Ask any centrist liberal about how to secure a swing state and their answer will, without fail, fall back on the conventional wisdom of one magic word: “compromise.”
They’ll say that winning in “contested purple” states requires adherence to “bipartisanship” above all else. That candidates for public office must appease even the loudest, most regressive right-wing ideologues, or risk losing everything. That when facing historic, systemic issues, our candidates can’t publicly advocate for more than inoffensive and ineffective half-measures. Privately, they might even advise such candidates to promise “no fundamental change” to private donor dinners.
Coincidentally, according to this wisdom, holding power in a newly won “battleground” state requires the same approach. Elected leaders must avoid upsetting their state’s conservative base by abandoning plans for social advancement. Rather than addressing the economic and material inequalities that have historically preceded right-wing populist movements, every new leader’s top priority must be to eliminate any personal convictions or policy stances that conservatives could use to justify a return to anachronistic Red Scare tactics.
This wisdom has dominated the most critical moments of Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s career. Over first four months of 2021, the once “progressive” Sinema has passionately defended the Jim Crow filibuster, described herself and her office as a “personal concierge” service for ultra-wealthy business owners, and shamelessly pandered to Senator Mitch McConnell while voting down a federal minimum wage increase. Every time a new challenge rises, she confidently doubles down on conventional liberal wisdom and makes another compromise.
Unfortunately for Senator Sinema and her corporatist enablers, but fortunately for the rest of us, this wisdom is a lie. The idea that Arizona is “purple” is a decades-old illusion generated by the bright glare of conservative money and bad-faith populist messaging. For the last four decades, conservatives have ruled over Arizona politics with a gilded fist. Right-wing power brokers have dumped nearly a billion dollars into Arizona’s state, local and federal elections since the rise of Reagan, and they don’t show signs of stopping. In 2020, conservative advocacy groups poured nearly $50,000,000 into Martha McSally’s doomed Senate campaign alone. That much money has a blinding effect on the strategic ideas of those who oppose the Right.
In a state that prides itself on a rural, libertarian cowboy culture, the GOP’s racist, pseudo anti-establishment messaging goes a long way. Arizona has been the home of some truly despicable legislation and lawmakers, in no small part due to the conservative oligarchs trying to buy our state.
Despite what she may believe about the average voter’s passion for “bipartisanship” or “traditional Senate process,” Senator Sinema’s refusal to stand alongside the majority of her colleagues in opposition to the filibuster has only hurt her chances at reelection. And since her widely criticized thumbs down to $15 minimum wage on the Senate floor, Senator Sinema’s poll numbers have plummeted. As of March 2021, more than 40% of voters, including 40% of “liberal” Democrats and 34% of independents, disapprove of Senator Sinema’s performance in office; only 39% of voters approve of her job performance. Compare that to Mark Kelly’s approval ratings – 49% “approve” (including 49% of independents) and 39% “disapprove” (including just 29% of independents) – and the political opportunities for the Left in Arizona’s political landscape comes into starker relief.
Arizona may look like a right-wing hellscape today, with fascistic ghouls like Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs dragging the state’s name through the mud in Congress, an ascendant state GOP rewriting election laws to solidify their hold on power for decades to come, and a coalition of “moderate” legislators obstructing meaningful change. But the Grand Canyon state was built on socialist, worker-friendly, small-d democratic values — and we have not lost touch with our roots.
Our state’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt, was an early and active supporter of socialist movements like the Industrial Workers of the World. He spent decades fighting for child-labor laws, infrastructure programs, corporate accountability, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, voting rights, constitutional initiatives, and restrictions on lobbying. His beliefs on equality and social programs were radical enough to trigger suspicions over his loyalties during World War I. Despite near constant conservative fear-mongering, Hunt was popular enough to win the Arizona governorship seven times over 20 years in public life.
Nearly a century after Hunt’s death, despite the vice-like grip exerted on state and national politics by the neoliberal duopoly, Arizona’s voters continue to support social programs in overwhelming numbers. Arizona’s 2020 election saw two progressive ballot initiatives pass by unexpectedly wide margins, one raising taxes on the wealthiest state residents to fund public schools (Proposition 208) and the other legalizing marijuana (Proposition 207).
Just a few months later, in the wake of Senator Sinema’s infamous thumbs down to a $15 minimum wage, new polling from Data for Progress and MoveOn confirmed Arizona’s increasingly progressive tilt. According to 600+ survey responses collected in late February, 61% of Arizonans (including 54% of independents) support a $15 minimum wage, 62% (including 61% of independents) support monthly $2000 direct cash payments for every person in the United States during the pandemic, 61% (including 58% of independents) support increasing and maintaining the $600 weekly unemployment plus-ups for the duration of the pandemic, and 56% (including 53% of independents) support the creation of a child allowance that provides parents with $3000 annual payments for each child younger than 17 and $3600 payments for each child younger than 6.
In a more direct jab at Senator Sinema, the same polling showed that 61% of Arizonans (including 66% of independents) believe it is more important that lawmakers pass major legislation to address the problems we face as a nation than that lawmakers preserve traditional procedural rules like the filibuster.
Governor Hunt may not be running for office in 2022, but he still represents a passion for progress that Arizona has not lost, despite what our neoliberal ruling class has so loudly and consistently contended.
If the 2016 and 2020 election results are any indication of demographic development, the electoral wing of America’s neo-conservative movement will implode due to lack of participation within 20 years. Democrats are already preparing for this looming power vacuum by sliding to the right on policy and scooping up disenfranchised conservatives. Republicans have taken a less subtle approach and proposed hundreds of new voter restrictions around the country in a desperate attempt to maintain their gerrymandered grip on power for a few more years. Nothing unexpected. The only question is, how will we respond?
Yes, our endurance has been tested, and no, our fight is not nearly over. But the possibilities for left advancement are actually closer now than ever before, and compromising our material demands will only hinder our march. Even in the historically red deserts of Arizona, where conservative money has warped reality and the corporate duopoly has stifled leftist organizing, the majority of voters support the policies socialists are championing.
Rather than submitting to fear of conservative rhetoric or neoliberal backstabbing and adopting a strategy of constant compromise for the sake of political survival, democratic socialists must always hold steadfast as the champions of working people. By standing up for worker rights, fighting for social programs, and, in all things, striving to satisfy the material needs of our neighbors by building self-sustaining communities, we will distinguish ourselves from the neoliberal ruling class that has abandoned their constituents to hunger, homelessness, and fear.
Our work is far from finished. But if there was ever a time for us to stand firm in our leftist principles, this is it.