“The country doesn’t understand you people. Can you explain Arizona to the rest of us?”
If you’re from Arizona, and especially if you live elsewhere, you have grown familiar with variations of this question, which Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini says an out-of-state reporter posed to him in regards to SB1062. It’s understandable. Through SB1062 this year, SB1070 a few years ago, the Jared Loughner shootings, etc., Arizona has become the stock example of a weird place with weird people that produces strange cultural concepts and bewildering politics. The idea that Arizona is, at essence, kind of a wacko place is something that even Arizona progressives occasionally champion as an outlet for their continual frustration — Montini does this, for instance, in writing about the wrong-headed views Arizona politics takes on guns and gays. (A critique of a situation that is a problem, but is hardly unique to Arizona.)
Does Arizona have its share of unfortunate politics? Absolutely, and I don’t mean to excuse them. There’s a different question at play here. Is Arizona that deviant place represented by the myth? It’s not, and it shouldn’t be understood that way. I think getting to the essence of this issue depends on the question posed to Montini: “The country doesn’t understand you people” (my emphasis).
Why is it that people find Arizona in particular so hard to understand? Is that somehow the fault, abstractly, of Arizona, or, a bit more particularly, its people? “Can you explain Arizona to the rest of us?”
I’ll start trying.
Let’s think about Christmas. (It’s a pertinent example that I promise this will relate to the larger point.)
Arizona may have some odd aspects about it, but how odd these things are considered by the rest of the country also comes down to a lack of understanding. There is a failure of imagination when it comes to trying to grasp Arizona — whenever I’ve lived away from my home in Phoenix, I’ve seen this especially at Christmas.
Images of Christmas are, for me, almost-ripe oranges on the trees, luminarias, al fresco dining (in slightly warmer years), and playing outside with your toys. In wanting home, as everyone does around Christmas, I don’t want snow or any of that. (I generally find snow annoying.) This confuses people. I have met many Easterners who insist that Christmases are properly white and cold, with logs on the fire and warm cocktails and everything. Dominant culture does little to challenge this kind of belief.
As far as I know, a large chunk of the Christian world (possibly even a majority) live in relatively warmer climates where it never snows on Christmas. There is nothing inherently bizarre about associating non-snowy or anti-snowy things with Christmas. Yet the Arizona Christmas is, to a lot of people, weird.
The Christmas example is one particular form of a hang-up people have about Arizona’s climate — an attitude which, I would argue, reflects larger imaginative difficulties that people have surrounding Arizona’s cultural situation, way of life, and politics. Of course, it’s completely understandable not to like really, really hot weather (most people in the Arizona deserts find summers a pain), but what is at issue here is not a difference in preference, but rather cultural confusion.
A chief expression of this confusion is the genre of thought that essentially argues that Arizona is uninhabitable. I don’t mean to defend current patterns of resource consumption, but people have been living in deserts forever, and there’s nothing inherently more habitable about the quite cold winters of the Northeastern U.S. (which shocked and, initially at least, killed our European forebears, who came from more temperate climates).
Or the haboobs. The nation has become entranced in the last few years by these things we used to just call “dust storms.” The apocalyptic images give the sense of Arizona as place apart, and probably doomed. I was initially a bit confused by the the trend of haboob porn, since these storms have been happening my whole life without much note. Maybe they have been getting somewhat more severe as a result of climate change, but they are certainly no more apocalyptic or alarming than the snowstorms that substantively paralyze Eastern cities on a regular basis. A haboob will bring down a few branches and leave dust on your car.
People’s are also bewildered about Arizona’s sprawl, which is not fundamentally different form vast swathes of the American landscape. Arizona becomes a poster boy for a trend that is both problematic and national in scope. Et cetera, etc.
The larger point is this: The idea of Arizona is often met by some kind of incomprehension. This incomprehension sets the scene of Arizona as an only quasi-habitable place, full of people who more or less chose to live there for their own weird reasons and are slowly dying out as a result of their mirage and are taking the Mexicans and the gays down with them.
