From the Jim Crow anti-immigrant law and birther bill to the reality television show Sunset Daze, Arizona is gaining an international reputation for being crazy. It's not just "image" or "bad publicity." How did this happen to my beloved home? It took decades and tectonic shifts. Some will sound familiar to regular Rogue readers, but for the sake of the thousands of newbies that have found Rogue Columnist and are curious/frightened about Arizona, here's a primer:
The new Republican Party: Arizona always had a strong reactionary element, going back to its dependence on mines and railroads. Even the Democrats were mostly conservative. Arizona never produced, for example, a William Borah, the progressive Republican senator from Idaho. But even among the Republicans, there was independence and an understanding that Arizona would blow away without massive amounts of federal money. Republicans were a minority until Barry Goldwater slowly built them into the state's dominant party in the 1960s. Even then, Goldwater, Arizona Republic publisher Eugene C. Pulliam and others kept the John Bircher element at arms length, happy to use them but never let them take control. This changed with time and massive influx of new people. By the 1980s, conservative extremism was in the governor's seat. From the 1990s onward, the Christian Coalition and other national right-wing groups began taking control of the party from the lowest levels up, and purging old Arizona Republicans who now were labeled RINOS (Republicans in Name Only). They also focused on winning offices that held the most budget power, from school boards to the Legislature. The result is an entirely different creature: militant, frozen in ideological conformity, hostile to the facts, deeply committed to enacting "conservative" abstractions with little evidence they succeed. And, as the evidence shows, racist. Now, the Republicans have pretty much ruled for decades and the state is a catastrophe. Questions? That doesn't stop them from acting like victimized outsiders and the duhs and ignos in this ill-educated state fall for it.
The Big Sort: The journalist Bill Bishop used this as the title of his book on the dramatic clustering of like-minded people in different regions. It's a big change from most of American history, and as Bishop puts it, the Big Sort "is tearing us apart." Arizona is Exhibit A in this self-selecting process, especially among the Anglo population that votes, has money or is easy pickings for the demagogues. Arizona doesn't have its Austin (sorry, Democratic Tucson's strings are ultimately pulled by a car dealer and the sprawl barons). Despite the notion in the mid-1990s that population growth would moderate Arizona politics, or even the Democratic seats picked up during the nadir of the Bush presidency, Arizona has become redder and redder. People increasingly seemed to move to Arizona or the Phoenix suburbs to be with their co-religionists on the right, while progressive-minded folks moved out.
Population: In size, rootlessness, homogeneity and, for the United States at least, velocity of growth, population has destabilized Arizona in numerous fronts. Particularly responsible for the growing insanity: The Scottsdale and Paradise Valley rich, who have the means to improve life and discourse yet either refuse to get involved or they actually help fund the Kookocracy. They want the "exclusiveness" of their "lifestyle." Also, what I call the Anglo campesinos. These are the numerous working-class whites, some natives and most immigrants, who bought into the promises of the growth machine yet have seen their prospects either shattered or under continual pressure. They're looking for someone to blame, and the right-wing dominance of local media points them to...The Other. And many retirees who, like too many other newcomers, just want to be left alone with no obligations to the commonweal. All these people vote, however much diversity may exist (or not, aside from the large Hispanic cohort) within the overall population.
Economy: Arizona has the most limited economy for a state of its population size in America. Its economy is more limited than when I was a boy. The state economy is based on population growth, housing and other spec construction, as well as the retail and service jobs that depend on this constant influx. This sector is now in a virtual depression. You want diversity? There's tourism. The result is a low-wage, anti-worker economy producing many desperate people, including Anglos listening to talk radio tell them Obama and the brown people are to blame for their straitened circumstances. Such nodes as semiconductors and aerospace are much smaller relative to the population compared with even 20 years ago; they are the legacy of previous generations of stewards, and they're in decline. Another result is the power of the Real Estate Industrial Complex, the community of interests from developers to the rock-and-gravel lobby, that heavily bankrolls the right. It's not that all of these players are fierce ideologues, but they benefit from low taxes, few land use restrictions, light environmental regulation, etc. The Tea Partiers don't even know these puppet-masters exist, or their pernicious effect on the quality of life in Arizona.
The macho construction culture: I've heard educated women describe this as they try to understand why they must dumb-down their resumes, deal with abusive companies and men with manners of louts and sensibilities so 1950s — even try to navigate the dating scene. It's certainly a vibe in Phoenix and undoubtedly plays into the fanatical politics, the rush to make threats, the whole gun thing. I was taught to shoot by my mother when I was six years old and grew up in the remnants of a frontier state. The entire ethos revolved around the ability to not carry a firearm. This because the sacrifices our forebears made to create a civil society in the wilderness. This bunch of vigilantes and penis-size-insecure flaunters of assault rifles are not the Wild West, contrary to the continual use of the term in the national media to describe today's Arizona. They are the wild Midwest, perhaps. But mostly it is a weird and dangerous group psychosis. Nor is it ameliorated by the evangelical mega-churches out in the more affluent suburbs or the LDS, whatever their stated values or the commandment of Christ Jesus. Instead, these institutions often, willfully or not, reinforce tribalism and (white) male dominance.
