texas, especially now, Texas legislation seems very divisive. Everything seems to be about Democrats versus Republicans. We wanted to veer away from that and really look at what it means to be Texan and what Texans are saying about their identity and their shared values. We found, for example, that more than 80% of Texans say Texas identity is not only about freedom, liberty, equality, but also about helping your neighbors and welcoming diversity. Some of those values might sound contradictory, but Texans hold them all as important to being Texan. It’s this identity beyond just the individual, beyond Democrat versus Republican or black versus white, that we want to leverage and harness.
The five key issues you focused on are race, immigration, education, economy, and democracy. You explain that change is inherent in each of these areas, and that Texas’ future will be shaped by how its citizens respond to those changes. From the data, are there signs that the changes happening now are for the better?
NM: The most salient sign in my mind is immigration. There is a way that Texans can navigate welcoming new commerce and immigrants into the state and make that about being Texan. It’s Texan to have a history of welcoming immigrants and of immigrants building the state and economy. And it’s also Texan to continue that tradition. I think it’s a positive change that Texans are recognizing that there’s something distinct about their identity that allows for welcoming other people and welcoming change itself, instead of being threatened by the shift that’s coming their way.
That applies to race, too. We found that about half of Texans are tired of the Confederate statue issue, and they feel like those statues are symbols of pride and not racism. But, in the same vein, Texans recognize that racism is still a significant problem. So framing racism as a contemporary issue that is contrary to the Texan identity that welcomes diversity is the way to go, instead of harping on about Texan tradition and Texas’ past.
There’s a positive slant to the findings in the sense that if we’re able to frame and describe these ideas around identity, and around preserving this identity that’s welcoming and inclusive, then there is a way forward. And it doesn’t have to be divisive.
The starkest divisions in the study, unsurprisingly, exist at the extremes. You have what you call the Lone Star Progressives at one end and the Heritage Defenders at the other. Their voices tend to get amplified more than the voices of the majority, and this leads to things like the distorted understanding of “the other side” that More in Common looked at in its Perception Gap study. To approach this optimistically, is there some utility in the existence of those extremes? Do they perhaps shine a light on issues that the majority might otherwise overlook?
NM: Well, first of all, on a psychological level, I do feel like there will always be extremes. That’s just how the distribution of society functions. And then, to answer your question, I do think there is utility in having these loud segments, no matter how representative they’re not. Because they bring ideas to the forefront that are significant and have to be discussed. They at least put the conversation on the table. And to your point, I think the extremes illuminate the starkest points of divisions in ways that can be helpful, so that the points of commonality and a shared solution forward can also be made visible.
Is there a better way there?
NM: The quality of the conversation has to change. That’s where the middle comes in. The middle segments are the Texans—the Americans—that are tired of this tone and this rhetoric, and can distinguish that it’s not what they’re experiencing on the ground. I think that elevating their voices, elevating that less combative tone, is one way forward.
Beyond Texas, how might other Americans apply this data to their interactions and their communities?
NM: I think an insight from the Texas report is the same as an insight into American identity. Even at the national level, Americans know—even though it’s not always what we see on Twitter—that there’s more than just a clean split between left-progressive activists and conservatives, and that a lot of shared American values are the same as Texan values. There’s pride in being American. There’s gratitude in being American. There’s this idea that we welcome others, and that our culture is one that grows from learning and welcoming new cultures. We just have to get out of this binary thinking and recognize that there’s a perception gap even among our neighbors. We can learn to perceive others not as being extreme or holding extreme values, but as being more like ourselves, wanting the same things and sharing the same values.
Right now, the significant issues for America are issues of identity: what it means to be American and how that definition is changing too fast for some people and too slow for others. But at the end of it, people just want to keep their identity intact.
You touched on immigration a little already, but one significant finding in your report is that 77% of all Texans in the study agree that the complexity of the immigration system hinders people who are trying to come to the country legally. There were other questions about immigration that had less agreement. But the widespread agreement here is still likely to surprise some people. What other surprising data did you come across?
NM: That sentiment also came out a lot in focus groups, by the way: even with segments like the Heritage Defenders, for example, they recognize that a significant part of the problem with immigration is the system itself. But another statistic that was surprising, and also refreshing, is that most Texans are feeling sort of the same. For example, eight in 10 are exhausted by the division in politics. And then nine in 10, about 87%, are worried that this division will lead to violence. They see the reality for what it is, and they also want something better.
Another surprising finding is that 77% of Texans are not consumed by the political conflict and are frustrated by the divisions they see in politics. While they may hold many different views on issues—racism and immigration, for example—they don’t see everything through a political lens. So the way to talk to them is not through political or policy debate but in terms of what these things mean to them in their lives, and what it means to be Texan.
There are also divisions in regard to what historical lessons should be taught in Texas schools. Considering this, do you think teaching critical race theory and anti-racism curricula—which some argue place greater emphasis on our differences than our similarities—is more likely to bridge or deepen that divide?
NM: I think the unfortunate way that debate has been played out is very zero-sum: you either teach about Texas history and US history in general—which the debate leads us to believe is automatically equated to shame and guilt—or you move away from that entirely, which gets equated to feeling only proud about the country and Texas. And that’s just not true. That’s not what Texans feel on the ground, or even what the Texan principals that we talked to say. They recognize that there is a way to teach history that’s honest and truthful but not self-flagellating. It can be a lesson learned for the future, and to make the point that you’re building a better future from this darker history. It’s very Texan to take it all and be blunt about it, to have both the good and the bad, and to recognize them for what they are and then to move forward. But again, it’s one of the examples where the specific bill and the voices for the bill are louder than the actual voices on the ground.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Going back to your earlier question about what productive things people can do in the US in general, reaching out and engaging with other Texans with different backgrounds and perspectives, and not letting our beliefs about them lead the way—getting out of that noise that we might be surrounded with—is important, and what we hope our project allows people to do.