The concept of Arizona, its setting, its culture, and its lifestyle has not, in some important ways, been incorporated into a larger national consciousness yet, which has not had to reckon with the long-term existence of the unique qualities of this state of the union. There are some interesting questions here: Is alienating a place like Arizona a way to deal with the nation’s own discomfort about its resource consumption, social divisions, or other things? In any case, this does not mean that Arizona is, in any kind of objective sense, more deviant than anywhere else.
Before we get to the politics strictly, let’s do another bit of comparison. Is Arizona weirder, more repulsive, etc. than any other given state? I’m choosing Louisiana not to pick on it, but just because it serves as a good contrast.
Notable-of-late Louisianan TV celebrity Phil Robertson recently said some really retrograde things about gay people, as you are probably aware. Those comments are not exceptional in the cultural circumstance of rural Louisiana. Politically, Louisiana has elected a governor who apparently believes in exorcism, and it has occasionally been demonstrated to be the most fertile political ground for unreformed white supremacists. For the latter reason, Louisiana has sometimes been identified as a political pariah in the same way Arizona has.
There is a crucial difference here, though. Returning to the question posed at the start of this post: When Phil Robertson calls gays morally retrograde, nobody fails to understand how this could be. We disagree, we shake our heads, but we don’t completely lack understanding of what’s going on with Phil Robertson. Why? Well, the rest of the country has two centuries of dealing with Louisiana and states like it — their social and political nature are basically understood to the extent they need to be in order to include them in our larger self-conception of our national political and cultural milieu. Nobody finds anything really exceptional or surprising about a guy like Phil Robertson being a homophobe, though we may be disappointed.
With Arizona, though? People are baffled. “What’s going on in Arizona?”
That’s not to say that Arizona is a completely normal place. (As if anywhere is.) A larger point here is that Arizona is ultimately not so difficult to understand — and that viewing Arizona as some kind of “deviant state” comes down to not really having a quick, already-digested sense of what the confluence of cultural happenings in Arizona amounts to. One way to look at it is that the heuristic for understanding “that’s Arizona” is still being built, while we have a heuristic for “that’s Louisiana,” etc. which we can employ to understand what’s happening there, and how that speaks to nationwide debates and sensibilities. What’s happening in Arizona does have some unusual or unique aspects — it’s a unique mix of factors that may be otherwise familiar, but they are not ones that make Arizona pathological or uniquely problematic among states.
Getting into culture and politics, here are what I think are some of the most important factors:
1. Unsettled identity. Daily life in Arizona is awfully similar to daily life in most other parts of America, but, as a place, it has much less of a sense of itself. Its stunning growth since World War II, only recently slowed, became a primary source of identity, at the cost of a more substantive self-conceptualization. To me, there is such thing as a unique, vibrant Arizona, but it is not a concept that is alive in the minds of all of the people who live there, many of whom are transplants and moved to Arizona mostly to go about their lives. (More on this later.)
Arizona has difficulty, therefore, representing itself to outsiders in the same way that other states, from Massachusetts to Virginia to Iowa to Hawaii, can. And, naturally, ideas of what Arizona “is all about” tend to be dominated by outside critiques when there is no culturally embedded sense of “Arizona” to resort to for a response. An unsettled identity becomes even more unsettled the huge demographic differences that are emerging between Arizona’s older population and its younger one. In Arizona, 83 percent of people over 65 are white, while 43 percent of people under 18 are. These kinds of tensions have often been cited as the basic reason for things like the Tea Party nationwide. And while the diversification of America is a nationwide phenomenon, Arizona has the largest such age-race gap in the country, which underlies quite intense contestation over what kind of society Arizona will have.
I think this thought — “what’s happening in Arizona is also happening in the whole country, but maybe more so in Arizona” — is a good starting point for understanding it and seeing Arizona as something other than alien.
