Boom Town Poison: Political Culture Under the Shadow of Lead Poisoning in West Texas

Monday, 16 July 2018: 15:50
Oral Presentation
Riad AZAR, The University of Texas at Austin, USA
How do citizens reconcile conservative politics with the daily consequences of state inaction? How does the lack of access to basic services, such as clean water, shape particular forms of political ideology? Based on 40 in-depth interviews, three months of participant observation, and historical and archival research, this paper examines how political culture is produced and contested in a small working-class community in rural West Texas, USA. An oil boomtown of the early 20th century, the population of our field site has steadily declined over the last one hundred years. Save for a small boom in the 1970s, the crumbling infrastructure, lack of jobs, and contaminated water containing twenty-eight times the federal limit of lead are consequences of socioeconomic transformations that are not unique to West Texas, but are characteristic of rural America. Rather than seek to argue that residents are beholden to an ideological contradiction and/or false consciousness, this project seeks to understand a “paradox” (Katz 2001): how support for authoritarian populism emerges from rural dispossession and is legitimized through everyday practice. By paying particular attention to not only what residents say, but also what they do (Jerolmack and Khan 2014), we argue that political ideology must be understood as a lived experience rooted in the routines, decisions, and practices of everyday life. While some residents resist the evidence and continue to consume the water, many residents purchase bottled water for consumption, cooking, and bathing. By observing and analyzing how residents engage with a contaminated water supply, we argue towards a moral economy of rural dispossession which provides ideological support for populist authoritarianism.