As we watch the Kookocracy engage in Easter Island cannibalism, it's a fitting moment to reflect on the changing face of conservatism in Arizona. I know it doesn't look as if it's changed: After all, these are the same clowns who have been in office for decades, or the proteges of the clowns before them. For most Arizonans, Fife Symington or Evan Mecham seem like ancient history.
And yet, conservatism has meant different things at different times. The Kooks down at the Capitol would be anathema to the lions of the dawn of modern Arizona conservatism: John J. Rhodes, Paul Fannin and, especially, Barry Goldwater. What later passed for Arizona conservatives could say, "Barry changed," when the senator criticized the religious right or the ban on gays in the military with his characteristic circumspection. No, he didn't. I had conversations with Rhodes late in his life -- the House leader who, along with Goldwater and Republican Sen. Hugh Scott, told Richard Nixon he must resign the presidency. Rhodes was aghast at what the state Republicans had become.
Can you imagine John McCain or Jeff Flake showing such independence or integrity?
Arizona became a state at the height of the Progressive Era -- a political movement that sought to curb the influence of the wealthy and the corporations, empower average citizens and use government as a tool for social and economic progress. It encompassed politicians of both parties (even ones who otherwise despised each other: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). The evidence of the state's birthright still exists in a strong Legislature, a Corporation Commission and the initiative process.
Beyond the influence of its powerful corporate players -- the railroads and mines -- Arizona was not "conservative" in a way that Rush Limbaugh would recognize. It was a frontier state that desperately needed every federal dollar, especially for water projects. Getting this money was the enterprise of all Arizona politicians through the 1960s. Beyond that, Arizona was both populist and individualistic in the way of Western states of its era. It never produced a firebrand like Idaho's Sen. William Borah. Yet its federal politicians were in the main very concerned about the welfare of average Arizonans. The state voted for FDR every time. It was largely a Democratic state, heavily unionized even into the 1950s, culturally conservative (it was not, like the Kansas of Thomas Franks' book, a former hotbed of radicalism).
This began to change with the emergence of Goldwater, the department store executive who became a Phoenix city councilman in 1949 and managed the successful gubernatorial campaign of Howard Pyle in 1950. Goldwater was the father of the state's modern Republican Party. He went on to a stunning victory in 1952 over Sen. Ernest McFarland, the Senate majority leader and widely considered the father of the GI bill. Goldwater's first victory was probably a fluke -- McFarland was saddled with the hugely unpopular Harry Truman and popular fatigue after 20 years of Democratic rule. When Barry won again in 1958, it was a sign of a changing state, especially in the Phoenix metro area.
Phoenix alone had added more than 360,000 residents in the 1950s, an increase of 340 percent. Many were Republicans from the Midwest and plains states, and few had any allegiance to the old political order (who, many voters asked in 1962, is Carl Hayden?). Many had come to escape the racial upheaval back east, a trend that only accelerated in the 1960s (Phoenix kept its segregationist past and racial tensions largely concealed). The new Republicans in Arizona benefited from a rising middle class, ironically created by the New Deal, that was more receptive to its smaller government, bootstrapping message. The irony was double considering that Arizona, and Phoenix, wouldn't have existed in habitable form for these post-war families without government intervention on a massive scale.
Goldwater helped create the post-war conservative movement with his book, The Conscience of a Conservative (actually ghostwritten by Brent Bozell). Coming at the high tide of liberalism in 1960, the book and the ideas Goldwater espoused provided an appealing opposition, and popularized theories the young Bill Buckley had been brewing at National Review. They are not to be dismissed with the benefit of hindsight from today's Bush/Cheney disaster. In many cases, government had overreached and a critique of the welfare state was healthy. The Cold War, seen in its time, did represent an existential threat to the United States. And it is impossible to separate the rise of conservatism from the Cold War.
Still, Goldwater seeded whirlwinds. He opposed federal civil rights and voting rights acts (which he came to regret). He was very much a parochial product of the empty Arizona frontier, and had little understanding of the complexities of American society as a whole. It would be interesting counter-factual history to wonder what would have happened had Goldwater become president in 1964 (and I wish I had kept the Goldwater buttons I proudly wore to Kenilworth School that fall). I know we wouldn't have "lobbed one into the men's room at the Kremlin," or even dismantled the New Deal. Goldwater was a serious man. It's also interesting to ponder how he, Fannin and Rhodes would have reacted to the complicated issues the nation faces today, were they in their prime. Would they be like Jon Kyl (who knows better) and Trent Franks? I think not. In any event, these earlier Arizona conservatives never forgot their home state -- not even the iconic Barry -- and they brought home the federal money, especially for the CAP.