2. The contestation of a “new place.” Building from the previous point, in terms of political culture, I think Arizona’s growth can explain a lot. In terms of its human landscape, the extent to which recent migration dwarfed any previous stable population has made Arizona a kind of blank slate. People have moved to Arizona largely under the impression that they can shape more of their destiny there, that it represents a better place than the one they left. When you have a lot of these people moving to a place out of a sense of dreaming and idealism, I think you can get really intense ideological contestation — from Bleeding Kansas to California in the 1970s — as people realize that not everyone’s visions are in line with each other’s. The upshot of this is that people are engaged in an idealized version of politics, while they are simultaneously socially distant from others in a place where they live their daily lives but possess few roots. This disrupts any notion of commonweal, and divisiveness in politics receives less opposition.
3. Populist politics. Some of the explanation for Arizona’s political outcomes is institutional, to be sure. Bills like SB1062 recently, and SB1070 a few years ago, can emerge because of a less-mature political culture (where many people’s attention does not fix on local politics, leaving the field more open to ideologues) and because there are a lot of institutional channels for perhaps ill-advised populist measures. Arizona, for instance, not only has initiative, referendum, and recall (institutions which have knock-on effects upon legislative behavior), but also public financing of elections. Public financing, as Gail Collins wrote about for a national audience this week, has had the effect of removing the brakes that business interests might otherwise place on the Republican Party, leading to its candidates espousing a more populist brand of conservatism. Such can occur without the dominance of correspondingly weird beliefs among the people themselves (though they may also be there).
Those are just three (interrelated) reasons, but they are enough for now.
Does this make Arizona strange? Somewhat, yes — but not that strange. I think that Arizona’s struggles have historical precedents and national echoes, but the way that people outside of (and sometimes inside of) the state think about it just hasn’t come around yet to thinking of this mix as factors as, basically, typical. Understanding Arizona’s politics is like understanding how people can live in Arizona’s climate. It means expanding your imagination and recognizing the extent to which the general issues presented by the situation are actually familiar.
Arizona is profoundly suburban; so is most of America, nowadays. Its politics are, mostly, conservative; so are many other places’. Its political institutions are populist; it’s not alone in that, either. As far as public opinion goes — if you’ll believe me (and click on the links to see polls that prove it) — Arizona’s people are not especially anti-gay or anti–immigrant. The fact that, in such a state, you do get legislation like what you’ve seen needs some kind of intellectual explanation, but it doesn’t mean Arizona is some kind of deviant outlier.
So, there are two parts of this argument.
1. People don’t have shortcuts to understand Arizona, because what people see in Arizona still seems somehow alien to them, unmeshed with what is occurring nationally. This is a problem of a lack of imagination.
2. Arizona does actually have a unique confluence of things going on, which may produce anomalous social/political events — but these are only baffling if you don’t grasp how much of Arizona life also has echoes across the country.
To me, now that Arizona’s breakneck growth has slowed down, the main struggle ahead for our state will be to decide what kind of place, exactly, we have created. Arizona now has 6.5 million people, and settling on some kind of identity, some kind of social model, and some kind of sense of common purpose in the post-population explosion era, will be a long and difficult process. We have just started going through it, and we won’t be done for a while.
A relatively happy result is possible, though. I’ll cite another example: California.
It seems that a few years ago, California was a sort of wacky utopia-gone-wrong in a similar sense that Arizona is today. Southern California in particular was the subject of convincing criticism of its basic essence. It was a cauldron of race hatred and was the earth literally broke beneath it. Its populist politics quickly made misguided anti-immigrant sentiment into law. Of course, this head-scratching about California politics was accompanied by the apparent alienness of the California lifestyle. A difference with California is that it didn’t prompt the quite same level of bewilderment as Arizona: Its size and cultural importance demanded that it be understood, where to most Arizona can comfortably remain a puzzle.
Anyway, despite an impossibly long ballot and more recent echoes of circus-like politics, California seems to have settled. It has a political and social consensus where previously society had been deeply divided. Think about it: Does California seem like the kind of dystopia you might have thought in the days of low-speed Ford Bronco chases? That’s not to say everything in California is perfect, but it’s not a deviant place.
Neither is Arizona, especially. Looking at Arizona, you see issues that are present in America (either the whole or various parts) and have been for a long time. It’s not too hard to understand, if you think about it.
Apologies for straying from the normal topic of this blog.