Wednesday night Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB1062, a controversial bill that was supposedly intended to protect the religious freedoms of businesses and individuals who might out of ‘sincere belief’ need to discriminate against gay patrons or gay weddings. The bill had all of the markings of a political stunt. It was big, vague, ill-conceived and promised to solve a problem that only exists at the margins while at the same time creating a myriad of new problems. The governor had vetoed a similar bill in 2012, so why did the Arizona legislature bother? A closer look at the sponsors of the bill and the political climate on the right – past and present – offers some possible answers.
A peculiar thing happens when you Google the sponsors of SB 1062 – Reps Nancy Barto, Bob Worsley and Steve Yarbrough. Once you wade through the blistering attacks and criticism by everyone from gay rights groups to Fox News (right I know), most of the attacks are from Tea Party groups on issues including corporate cronysim, healthcare, and illegal immigration.
Nancy Barto is blasted for having committed the dual sins of both supporting John McCain and having won the endorsement of a local ‘far-left’ newspaper The Arizona Republic in her senate bid. Bob Worsley supported the expansion of Medicare in his state, which by some strange osmosis also made him a supporter of Obamacare. Steve Yarbrough is supposedly out of touch with the local common man due to the stream of dollars coming his way from local colleges. But where they are all vulnerable is on the hot button issue of immigration. All three opposed a harsh local bill that would have stripped illegal immigrants of their ability to drive, work, and attend school in addition to ‘solving the anchor baby’ problem by robbing their children of their citizenship. Worsley – who also owns the Skymall catalog empire – infuriated local Tea Party activists when he expressed concerns that laws like the aforementioned might turn Arizona into something of a police state. These guys are all what conservatives call RINOS, so why are they promoting a law like SB1062?
We often associate laws like SB1062 with political extremists, but in reality vulnerable moderates – often in an effort to stave off political attacks – promote some of the worst laws, not because they want or expect them to pass, but because they signal their bona fides and commitment to the base. These attacks from the right have many names, but my favorite was popularized by segregationist demagogue George Wallace who called it being ‘out-niggered’ or ‘out-segged’.1
Jim Crow as an entrenched system of racial oppression and violence was and is unique. To make unqualified comparisons to Jim Crow is a bit like the comparisons we hear to Nazi Germany and Hitler. However, in the Jim Crow system we see some obvious examples of political chicanery that are common today, but more subtle. Staging political theater to prevent ‘out-segging’ is one of them. Here are a couple of examples that help illustrate the point.
We all know the story of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas Governor who famously refused to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, but what is lesser known is that prior to that year, Faubus would not have been anyone’s posterboy for segregation and white supremacy. His father had been a socialist going so far as to make Faubus’s middle name ‘Eugene’ as in Eugene Debs. Orval Faubus himself had integrated the Arkansas Democratic Party and, compared to his peers, not taken a particularly strong stance on segregation, which of course made him vulnerable to attack from the far right in his case from the President of the local White Citizens Council Jim Johnson.2 Faubus eked out a victory against Johnson, but it left him battered and needing to prove his right-wing bona fides. His confrontation over the integration of Central High helped fill this need and transformed him from a suspected traitor to white race into one of the 1957 Gallup poll’s ten most respected men in America and a potential Presidential candidate.3
Faubus’ biography hints at the similarities between out-segging then and now. In the imaginations of right-wing southerners the threat to their way of life consisted of a vast network of outside agitators and interest groups including but not limited to Jews, Communists, gays, Freemasons, Catholics, educated Northeasterners, immigrants, unions and of course blacks. The average politician’s background would make him or her (though rarely her) vulnerable to a guilt by association attack on one of those fronts. That was the case for Faubus and also for, believe it or not, George Wallace.
The notion that Wallace was anyone’s version of a moderate seems preposterous in retrospect. He famously declared ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever’, stood on the steps of the University of Alabama, blocking efforts to desegregate it. He appointed notorious racial terrorists to his staff and renamed highways after Confederate generals, but in his first gubernatorial race he was masterfully out-segged.
George Wallace’s predecessor and political mentor had been an eccentric politician named Governor Big Jim Folsom. Big Jim was nobody’s idea of a racial liberal, but by the standards of the Alabama far right, he wasn’t hard-core enough. He had made the mistake of hosting Adam Clayton Powell, at the Governor’s mansion, so his endorsement hurt Wallace. As did Wallace’s own reservations about the Klan – he didn’t think they were bad guys just not…well…good. That tepid condemnation of the Klan was enough to win the endorsement of the local Jewish minority and the local NAACP: basically a political death sentence. Wallace’s opposition, John Patterson, ran on a hardline white supremacist platform beating Wallace by 64000 votes. Wallace famously promised he would never be out-niggered again and rest assured he kept that promise.4
Conservative strategist Lee Atwater famously described the evolution of racial politics from the kind of fear-mongering we saw with men like Wallace and Faubus into the more polished and even a bit abstract political stunt work that we see today, but the objective is the same – to create conflict between the state and federal government and to use that conflict to win support locally and gain notoriety nationally. In a strange sense SB1062 has achieved this objective and been a win for everyone except of course its supposed beneficiaries.
Governor Brewer has already had her showdowns with the federal government, so vetoing this law gave her the opportunity to save the state from disaster without losing face. The sponsors of the bill and its supporters have reassured the far right of their commitment to ‘religious freedom’ and their willingness to stand up to ‘gay bullies’ and other co-conspirators. And the media and public’s reaction can assure the gay community that some kinds of discrimination will be strongly opposed. The real losers are those genuinely concerned with religious freedom, because it is very difficult to have a clear-headed discussion in the middle of a circus.