Urban form: As regular readers know, one can find an old Phoenix (and Tucson) of real, cohesive neighborhoods and something resembling a built environment worth caring about, as Jim Kunstler puts it. But it's small compared with the massive sprawl that destroys community and puts its inhabitants in a dehumanizing environment. Subdivisions are built to decline. Ugliness proliferates. Arizona is the leader in "gated communities." Its "master planned communities" are anything but. Even the best parts of Scottsdale offer much of the same off-the-shelf schlock architecture, with more expensive fake Tuscan-Spanish flourishes. The rich areas are far from downtown — thus Phoenix has no equivalent of the Turtle Creek/Oak Lawn area in Dallas or Eastover/Myers Park in Charlotte (I am using red state examples). This enhances the disconnect between the wealthy and their city. Public infrastructure is decades behind, thanks to anti-tax and other policies to privatize profits for the few and socialize costs to the many. In such conditions, no wonder extremism and alienation thrive.
Institutional weaknesses: Phoenix especially and Arizona in general added huge amounts of people over the past several decades, but the institutional bearings for a healthy society didn't keep up. This is on glaring display in the impotence of the Hispanic communities. Hispanic voter turnout is low. No Antonio Villaraigosa or strong Latino union-based political movement emerged. Some of the most "powerful" Hispanic organizations are compromised by the need to play nice with the status quo to keep government grants flowing. But it goes deeper. Arizona was once an independent, pluralistic place (yes!). The Democratic Party has withered, even from the days of Bruce Babbitt. Janet Napolitano was an accidental governor in her first term, benefiting from an unexpectedly sharp recession and a weak GOP candidate (I suspect someone like Lisa Graham Keegan would have won). In her second win, Napolitano showed she could kiss the ring of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. But as a party, the Democrats failed to go for the prize: the Legislature, the truly powerful body. As a small state, Arizona enjoyed outsized leaders. At maturity, it depended on a sports mogul and a few donations from some of the super-rich to the symphony or art museum. But it never replaced the stewardship that built the modern city, from Frank Snell to John F. Long, people with a deep, personal love for Phoenix and Arizona.
Phoenix was unusually hard hit by the industry consolidation of the past 30 years. It has no Procter & Gamble or Heinz or Bank of America — headquarters that not only bring thousands of well-paid, top-talent jobs to downtown but also play leading roles in the life of the city. Phoenix has only lost. Tucson is still acting as if it's the town of 1960. In such a narrow economy, where the elites only want low taxes and little regulation, there's no counterweight to the extreme right wing. The lack of countervailing institutions that kept pace with growth to act as brakes on, or forces against, white-right extremism is a long one.
To it must be added the media. Television is hopeless: Two crimes, a horrible auto accident and "Megan with health news..." Radio is dominated by the white-right talkers subsidized by the national corporate oligarchy. The Phoenix Gazette is no more, the East Valley Tribune a shell and The Arizona Republic in the hands of an out-of-state corporate giant only wanting to placate corporate interests and with little regard for the craft called newspaper journalism. New Times soldiers on, sometimes doing fine work, but having set aside the swagger of its non-corporate days. Pardon my old-school mentality, but I judge a place on its written word, and the ability of its population to absorb it. Arizona has no Texas Monthly. And Phoenix certainly lacks Seattle's The Stranger and Crosscut, among many others, as well as the locally owned, multiple Pulitzer-winning Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I online All this makes a huge difference in enabling or preventing the growth of extremism. But so, too, does a big sort that lands so many "low information voters" and arrogantly ignorant types in such a large urban area as Phoenix.
Weather. Desert towns were once special. They prized the siesta more than the Tea Party. Air conditioning and other federal-subsidized goodies changed that. Now Phoenix is getting hotter and staying hotter longer, whatever the short-term fluctuations, and it's attracted a strange, self-selecting population. Many don't care about anything but hot, endlessly sunny days. Pollution, a huge underclass, water, environmental destruction, poor performance on virtually any measure of economic or social well being, a dire future given the trends of the 21st century? Who cares?! You don't have to shovel sunshine! Championship golf! If there's proto-fascism at work, no big deal. And when the summer sun hits 140 degrees on the pavement and Joe Lunchbucket is stuck in his two-hour commute to his American dream, with his wages flat and his job about to be sent offshore, and the Glock is sitting invitingly on the passenger seat...
I enjoy a rich fantasy life. Some even involve Arizona. It would be nice to imagine this vile law provokes such a backlash that the Kookocracy is voted out and what St. Janet called "the sensible center" prevails. Or even the Republican establishment cleans house as they did when Evan Mecham made the state a laughing stock, as well as a racist beacon by opposing Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But I don't think it will happen this time. Gov. Jan Brewer's ratings have shot up. The Kooks are riding high. They are the Republican establishment now. The militias are arming themselves. I fear, for all the reasons listed above, that it's too late. The tipping point has passed.
The big question is how viral Arizona has become. The Democrats nationally seem impotent, a chilling irony given the New Deal roots and rhetoric they could use to explain how conservative policies have destroyed the country. But the Republicans... Ah, they have been to Arizona. They have seen the future.... It doesn't work. But that doesn't matter when raw power is the goal.