There is no place like Arizona. Spectacularly beautiful, it is home to Grand Canyon National Park, one reason the state places seventh on the top 10 list of LGBT destinations. Arizona’s dramatic physical beauty has long drawn a diverse demographic from across the country that makes it an ideal place for libertarians—people who value their personal liberty, political freedom, and government at a distance.
But while Arizona’s geography can be taken at face value, its political landscape cannot. Despite having had more female governors than any other state, a high median income, a significant proportion of the nation’s Latino and Native American populations, and unparalleled growth, the state has taken a turn for the extreme, the oppressive, and even the unconstitutional, particularly during the administration of Republican Governor Jan Brewer. Having long presented itself as open to anything, Arizona is now more extremist flashpoint than libertarian mecca, its live-and-let-live ideals eroded by an invidious new politics that is deeply conservative. What’s happening to Arizona?
Arizona was defined by President Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation fervor. The original libertarian president designated the Grand Canyon and much of the rest of the state a protected area. Only 15% of the state is privately owned land; the rest belongs to the U.S. government and Native Americans. A full quarter of the state is reservations, home to nearly 20 Native American/First Peoples tribes, notably the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache. Native culture has influenced Arizona culture, as have the Mexican cultures of Sonora to the south and Baja California to the west. Phoenix has one of the largest collections of Native American art in the country.
Barely a century old, Arizona was the last of the contiguous states to be admitted to the union, on Valentine’s Day, 1912, but in the past decade it has become the fastest growing state. In 1950, Arizona had fewer than 1 million residents. In 2012, it had 6.6 million and is now the 15th most populous state.
Much of that growth is centered in Phoenix and the surrounding smaller cities of Mesa and Glendale. Despite daunting temperatures, Phoenix has become a magnet city in the Southwest, with a growth rate for 2013 higher than any other city in the country. A hub for industry—particularly a booming tech world—and a locus for conventions, the city’s population has grown by nearly 24.8% in the last 15 years, according to U.S. Census figures.
Arizona has long presented itself as a libertarian paradise, home of the solidly centrist, anti-Big Government independent voter. The state even has an LGBT libertarian group, the Arizona Stonewall Libertarians, as well as numerous campus libertarian groups. And it has had more female governors than any other—three in succession, four total: two Democrats and two Republicans. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, was governor until January 2009, when she was chosen by President Barack Obama to be the first female secretary of homeland security. Napolitano was succeeded by the current governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, who was then Arizona secretary of state and became governor due to the state’s constitutional succession law when Napolitano resigned. The state constitution has no provision for a lieutenant governor.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, had been the independent voter’s dream candidate in 2000 when he lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush. Many political pundits attributed his loss to that Arizonan libertarian attitude that did not fall in lock step with the Republican Party but was not quite moderate enough for much Democratic voter crossover.
McCain’s wife, Cindy, and older daughter, Meghan—both pro-gay rights, both supporters of the NOH8 campaign—exemplify that renegade libertarian streak. Cindy McCain uses her NOH8 photo as her avatar on Twitter. Meghan talks regularly and openly about her coterie of gay friends and has said LGBT rights is the cause “closest to [her] heart.” She was the keynote speaker at the 2009 Log Cabin Republicans’ convention, where she said, “I am concerned about the environment. I love to wear black. I think government is best when it stays out of people’s lives and business as much as possible. I love punk rock. I believe in a strong national defense. I have a tattoo. I believe government should always be efficient and accountable. I have lots of gay friends. And yes, I am a Republican.” But if a strong libertarian swath still slices through even the far-right Republican sections of Arizona, the state’s political tenor has lately veered from libertarian independence to a kind of rogue extremism. Examples of this trend speak to a worrisome shift from tough individuality to an explosion of xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and racism.
In the four years that Brewer has been at the helm, the door has been opened wide for the politically extreme and has nearly closed shut for those who embody the long line of Arizona libertarians that includes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Congressman Morris Udall, labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and singer Stevie Nicks.