Alaska: Land of Contradictions

The politics of the Last Frontier are a strange brew of libertarianism, moralism, privacy and a love of government handouts.
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In many ways, the politics of Alaska are a study in contrasts.

On one hand, the state receives more federal money per capita than any other state in the union ($506.34, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense), and 1 in 3 jobs there is connected to the federal government. But a strong anti-government libertarian tradition resonates — in 1990, the state even elected a member of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, Walter Joseph Hickel, to be its governor.

On one hand, Alaska is a remarkably sparsely populated state, with just 0.22 percent of the U.S. population (670,000 people) living on a giant landmass that would simultaneously touch Southern California, Florida and Lake Superior if superimposed on the lower 48 (it is 570,380 square miles, just slightly smaller than all of Iran). But the majority of Alaskans (61 percent) lives in a single metropolitan area (Anchorage).

On one hand, Alaskans take their right to privacy seriously — Alaska is the only U.S. state in which possession of marijuana is legal (in small amounts). But the state is also home to an increasing number of evangelical Christians, who consider a broad range of supposedly private vices to be a public matter.

Peeing Off the Porch
One of those conservative Christians is Gov. Sarah Palin, who burst onto the national scene last month when John McCain tapped her to be his running mate, putting Alaska on the radar of the rest of the country.

To many Americans in the lower 48, Alaska is a strange and far-off place. The classic stereotype is a land of unforgiving climate and rugged individualism, the kind popularized by books like Going to Extremes by Joe McGinnis or shows like Northern Exposure.

This, however, is increasingly a myth, said Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“There’s this idea that you can live in Alaska and be happy and nobody will be around, and you can go out and pee off your porch and nobody’s going to see it,” he said. “And that’s just not the reality in Anchorage or Juneau or Fairbanks.

“There are people who perceive themselves to be rugged individuals,” he added, “and there are some people who do live that way, but the real myth is the fact that we’re so independent and we distrust government and we don’t want anything to do with government, and the reality is: Look at Senator (Ted) Stevens. He was able to bring home earmarks. The state is right out there with their hands out. Sarah Palin was right out there with her hands out.”

Fifty years ago, the ethos of independence might have been closer to the reality. When Alaska joined the union in 1959, most of its residents had grown up in sparsely populated frontier colony that reinforced a sense of individualism. They even wrote an explicit right to privacy into the state constitution.

It is a right to privacy that Alaskans continue to take seriously. In 2003, for example, the Alaska state Legislature passed a resolution condemning the USA PATRIOT Act, instructing state police not to “initiate, participate in, or assist or cooperate with an inquiry, surveillance or detention” without “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under Alaska State Law” — quite at odds with the stance of the national Republican Party.

It is also this right to privacy that guarantees Alaskans the freedom to possess small amounts of marijuana.

But starting in 1968, with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, and in 1977, with the completion of the Trans-Alaskan oil pipeline, an oil boom began attracting increasing numbers of transplants from oil-producing states like Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma; with them arrived conservative Christian values commonly seen in those states. Alaska has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and almost all of its elected leaders since then have been Republicans.

And as more and more transplants arrive (the population of the state has grown steadily, from 226,167 in 1960 to 626,932 in 2000), the state Republican Party has become more religiously oriented.

“The popularity of the religious right has been growing, and probably the reason (Palin) got elected is because of the number of people who identify with the religious right,” Shepro said. “Palin is in the vanguard of the religious Christian right in Alaska.”

Gerald A. McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, described Alaska’s political culture as a hybrid of individualistic and moralistic cultures, drawing on Daniel Elazar’s typology of state political cultures. (Elazar breaks state political culture into three domains: moralistic, individualist and traditionalistic.)

“Individualism obviously fits into the frontier mystique, the self-reliance given very extreme climate circumstances,” said McBeath, author (with Thomas A. Morehouse) of Alaska Politics and Government. And moralism, he said, refers to the increasing religious dimension of politics.

America's Breakaway Republic?
And what about the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, whose convention Sarah Palin attended and of which her husband Todd was once a member?

The party was founded in 1973 by a man named Joe Vogler, who objected to the federal government telling him how he could use his mining claims. In 1986, he ran for governor and won about 10,000 votes (5.5 percent of all votes), tapping into the strong individualist element in the population. Part of his platform was secession from the United States.

Though it looked like the party was finished after that, in 1990, Walter Joseph Hickel, who already had been a Republican governor and Secretary of the Interior under President Nixon, successfully ran for governor as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party. But Shepro said that Hickel never really took the secessionist agenda seriously.

“The rhetoric was there, but for all practical applications, he was a Republican.”

McBeath, meanwhile, dismissed the Alaskan Independence Party as “a flash in the pan,” part of a larger “sagebrush rebellion of oppositional sentiment” that took place in many Western states in the 1970s and ’80s.

But the Alaskan Independence Party does fit into a larger populist tradition in Alaska. McBeath notes that the state has a relative openness to political upstarts and low statewide election filing fees ($100) to make it easy for newcomers to enter the fray.

“In most American states, Sarah Palin would never become governor,” McBeath said. “But Alaska provides the kinds of opportunities for ambitious people that are not available elsewhere. So she took her moralist approach and decided to enter, and it was easy for her to do so.”

Alaska also has strong tradition of statewide ballot initiatives. “We’re constantly wanting to throw stuff in front of people,” McBeath said.

Then there are the taxes — or, rather, the lack of taxes. In 1976, the state government set up something called the Alaska Permanent Fund, which manages a quarter of the state's mineral royalties, overwhelmingly from oil, and gives every resident of Alaska an annual dividend of up to $2,000 on the investments made with those royalties. (Laura Achee, director of communications for the fund, noted that "we've paid out 50 percent more in dividends -- $16.7 billion-- over the years than the fund has received in mineral royalites.")Alaskans pay no taxes, except for a property tax, although there are some municipal-level sales or property taxes.

Yet, Shepro said, “Alaskans feel they are overtaxed. We have the lowest tax burden in the U.S., but if you talk to the average person on the street, they say they are being taxed to death and want to elect Republicans. People say they hate socialism and government ought not to be doing all the things it does, but they’ll take a check from the government as a reward for living in Alaska.”

But perhaps in this contradiction, Alaskans are not so unique after all.

“People like road building and the money they get, and they don’t like government,” McBeath said. “Tell me something new. These contradictions are a fact of life everywhere.”

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