Another powerful force behind conservatism's rise was Eugene C. Pulliam, publisher of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. Pulliam was a publisher in the tradition of front-page editorials, including a remarkable one in the mid-1960s discussing how bureaucracy was destroying representative government. He was hated and feared, but unquestionably influential. Again, however, he was deeply loyal to Arizona and Phoenix, supportive of civic projects, the CAP and every federal dollar that flowed into the state. In his prime, he was not frozen in time or resistent to facts. (When I was a columnist at the Republic after it had been bought by Gannett, old-timers would sometimes ask me, "What would old man Pulliam make of you?" My reply: "He'd be egging me on." They didn't disagree.)
And yet, even in the 1960s there was a disturbing side to Arizona conservatism. Arizona was a hotbed of the John Birch Society, the extremist group that even labeled Dwight Eisenhower a communist. Republican bigs -- and I heard more than a few talk at informal salons my mother would hold -- were happy to "use the Birchers" because they were so fanatical as to be highly valuable in winning elections. Otherwise, these men believed, the far right were a bunch of nuts. But nuts who could be controlled. The "Southern strategy" of racial fear and division was also around; voter suppression happened in south Phoenix, for example. And an eccentric Glendale car dealer, who so believed Pulliam was a pinko that he published his own paper, The Evening American, wanted to enter politics. A foretaste of the party's future was seen in the venomous, destructive contest between Sam Steiger, an old-line Arizona conservative, and John Conlan, a proto-Kook, in the Senate primary.
You know the rest of the story. With the election of Evan Mecham as governor in 1986, the nuts had commenced their takeover of the Arizona Republican Party. While Mecham proved an embarrassment, his spirit lives on in the Kookocracy. What happened?
First, in 1986 the Democrats were divided, one contender running as an independent and allowing Mecham to squeak in. In many ways, The Dems never got their game back -- they were asleep as Republicans were taking control of school boards, city councils and the Legislature. This trend didn't change much under the palmy days of Saint Janet and it remains to be seen what the recent gains in Congress mean.
Second, Arizona politics became nationalized in a way never before seen. Barry Goldwater was very much a product of Arizona, the territory and the state. Today's Arizona conservative leaders are beholden to the national movement, from its dominant donors and ideologists that have seeded candidacies and the Local Krackpot "Think" Tank, right down to the endless hours of right-wing talk radio and Fox "News." All are well-funded and all are spouting propaganda points with a discipline that would make an old Soviet apparatchik envious. It is a seamless alliance of social and economic conservatives reactionaries. To cross the movement means political death, or so the more reflective of them privately believe. Along with the death of the old conservative titans, the punishment meted out to mavericks such as Grant Woods and state term limits, these factors have made stupid and ideologically reliable the only necessary skillsets for Arizona conservatives.
Third is what author Bill Bishop calls "the big sort." Arizona, and especially metro Phoenix, became a very self-selecting red zone. Like-minded people cluster together now more than ever before, and Phoenix shows it. To be sure, the Kooks rule from elections where in some cases as little as 25 percent of the electorate turns out. But the very layout of the place repels people who want such "liberal" values as community, real neighborhoods, diversity, social justice, transit, etc. It attracts the north Scottsdalite who wants to be left alone, the working white guy with grievances and guns, the suburbanite LDS and Christian evangelicals, all who want to drive like hell unimpeded, have a "tough sheriff" and see government as the problem. To paint with a broad brush. The Latinos don't vote. The Mormons do -- religiously, so to speak.
Finally, conservatism then and now serves corporate interests, which have now grown to an enormous, and dangerous degree. These have no regard for debates over abortion, much less gay bashing (gays, after all, are often affluent consumers). But with the steadfast defense of "property rights" and opposition to taxes, the conservatives do the bidding of powerful business -- even as most on the right reliably vote against their own economic interests.
Arizona conservatism, once closely rooted to the frontier state, has become just another market for the national right wing. Another "headquarters" we have lost. It is a movement now marked by failed ideas -- and few of those -- a nihilistic and hateful streak, and completely at sea for addressing the issues of what has become a populous, urbanized state with complex challenges.
Today's conservatives wouldn't have Barry Goldwater. In my eight-year-old heart, I knew he was right. But I grew up.
Read more of the Phoenix 101 series here.