Tea Party Patriots to Convene in Arizona

Feb. 25, 2009, Maricopa, Ariz.: Unfinished homes in a subdivision surrounded by barbed-wire fencing viewed through yellow caution tape. Joshua Lott / Getty Images

The Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization for local Tea Party groups, announced on Tuesday morning that it will be celebrating the second anniversary of the Tea Party movement in late February with a "policy summit." The focus will be promoting the "the three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets" through politics, education, law, and culture.* But there are no details about the agenda. There isn't even a promised big-name speaker to draw in crowds or create buzz, just a coy promise that "when you hear who will be joining us—you'll be really glad you have a seat."

In light of this general vagueness, it is remarkable how detailed the email announcement is on the subject of why it chose to hold the summit in Phoenix. The Tea Party Patriots call Phoenix "the great southwestern city, born from the ruins of a former civilization, now the rebirth place of American culture. It will also be our opportunity to support the citizens of Arizona in their current political battles that carry so many national implications."

The fact that grassroots conservatives are so enamored with Phoenix says a lot about how human geography interacts with politics. To liberals, urban planners, and environmentalists, Phoenix and its growth are the epitome of everything that is unsustainable and unhealthy about recent American real-estate development. As a NEWSWEEK cover story from 1995 detailed, Phoenix sprawls across the flat desert landscape, requiring the consumption of ever-more gasoline to travel the ever-greater distances. Despite the low density, Phoenix suffers from the 16th-worst traffic congestion in the country. As befits a place settled in part by Californians fleeing in fear of diversity and crime, the suburbs of Phoenix are socioeconomically segregated.

Phoenix's rapid development is not built around major industry so much as the cheap land itself. People without jobs, such as retirees (or Bristol Palin), move there, and the economy built around construction and services follows. But this falls apart when the real-estate bubble bursts, which is why Arizona has the fourth-highest rate of foreclosures and is tied for 16th-highest unemployment rate among the states. What do these unemployed people and retirees do with all the free time on their hands? Probably not walk outside: the average high temperature is more than 104 degrees from June to August. The desert heat and low precipitation (rarely breaking 1 inch of rainfall per month) make Phoenix's trademark golf courses and shopping malls a precarious landscape. Air conditioning is a constant necessity, and water scarcity is a persistent problem.

Liberals have also long found the political culture of Arizona objectionable. The 1964 Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater—the widely recognized forefather of modern Sun Belt conservatism, who opposed the Civil Rights Act—came from there. Antipathy to civil rights remained a defining feature of Arizona Republican politics for years to come. As Time reminded us on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, "three Arizona House Republicans, including current Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, voted against the bill [to establish the holiday] in '83. The state did not vote in favor of recognizing the holiday until 1992, not only rejecting pleas from Reagan and then Arizona governor Evan Mecham but also losing the NFL's support when the league moved Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium, in Tempe, to California in protest." Last year Arizona found itself again offending the sensibilities of the professional sports business when it passed a law making it a crime not to carry immigration documents on your person and giving the police broad powers to interrogate and detain suspected illegal immigrants. In response, the Phoenix Suns of the NBA wore a jersey representing "Los Suns."

But a liberal's dusty, culturally banal, reactionary dystopia is a conservative's successful model of conservative ideals in practice. The Tea Party Patriots write: "[Phoenix] retains the famous western landscape of mountains, deserts, cactus, and an occasional cowboy. Event participants will enjoy urban sophistication in downtown Phoenix, with world-class spas, stadiums, restaurants, and shopping—all within walking distance of the new Phoenix Convention Center, our location. You'll want to spend an extra afternoon visiting the Grand Canyon, or playing at a year-round golf course (that's right—it will be warm in February!)" [emphasis in original]. Of course, the legitimacy of those claims probably depends on your definition of "urban sophistication" and "world-class restaurants." (The 1995 NEWSWEEK story said Phoenix "has a downtown so exiguous that a pedestrian outside its biggest office building at 9 on a weekday morning is a phenomenon as singular as a cow in Times Square.") A place retaining its "cowboy" character, having vast open spaces, and constructing artificial old-person playgrounds for golfing is presumed to be self-evidently positive. Those affections say a lot about the cultural aspirations that motivate Tea Partiers.

The choice of Phoenix also tells you something about the Tea Party's political aspirations. The major political parties typically put their conventions in swing states they are wooing. Hence, in 2008 the Republican National Convention was in Minnesota and the Democratic National Convention was in Colorado. The liberal Netroots, which the Tea Party is sometimes considered a right-wing counterpart to, follow this pattern by holding their conventions in swing states such as Nevada and Pennsylvania. But the Tea Party movement is not about pragmatically building a Republican majority. It articulates a conservative worldview as starkly as possible and hopes to pull the debate in its direction. The choice of Phoenix is a way of saying, "This is what the country should be like: low-density and hostile to suspected illegal immigrants." Left-leaning Harper's devoted a print feature to ridiculing the extremist Arizona Republican Party, while to the Tea Party movement it is a source of inspiration.

It is unlikely that Arizona's essential physical character will be dramatically changed, but its politics, especially on immigration, may be unpredictable in years to come. Arizona is 31 percent Latino, but in the 2010 Senate election its electorate was only 13 percent Latino. Latino Arizonans favored Democrat Rodney Glassman by a 17-point margin. In the years to come Latinos will increase their share of Arizona's electorate as immigrants become citizens and their children become old enough to vote. Either the Arizona Republican Party will moderate on immigration or Democrats will gain ground in state politics, or both. Then the Tea Party Patriots will have to find a new state that expresses conservative values where it can hold its summits. It's too bad Alaska isn't warm enough to golf in February.

*The email announcement refers to the "Five Pathways to Liberty," splitting politics into elections and legislation. Curiously, the website lists six "pathways," including economics. Presumably it just added economics. Watch out for lowering standards! In years to come will the pathways profilerate to include, say, bureaucracy, the media, etc.?