Zócalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion from Arizona State University, in partnership with the New America Foundation, recently hosted a discussion about Arizona politics. Chief among the topics was: is Arizona politics unique to the state or an early indicator of what's coming for the country in general?
Only 35% of Arizona voters are registered Republicans, even as the Right controls the legislature. SB 1070, the stringent anti-illegal immigration law, got nationwide attention (but much of it has yet to go into effect due to a federal injunction). But it can also be seen, at least partly, as a states' rights issue as it mandates that the state do what the federal government isn't doing. Along with this, the population of Arizona is shifting from older Anglos to younger Latinos, a trend which will surely continue and eventually upset existing political power structures and alliances. Author Tom Zoellner calls this "gray vs. brown," noting that the two separate demographics have differing goals and seldom intermingle. This "demographic powder keg" is a primary driver of the divisive politics in Arizona.
Add to that a populist libertarianism/conservatism that mistrusts the federal government, plus the most relaxed gun laws in the nation, and you get a feisty, contrarian politics that values individualism. Factor in a nasty recession, and things get even more polarized.
So, is Arizona on the front line of American politics?
The panelists mostly agreed that it is. The politics may be more extreme in Arizona than elsewhere but other states like California are also experiencing similar major demographic shifts.
Tucson Citizen Editor Mark Evans notes that the current extreme conservative politics will probably be replaced by moderate right-of-center politics in the next few election cycles. Professor of Anthropology Thomas Sheridan says Arizona's grappling with immigrants, particularly in Tucson, will be a harbinger of how the rest of the West and the Border States handle the same challenges. What gets lost in many discussions about illegal immigration is the fact that the Arizona border is so rugged that fences and patrols are much less effective than elsewhere. That's why so many cross over from Mexico into the US through Arizona, and why the problem is more pronounced here.
Julie Erfle of Politics Uncuffed says we are seeing a breakdown of politics as we have known it, with extreme and deliberate us-vs.-them divisiveness as the current rule with few genuine attempts at finding solutions. Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez of KJZZ echoes this, saying if Arizona is a microcosm, then God help us. Author Jeff Biggers offers hope, saying Arizona has "a long and terrible and beautiful history" and at times has been hugely progressive and populist. He says:
"Long before [Arizona Governor] Hunt and his labor shock troops ushered in one of the nation's most progressive state constitutions in 1912, the clash over Arizona's vast natural resources, its native and immigrant labor ranks, and its rooted inhabitants and carpet-bagging business interests had not only placed the state on the frontlines of American politics but also helped force our nation to come to grips with America's fundamental commitment to civil rights and democracy."
So, in many ways Arizona has always been a harbinger of American politics. The current strife, however contentious it may be, is simply history as usual.