What’s the Matter with Arizona?

By DrVMDS on February 28, 2012

This post orignally appeared in The Nation blog 

Nothing.  My home state does not suffer from a fundamental political or societal flaw.  There are a number of things that I do not like about Arizona, namely S.B. 1070, tent-city Joe Arpaio, and finger-wagging Jan Brewer.  But to understand Arizona and that nothing’s the matter with it you have to understand its Western personality, one that is volatile and quirky.  It is a personality that is forged by an inheritance of populist politics and idiosyncratic political leaders.

One hundred years ago this month Arizona was the last state in the continental U.S. to gain statehood.  While the political machines in New York, Baltimore and Chicago were grinding out back room deals Arizona was only beginning to think about statehood.  As Tom Schaller points out in his book, Whistling Past Dixie, the later incorporation of the Mountain West states meant a later start to political development in this region.  As a result, states west of the Mississippi do not have deep partisan roots that anchor their political systems.

Politics in the West has been and continues to be candidate-centered.  The same state that elected Barry Goldwater to the Senate is the same state that in 1974 elected Raúl Castro, Arizona’s first Latino governor.  Arizona is also a state where in 2002 and 2006 voters simultaneously elected Democrat Janet Napolitano as governor and Republican Jan Brewer as Secretary of State.

A thin party structure is complimented by a strong tradition of direct democracy—referendums, initiatives, and recalls.  For example, in 1996 Arizona became the first state to pass a medical marijuana proposition and in 1988 became the second state to approve a recall of their governor, though Governor Mecham ended up being impeached before the election.  The five states with the highest number of initiatives have all been in the West.  Until Scott Walker’s recall effort, the previous three recalls were all in the West.

Recently Western states have engaged in what political scientist Caroline Tolbert refers to as new progressivism.   In the 1990s Western states once again looked to progressivism to provide citizens further control of their government, such as with term limits, public financing of political campaigns, or voter approval of tax limits.  These measures have wrested greater control from partisan and governmental institutions.  And to further curb partisan influence in politics in 2000 Arizona voters approved Proposition 106 that established an independent redistricting commission.

Western states have their own personality.  Arizona’s brand of cowboy politics is largely unbridled by partisan institutions and a republican form of government.  For better or for worse it is a system that allows for greater political volatility.  Arizona’s political system allows for S.B. 1070, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer.  However, it also allows for a system where Russell Pearce, the architect of S.B. 1070, can be recalled and the 2010 redistricting map can be drawn more competitively—much to the public annoyance of the governor.   And lastly, Arizona is a state that preferences the will of the electorate and with each electoral cycle that electorate becomes increasingly more Latino.

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