As Goes Arizona, Whither Goes the Nation?

We are now fully through the looking glass here in the state that has become synonymous with reactionary fear-mongering and institutionalized intolerance. To wit:

Our sitting governor gets stumped during the "introductions" portion of a televised debate, winds up righting herself with the glorious phrase, "I have did everything I could do," and then proceeds to storm out of a post-debate media session when the questions get too hard. The federal government has sued our swaggering Sheriff Joe Arpaio for failing to comply with information requests pertinent to a wider investigation over his Kafkaesque policies and practices. And State Sen. Russell Pearce, sponsor of the infamous SB 1070, continues to prattle on about "anchor babies" and the need to abolish the 14th Amendment to save the republic.

This might all be funny if it wasn't indicative of a pattern that is being emulated in other states.

Even after her gut-wrenching and now legendary "pregnant pause" during the debate, Jan Brewer still leads her Democratic rival Terry Goddard by double-digits in the polls largely due to the mere fact that she signed SB 1070 into law. No wonder candidates for high office from Florida to California (both states with significant Hispanic populations) are parroting this strategy and explicitly running on an anti-immigrant platform. From the Eastern Seaboard to the Rust Belt, states are looking to imitate Arizona's "zero tolerance" approach to immigration (an apt phrasing if ever there was one). Even on a popular train route across the northern U.S., which doesn't cross any borders, passengers are subjected to routine "where are your papers?" inquiries based largely on their outward appearance.

The truly remarkable thing about this metastasizing xenophobia is that it is based entirely on empirical falsehoods, by most respectable accounts.

Illegal immigration in the U.S. has been sharply declining over the past decade. Violence on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico has likewise been steadily dropping. Crime rates among immigrant communities are on par with or lower than those with similar demographics. Immigrants (legal and illegal alike) put more into the public coffers than they take out through social services. Obviously we can play these sorts of "lies, damn lies, and statistics" games indefinitely, going back and forth citing studies and sources to support divergent positions. But this type of "battle of the experts" bantering gets us nowhere productive, and misses the larger points that most need our attention.

Before speaking to some of those "bigger picture" issues, a few more salient lessons from the desert are in order before they wash up on your local shores.

It turns out that the governor's inner circle of advisors includes a number with various personal and professional stakes in the prison-expanding revenues likely to be generated by the influx of immigrant detainees yielded by SB 1070. The governor is guided by lobbyists and close operatives of the Corrections Corporation of America, which capitalizes to the tune of millions per month on warehousing transferred undocumented individuals. While the racialized nature of "breathing while brown" laws is obvious, equally so is the financially interlocking character of the legislative parties involved and their pecuniary interests. It is likely that similarly dubious connections exist whenever race-baiting politicians fan the flames of ignorance and persecution.

Another intriguing wrinkle from the annals of Arizona is the blatant hijacking of the Green Party ballot line, ostensibly by Republican operatives with a stake in siphoning votes from Democrats in contested districts and generally gumming up the electoral works with more platforms for their narrow ideology. Under a quirk in Arizona law that allows individuals to appear on the general ballot if they receive even a single vote (their own, perhaps) in an open primary without an official minor party nominee, Republicans managed to place stealth candidates on the roster in a number of contests around the state. Knowing that some left-leaning voters will choose the Green candidate without further inspecting their actual views and values, this could be sufficient to tip the balance in close races toward the Republicans. And under the state's Clean Elections law, these calculating efforts even wind up being funded by the taxpayers.

I suspect that some of these tales may resonate with themes prevalent in your area. Or soon will.

The tack of "blaming the victim" and passing the scapegoating buck down to the lower rungs of the social ladder is a tried-and-true political ploy. In a time when powerful interests have been consolidating their reign through various forms of legal chicanery and open financial thievery, we are likely to see (and have in fact seen) a rise in overt xenophobia to deflect our outrage from the robber barons to the huddled masses. Sociologists sometimes call this a "moral panic" when it reaches widespread levels of knee-jerk persecution of "the other" -- but it might more aptly be called an "immoral panic" since its architects are happy to advance their entrepreneurial interests at the expense of vulnerable segments of the populations. Most horrifyingly, this tack sometimes comes with bloodshed, hate crimes, and other forms of victimization in its wake.

You may be tempted to buy into the notion that "illegal immigrants" and other "undesirables" are the source of all our social ills and economic woes. Perhaps your fear in these uncertain times motivates a subtle embrace of such notions. The sensationalization of crimes by people of color -- while the crimes of the well-to-do go far less reported -- contributes to an air of demonization. The power elite are largely hidden from view and immune from direct contestation, whereas the poor migrant worker or "welfare queen" in our midst can be slurred in polite company without much fear of societal repercussions. Political uncertainty and (in particular) economic anxiety need an outlet, and the construction of the dangerous "other" as a lightning rod for these purposes is part and parcel of the Machiavellian playbook.

In this light, it can plausibly be argued that Arizona has stepped to the national fore of the immigration debate precisely because it is also within hailing distance of ground zero for the financial meltdown. Rampant foreclosures, major property devaluations, teeming unemployment, the erosion of public healthcare, a race-to-the-bottom education system, firewall tax increases of last resort -- and only the prisons as a tangible growth industry. This, then, is the "Arizona Model" of imposed austerity, public sphere evisceration, scapegoating, and prison profiteering. Is this a trial balloon, on a statewide scale, for a rightwing power grab par excellence? Not to trespass upon another state's image, but: if they can make it here, can they make it anywhere?

Take heed friends, lest you find that as goes Arizona, so goes the rest of the nation.