Southern Politics

Pause for a moment to salute the courageous coalition of Democrats and Libertarians who dream of creating America’s 51st state: Baja Arizona.  What they propose is nothing less than to free Pima County and Tucson from the grasp of an increasingly reactionary state government in Phoenix.  Secession is the most difficult of exit options to execute.  National governments and sub-national units of government are sometimes willing to allow people to leave but never dirt.  Holding territory is part of the hardwiring of every modern State.

The specific obstacles that the Start Our State stalwarts will have to overcome to create Baja Arizona are daunting.  Unless or until the constitutional authority exercised by the United States Government decays further – every regime is ultimately mortal even if we don’t want to think about it – both the Arizona state legislature and U.S. Congress would have to vote their approval.  Extremely unlikely now to be sure but then it took a long time for the Province of Maine to win statehood from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  In the near term the first step is putting a non-binding referendum for statehood on the next Pima County ballot.

If secession from northern Arizona would be difficult, Republican Governor Jan Brewer and the Republican state legislative majorities have given many Arizonans ample reason to want out of the madhouse.  SB 1070, which transformed state and local police into immigration officers, is only the best know example of legislation signaling that Phoenix is in the grip of extremism.  HB 2177 identified certificates of baptism or circumcision from clergy as proof of citizenship to run for U.S. President while SB 1433 permits state legislators to override Federal law.  Every Southerner knows that when state governments begin to talk Nullification they flirt with treason.

What does the Arizona GOP have to say about the incipient pro-Union rebellion in the Gadsden Purchase? Republican State Representative John Kavanagh couldn’t come up with any Tea Party effusions about individual liberty and instead opted to embrace the tyranny of the majority: “Democracy can be a real pain, especially when you are in the minority position.  But that’s the way it goes, majority rules.”1 Profundities like that are why reporters interview politicians.

So is Baja Arizona a plausible state?  As much of the reporting on the issue points out, our 51st would have a population larger than five existing states and a territory larger than three other states.  With approximately one million residents, Pima County has a population five times larger than Arizona when it achieved statehood way back in 1912.  Just for the joy of belaboring the point, Pima County has a larger population than some sixty independent countries, including Barbados, Iceland, Tonga, and the favorite of every undergraduate, Djibouti.

Baja Arizonans are motivated by more than disgust with the anti-Hispanic xenophobia and fringe populist conservatism of Arizona Republicans.  They have a proud tradition of inclusiveness, of cultural cross-fertilization that makes some parts of the Southwest so extraordinary for the rest of us.  That would be more than enough to give the new state a distinctive identity.

Beyond being a reminder that the true spirit of liberty lives on in Arizona, this movement is a useful reminder that every boundary line defining a sub-national unit of government and the constitutional statuses of those governments are artificial.  Every boundary is the result of political decision.  They only seem permanent and therefore legitimate because we stopped thinking about them long ago.  Consider the crazy quilts of municipalities that govern most of the large cities in the United States.  Or consider the racist scandal that North Dakota and South Dakota are states but not Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.  Start Our State is a fresh opportunity to rethink every boundary.

1 Ted Robbins.  “A 51st State? Some in Arizona Want A Split.”  NPR.

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.