Texas political culture and ideology are well described by the combination of three main philosophical streams: classical liberalism, social conservatism and populism.
Classical liberalism places the primary political value on political arrangements that allow for the fullest exercise of individual liberty as long as the liberties of others are not unreasonably restricted. Classical liberal ideas often form the basis for opposition to the use of government to attain social objectives. They stress instead reliance on private initiatives or the free market to determine the best outcomes.
In addition to acting as a bulwark for entrepreneurship and the market economy, classical liberalism in Texas also has historically fueled support for religious tolerance and for civil liberties, for both individualism and entrepreneurship, and also for some degree of admiration for mavericks (at least the ones you like). Think, for example, of the popularity of the broad range of famous iconoclasts who have hailed from Texas (or become famous here). Recent examples range from H. Ross Perot (billionaire businessman and independent political candidate), to Willie Nelson (Nashville dissident and sometimes activist for causes ranging from farmer relief to marijuana legalization), to the several Texans who defied social customs and broke barriers of race and gender, like Barbara Jordan and Oveta Culp Hobby.
But the expression of classical liberalism in Texas as an embrace of the individual's right to "do your own thing" has been tempered by the enduring influence of social conservatism. Social conservatism derives from the classical conservatism rooted in feudal English and European thinking that viewed liberalism with suspicion, embraced traditional hierarchical social relations, and tended to interpret social change as a threat to established practices and beliefs. In contemporary forms, social conservatives tend to support the use of government to reinforce traditional social relations. They value established traditions, especially established religious beliefs and practices, and respect traditional authority figures such as business, military, and religious leaders. While socially conservative views are associated primarily with the Republican Party, they dominated the Democratic Party in Texas through much of its history, right up until recent decades. Social conservatism continues to exert a moderating influence within the Democratic Party, as this page's interview excerpt with former Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes illustrates.
As this description suggests, classical liberalism and social conservatism sometimes exert countervailing, even contradictory pressures within the state's political culture. UT Austin historian Howard Miller illustrates such tensions in his comments on religion in the state in the video excerpt on the right-hand side of the page. As he says, "Tolerance is one of the hallmarks of the religious culture of the state," a clear reflection of the enduring impact of classic liberalism in the state. Yet the diversity of views and practices that has developed within this tolerance creates new conditions that can, and have, led to conflict and even outbursts of intense intolerance.
Populism is concerned primarily with the well being of ordinary people, and emphasizes the popular will as the chief virtue of a political position. Populism has both political and social dimensions. Politically, it tends to support involvement of the government in regulating society and the economy. But populism may also take socially conservative forms, or rely more on style and rhetorical appeal to "the people," rather than on the substance of what political leaders are actually advocating. Thus, depending on the context, populist appeals may support very different political positions.
At times, populism even serves as a vehicle to defuse (or ignore) the tensions between the influence of classical liberalism on one hand and social conservatism on the other. At various moments in the state's history, populist appeals have been used to advocate government action on behalf of poor farmers, as well as to lower taxes for middle and upper class Texans. Because of these ambiguities, the term populist is used to refer to a tendency to use appeals to a broad public audience to ground a combination of political language that cannot be reduced to an easily identifiable, perhaps even a coherent, set of political goals and preferences.
These currents and cross-currents add up to a state in which most Texans tend to identify themselves in surveys as either moderate or conservative. As the pie chart on the tab labeled "Ideology breakdown" in the feature on the right side of this page illustrates, in a July, 2008 statewide survey designed by members of the Government Department at UT - Austin, fully 80 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as either moderate or conservative, a result similar to those found in other surveys.