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John Hatch: From Lyndon Johnson to Ted Cruz, electricity in Texas

Government exists to help the people by doing what private business won’t do.

(Marie D. De Jesús | Houston Chronicle via AP) In this Feb. 18 photo, demonstrators stand in front of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's home demanding his resignation in Houston. Cruz has acknowledged that his family vacation to Mexico was "obviously a mistake" as he returned stateside following an uproar over his disappearance during a deadly winter storm.

As millions of Texans were plunged into darkness this week, it is worth remembering how much of the state got its electricity in the first place.

By the 1930s, many cities across America had power, but the Texas Hill Country didn’t get electrified until a young congressman named Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1937.

Johnson was born in the punishing Hill Country. He watched his mother and other women grow stooped and old before their time as they hauled heavy buckets of water from outdoor pumps, as they burned their hands on the “sad irons” (handleless wedges of metal that sat on wood-burning stoves to get heated) and as they chopped wood in the frigid, biting wind to heat their homes.

With no electricity, these women hunched over clothes with a needle and thread in the dim light of a single candle, their eyesight growing poorer by the day as they sewed, trying to stretch their meager possessions. But after Lyndon Johnson became a congressman, the Hill Country was electrified, and it would transform residents’ lives. Time itself was tamed as the rising and setting sun had less say in how people lived.

It took decades for rural areas in the United States to get electricity because there was no incentive for private companies to do it. Providers would have to string lines for miles to light just a few homes. These companies needed to charge prohibitive rates to earn enough money, and they knew poor farmers would not be able to afford it. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, which provided loans and guaranteed the utilities would be paid. Lyndon Johnson harnessed the power of that program to get his congressional district electrified.

It is against that backdrop of history that Sen. Ted Cruz fled his state in the middle of a catastrophe for Cancun, Mexico. In the past Cruz’s actions would have been a bipartisan scandal — he may have even faced calls to resign. But in today’s climate of hyperpolarization, he has plenty of defenders. What, after all, is Cruz supposed to do? Stroll down to the power plant and flip a few switches?

No one imagines Cruz single-handedly saving Texas by turning the power back on. But governments exist to do things that people cannot do for themselves and that private businesses have little incentive to do. Whether it’s amassing a military to protect the country, providing electricity to its citizens or responding to a natural disaster, government provides invaluable resources. We have spent the last year painfully learning that government inaction and incompetence are deadly.

Cruz has contacts across the state of Texas. He has political power that almost no one else in the state has. He can call up anywhere and say, “This is Ted Cruz, I need...” and it will get done. His office can direct people to shelters, they can tell people where they can get food. Cruz can call Sen. Tom Cotton and ask if Arkansas can provide snow plows.

Instead, Cruz spent more time arguing with actor Seth Rogan on Twitter than he did to help his constituents. A senate seat is a responsibility, and it is more than a platform to own Hollywood libs online, but that is what Cruz is focused on as he tries to troll his way to the White House in 2024.

America is more than just words like “freedom” and “liberty.” It is a nation with a government. We are that government, and it is time we all took some pride in it.

John Hatch

John Hatch is an editor with Signature Books in Salt Lake City.

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