John Buell

Notes from a Red State

I have just returned from vacation in the first red state, Arizona. Arizona, of course, was the home of Barry Goldwater, the architect of the new American conservatism. Yet, paradoxically, a look below the surface suggests that there are cracks in the mold that are too easily obscured by those neatly color-coded maps. Issues and concerns that bother progressives in Maine resonate in Arizona. A progressive politics that is willing to explore these fissures could offer hope for new political transformations.

Arizona could be a poster child for Chamber-of-Commerce types from Maine to California. Low taxes, minimal regulation, spectacular growth. Between 1970 and 2003, Arizona ranked No. 2 nationally in the growth of inflation-adjusted aggregate personal income, rising an average of 5.4% annually. Nationally, the growth was 3.23%.

Nonetheless, that spectacular growth amounts to much less than meets the eye. The limits to this growth are apparent not merely to a left-leaning visitor from Maine but also to many Arizona citizens. A study of greater Phoenix by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University reported that two-thirds of its respondents think the community is growing too fast; two-thirds are concerned with the air quality; and nearly 90% view public preservation of open desert space as important.

Arizona may be the birthplace of deregulation, but even its citizens have obvious worries. Substantial numbers of its citizens now support better public planning to achieve denser patterns of development, with more open spaces. During the last presidential election, when Arizonans were giving George Bush a comfortable majority, they also enthusiastically supported a referendum for light rail transit from Phoenix to Mesa and Tempe. Initiatives of this sort may die if Bush's budget priorities are enacted.

Even the job creation statistics are problematic in many citizens' eyes. Arizona ranks 46th in real per capita personal income growth, the indicator of how economies are developing. From 1970 to 2003, this gauge rose only 1.84%, well below the national average. Jon Talton, a business columnist for the Arizona Republic, recently commented: "Arizona's seemingly impressive performance is driven by population growth rather than by developing new technologies, launching and expanding companies and creating high-value, high-wage jobs."

Arizona is having increasing difficulty generating and retaining good jobs in part due to deficiencies in its educational system. The state's spending per pupil ranks last in the US, and the high school dropout rate in Maricopa County is over 25%.

Of course, jobs are seldom a function merely of educational attainment. Even well-trained engineers and computer programmers can see their jobs lost to educated but very low-wage labor abroad. Outsourcing, often taken to be a subject of concern only in those old-economy blue states of the Northeast and Midwest, is an increasing concern in Arizona.

The loss of 80 jobs at a Best Western office in Phoenix recently evoked the following anguished comment in the Arizona Republic: "Information technology jobs were a step up from call centers, and in the '90s experts assured Americans that these positions would be a ticket to the future. Now Asian countries can do the work cheaper and at equal or superior quality."

Hardly the happy campers -- or ranchers -- that they are often portrayed as, many middle class citizens feel threatened by outsourcing and very vulnerable to the loss of health care. Working-class Arizonans, even in the booming construction field, worry about the influx of legal and illegal immigrants who already do most of the pool maintenance, gardening and other domestic chores.

Still, Arizona is not about to go from red to blue easily. Even as cowboy economics and cowboy land grabs work ever less well, many Arizonans still take comfort in a notion of their land as the home of real Americans. That America is viewed as under attack from hordes of Mexican immigrants. Mexican immigrants are symbols of and scapegoats for unwanted and uncontrollable change. In the last election, even despite opposition from the business community and the Arizona Republic, Arizona citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of an anti-immigrant referendum. Among other things, Proposition 200 made it a crime for government workers to fail to alert immigration authorities of suspected undocumented immigrants.

Boundary negotiation over immigration and trade issues is thus one key to bridging those red and blue state boundaries. Mexican immigrants have added immensely to the culture and economy of the US. Hardly hordes of barbarians eager to conquer us, most work hard and many intend to return home. Their concerns for family time and for their own culture can only broaden and enhance our fluid and evolving culture, as did struggles by earlier generations of Irish and Italian immigrants. A progressive agenda that addresses economic insecurities and environmental concerns even as it actively engages dialogue across racial and ethnic lines is our most urgent task.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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