Red States Hit the Panic Button

Red states and blue states are racing in opposite directions.
Even Jan Brewer had to say no to conservatives' latest demands in Arizona. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

On Feb. 26, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, under enormous pressure from business allies, vetoed the latest primal scream from conservatives: legislation affirming the "religious liberty" of Arizonans who wish to deny commercial services to gays and lesbians. That same day, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a measure to expand financial aid for undocumented immigrants to attend state colleges.

Red and Blue America continue speeding in sharply divergent directions. Arizona's Republican Legislature, of course, had previously mounted the barricades against immigrants, passing the notorious S.B. 1070, which initiated a wave of anti-immigrant legislation in Alabama, Georgia and other states before being largely invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arizona's anti-gay legislation and its anti-immigrant legislation are functionally unrelated. But they are products of the same cultural panic. Scott Smith, the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, described the "religious liberty" law as Arizona's third strike, following S.B. 1070 and the state's previous refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday.

Last August, I wrote about conservative tactics in the states as a reincarnation of "massive resistance," the efforts of Southern segregationists to thwart the nation's embrace of racial equality. Voter restrictions, the all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act (even at the cost of financially squeezing local hospitals in states that have refused Medicaid expansion), renewed subversion of abortion rights, and desperate, last-ditch attempts such as Arizona's to reverse the foregone conclusion of gay equality are all indicative of a full-scale retreat from liberal political culture and 21st-century racial realities.

That retreat is increasingly well-armed. State (and, thanks to the Supreme Court, federal) expansion of gun rights in the Barack Obama era has been breathtaking. Legislators in red states, having already gone to extraordinary lengths to extend the gun's dominion to churches, schools, universities and bars, are now scouring the land for any remaining unmilitarized zones. In a typical effort, a legislative committee in Indiana this week approved a bill to allow guns in school parking lots. The Mississippi House of Representatives, meanwhile, sent a bill to the state Senate this month prohibiting officials from seizing guns or ammunition even if martial law is declared.

It's tempting to find the crush of legislation wacky. But the fear driving it is real enough -- both the practical political fear of Republicans determined to prove their radical bona fides, lest they invite a primary challenge, and the heightened paranoia exhibited by some conservatives since the election of Obama.

Guns, gay rights, immigration, abortion -- they are all distinct issues. But taken together, the actions pursued by both camps present fairly coherent visions of the future. Liberals see an expansive multiracial society with sexual liberty -- Washington's House also passed a bill requiring health insurers to cover abortions -- and sufficient resources to welcome 11 million undocumented immigrants into the fold, extend subsidized health care to the poor and near-poor, and provide educational aid to the children of citizens and noncitizens alike. Conservatives see a bleak landscape of overstretched budgets and shrinking opportunity that Tom Edsall described in "The Age of Austerity" as a "resource war" pitting the old and white against the young and brown.

Liberals often wonder why so many conservative Americans keep stocking up on guns even as violent crime has plummeted in recent years. Maybe it's not criminals they're worried about.

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