Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Friday, August 31, 2012

Politics, Labor and the War on Big Business -- Book Review

In 1891, acting governor N. O. Murphy acknowledged that charges were frequently made in the territory that "a continual state of war" existed "between the people and the corporations." More specifically, he noted: "It is alleged that the railway corporations interfere with elections and endeavor to corrupt legislation in order to promote their private interests, and that an expensive lobby is always maintained at the seat of government to shape legislation favorable to the corporations."1
Having been, for the last two and a half decades, increasingly interested in the perpetual quandary that is Arizona politics, my personal memory of key events and intriguing characters goes as far back as the impeachment and removal of Republican Gov. Evan Mecham in 1987-88 and the AZSCAM scandal in 1991.

How easy is it to think that the hijinx and rancor we've come to know too well -- with the Tea Party, Russell Pearce and the near nonstop drama that accompanied the 2011 Independent Redistricting Commission (chronicled in detail in the Arizona Eagletarian, beginning in December 2010) -- is all some relatively new phenomenon? Not hardly.

Perhaps it's fitting that Politics, Labor and the War on Big Business: The Path of Reform in Arizona 1890 -- 1920David R. Berman's newly published treatise on the political history of territorial Arizona would be published in our state's centennial year.

Take a 240-page journey through Arizona's tumultuous early days guided by Berman's extensive research (followed by more than 60 pages of footnotes) on the fascinating process of the making of the Union's 48th State.

You will find the influence of Socialists, Populists, Progressives and Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party. Berman introduces the reader to Nathan Oakes (N.O.) Murphy and his brother Frank, two of the most prominent Republican figures in Arizona's early history; Arizona's most prominent Populist, Buckey O'Neill; and George Wylie Paul Hunt the new state's first governor.

Berman says George W.P. Hunt was important enough that his "views, activities, failures and achievements are at the heart" of his narrative.

Ultimately, Berman's aim is to tell the story of the "rise, fall and impact of anti-corporate reform" efforts in Arizona during the three decade period 1890 - 1920. Because so much in America (and Arizona) is the same today as it was more than a century ago, we can glean important insights from the successes and failures of pioneer activists and politicians.

Does this sound at all familiar?
"Reformers [of that day] saw the system of representative government as essentially corrupt because of the influence of big business and put their faith in direct rule of the people."2
Hunt and other drafters of the Arizona Constitution instituted citizen initiative and referendum processes as well as the Arizona Corporation Commission (Article 15).

As to what the reformers did a century ago in Arizona, consider the following:
In sum, the Progressive movement in Arizona, as reflected in the anti-corporate movement, was far more effective in bringing about changes opposed by a business elite than is portrayed in various studies of developments in other states. The movement in Arizona had shortcomings -- especially when it came to the rights of minorities and, to some extent, of women -- but it did aim for and produce more working-class benefits, corporate taxation and regulation, labor protections, and democracy. On balance, the movement gave Arizonans a greater opportunity to control their government and their jobs.3


The Occupy Wall Street (as well as Occupy Phoenix) movement began nearly a year ago. Initial efforts succeeded in organizing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people throughout the U.S. However, these days, there does not appear to be much activity among the OWS ranks. Could today's reformers incorporate Berman's insights to gain additional traction in their efforts to instigate change? I think so.

In Arizona, in 2012, the role of Big Business is again prominent in the news. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is a 39-year old organization that has been stealthily exerting increasing influence in state legislatures. ALEC is ALL about exerting the influence of Big Business in parochial ways. That exposure, and the controversy that followed, has caused numerous corporations to abandon the lobbying cabal. For the interests of working and middle class Americans, that's a very good thing.

ALEC and other lobbying interests do not hide that their intent is to advance the interests of whoever supplies their funding. They do, however, throw a cape of invisibility over their intent with persistent propaganda that makes many people think the interests of Big Business somehow is their (working class) own interest.

Investigative journalists and documentary filmmakers are doing tremendous work these days to expose that propaganda for what it is. For example, Hot Coffee, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream and Cyanide Beach are three very powerful independent documentaries on very current issues related to Big Business having hoodwinked Americans for a long time.

But without a fair and accurate understanding of the political and economic history of America, the competing forces of Big Business will continue to find ways to subvert efforts to maintain what real, genuine Americans need to support their own personal sense of freedom and liberty.

Politics, Labor and the War on Big Business: the Path of Reform in Arizona 1890-1920 provides that well researched, fair and accurate understanding of how it was. Leaders with vision will translate those insights into what it can be for the ever growing population of our great state.

Professor Berman will talk about his book and sign copies on September 6th at 7:00 pm at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Dr. in Tempe. (Southwest corner Guadalupe/McClintock) Be there or be square!

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1     Berman, David R., Politics, Labor and the War on Big Business, p 37.
2         p 4
3     p 12

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UPDATE: Though President Obama is scheduled to deliver his DNC speech on Thursday evening, that speech will be available to watch online after the fact. I plan to set my DVR so I can watch it when I get home from the book signing.

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