The Takeaway

Radical State

The Pressures on Arizona Have Placed It Into the Bitter Front Line of American Politics

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” said a deadpan Marc Lacey of The New York Times, “but Arizona has been a whole lot in the news lately.” Lacey was introducing a three-person panel on whether Arizona is the front line of American politics. “If you watch Fox News it sometimes appears the governor has her own show,” Lacey added, noting that Arizona had gotten so much attention that the Times decided to make Lacey its first Phoenix bureau chief.

The discussion, which was co-presented by Arizona State University, took place at a newly opened lounge at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, where the crowd squeezed together cordially on bleachers, benches, and even folding chairs.

Art Hamilton, who spent 26 years in the state legislature, 18 of them as Democratic leader, noted his displeasure with the current state of affairs in his state. “The ultimate affront,” recalled Hamilton, “was when a friend of mine, the just-past speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, told me he was glad we were in the news because it made him feel better about Mississippi.”

One especially controversial move by Arizona was to pass SB 1070, an anti-illegal-immigration law that was widely seen as the most stringent in the nation. Did this make Arizona the leader of a parade? Absolutely, said Jennifer Steen, a professor of political science at Arizona State University. “In a sense, Arizona is a model, because we made the first strike,” Steen said. “Other legislatures would be crazy not to look at what transpired in Arizona. … They can look to our experience here and see what was the fallout and watch the litigation unfold and see how that goes.”

Hamilton agreed that Arizona was leading the parade. “We are marching smartly into the 18th century,” Hamilton said. “We’ve mastered becoming a place that practices the politics of subtraction and division, and not addition and multiplication.”

Part of this division, the panelists agreed, was due to the recession. But part of it was also due to a demographic powder keg. “We have what demographers call gray versus brown,” explained author Tom Zoellner, a fifth-generation Arizonan whose latest book, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America, will be released at the end of the year. “We have a younger Latino population and an aging Anglo population. … So what you have is groups of people with two very different sets of life priorities and not much familiarity with each other.”

Of course, immigration enforcement hasn’t been the only area in which Arizona has taken an edgier stance than in most places. Guns, too, are tolerated to an unusual–perhaps even unique–extent. “Guns are in all sorts of places here,” said Lacey. “I don’t believe any of the panelists are packing, but some of you in the audience may be.”

“There’s a particularly strong view of guns entangled with this idea of liberty and independence from the federal government,” said Zoellner. “I think it’s facile to call it conservatism, but our brand of it tends be heavily flavored with a libertarian streak.” Such libertarianism, in Zoellner’s view, has tended to “reinforce some of the more solitary aspects of our nature.” In fact, one important aspect of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting early this year was the “role that simple loneliness played in [Jared Lee Loughner’s] life–that he could essentially go slowly mad in public over four years.”

Lacey asked Hamilton to draw on his time in the legislature to psychoanalyze the current leading lights of Arizona politics.

“I would suggest psycho without the analyzing,” Hamilton quipped. He observed that Republican State Senator Russell Pearce, noted for sponsoring SB 1070, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for cracking down hard on illegal immigration and placing prisoners in a tent city, are the leaders who political figures from out-of-state want to see when they come visiting. “People are really trying to tap into that very ugly, divided sentiment that seems to be so prevalent in the country.”

This divided sentiment preoccupied Zoellner as he started his latest writing project. “I almost did not recognize my hometown in 2010,” he said. “There was something so nasty in the oxygen, something I hadn’t seen before.” And, while Jared Lee Loughner was clearly insane, Zoellner also felt that Loughner’s actions were partly the fruit of the current political climate. “I think social context plays a part in how we act,” he said. “I think this did not happen in a vacuum.”

Hamilton noted that the debate has shifted far enough to the right that notable conservatives from the past no longer pass muster with today’s Arizonans on the right. Even Barry Goldwater is viewed as not conservative enough, while former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gets treated as if “she’s some kind of crazy liberal person,” just for coming back to Arizona to press for more “civility and comity and fairness and just good old common sense in the political arena.”

This shift is in part the result of structural changes. Term limits, said Hamilton, have been a major problem. And public financing of campaigns has made it easier for a lot of extreme and unvetted candidates to pursue higher office. “There’s no screening process. There’s no quality control,” said Steen, “when it’s so easy to qualify for public office.”

When the floor was opened to questions, one of the topics to arise was immigration and the costs of SB 1070. Were there statistics on the economic effects? Not yet, said Steen. “I’m dying to see them, too.”

Ultimately, said Zoellner, Arizona “does become a crystallization of many of the discontents” of today. Whether Arizona will prove able to address them in a workable manner is what those on all sides of the political spectrum are now waiting to see.

Watch full video here.
See more photos here.
Read expert opinions on whether Arizona is a microcosm of U.S. politics here.

*Photos by Felipe Ruiz Acosta.