Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's the Matter with Arizona (And the Big Progressive Blog Sites)

This TPM piece got me thinking. They ask, what in the world happened to Arizona? In 2008, it seemed on the verge of swinging to the Democrats and perhaps would of had the Republican nominee not come from the state. Today, not only has it passed a racist and unconstitutional immigration bill, but a whole series of other insane right-wing bills.

But did anything happen to Arizona in the last 18 months that would so drastically change Arizona politics? No, not really. And I will get to that in a minute. But what I found most interesting about the piece is how big national news organizations, including progressive blogs, are so tone-deaf to local issues. I'm not really blaming them for this; I understand their interests and their audience. But the intense focus on national issues and national legislation gets in the way of subtlety and context. TPM thinks Arizona was becoming a more progressive state because they almost voted for Obama. But is a vote for Obama and a vote for racist anti-immigrant statues really that much of a discontinuity?

Progressive sites (and the media more broadly) love repeating Tip O'Neill's mantra that all politics are local. O'Neill was right about that. But the national news media doesn't really understand what that means. More broadly, I don't think today's Democratic party really understands much about what that means.

Arizona has been one of our most secretly right-wing white supremacist states for a long time. There's a reason a guy like Barry Goldwater came out of Arizona. Although the state actually created a very progressive state constitution in 1912, soon after statehood, conservative elements took over. These people essentially thought of Mexicans like white people in the South thought of blacks--cheap exploitable labor with no right to civil liberties or human rights. They rounded up Mexican-Americans, including American citizens, and kicked them out of the country during the Great Depression. They lobbied to ensure that New Deal labor legislation would not cover farm labor. When they needed Mexican labor again after World War II, they pushed for the Bracero Program, which allowed for guestworkers from Mexico.  But they treated those Mexican farmworkers like slaves, often not paying them, allowing them to die of heat stroke, putting them in substandard housing, etc.

On top of this, after World War II, Arizona began attracting crowds of old retirees, centering in new Phoenix suburbs like Sun City. These people from other parts of the nation had no experience with Mexicans, but they clearly saw race in terms of white supremacy and had little problem entering into Arizona's established race relations.

But just because these people are racists doesn't mean they approve of the war in Iraq or weren't disturbed by the financial collapse. And it doesn't mean they don't believe in New Deal economic policy. It's quite simple to vote for Obama but also vote for a Republican state legislator who stirs up local fears about immigration, gun rights, or abortion. It might not make sense to a partisan like myself, but millions of people do this.

But what seems self-evident to me does not to those who focus obsessively on national political trends. Arizona has suffered from economic crisis more profoundly than most states. But most of those legislators in Arizona weren't elected as a response to that crisis. Most have been there for a long time, passing these crazy bills. But before 2009, they were vetoed by Governor Janet Napolitano. But when Obama picked Napolitano to be Secretary of Homeland Security, right-wing Attorney General Jan Brewer took over, giving the crazies power where it really counts.

I think modern Democrats do a particularly poor job understanding the importance of local politics. Republicans get this. They understood how to build a conservative movement beginning in the 1950s--take over the school boards and local offices and work up from there. They still do a better job of mobilizing people for local elections than Democrats. Some of this certainly has to do with an easier to reach demographic. But a lot of it is institutional. Look at the Democratic Party before Howard Dean's 50 state strategy. The Democrats were just punting half the nation, not only on a national but a local level. When I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, the local Democrats never bothered running candidates for many offices. They thought--why bother, it will just hurt our influence with the Republican officials.

Moreover, Democrats, including the big progressive blog sites, look at local trends through national eyes. This leads to the kind of misunderstanding we are seeing in analysis of Arizona. When Tom Daschle lost his senate seat to John Thune, it wasn't South Dakota voters rejecting Daschle's policies. It was that they were pissed because they felt Daschle had abandoned his home state, in fact claiming Maryland (I think) as his home state on some tax form or some such thing. When Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley to replace Ted Kennedy, some of that had to do with right-wing organizing, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that Martha Coakley ran the worst campaign in modern memory. These things are local. Looking at them through the lenses of national politics can help us find interesting trends, but they provide little understanding for what's going on in a particular place. When you get to the level of state legislatures and ballot initiatives, the national lenses provide almost no understanding at all.

A site like TPM can find people who do understand the local scene. There are many excellent sites dedicated to local politics. Each state has several. Some are great, such as Texas'  Burnt Orange Report. I will say though that these sites often get caught up in the hothouse atmosphere of politics and don't provide a lot of room for analysis and understanding.

But there are scholars removed from the political atmosphere who do understand the history and culture of places. I am no expert on Arizona, but there are several states I do know pretty well where I could provide useful analysis. And there are a lot of people like me out there who could do a great job. Rather than asking out loud what has happened to Arizona, why not go find someone who can tell you?