Sunday, May 25, 2003

Neither right nor left
I consider myself an Alaskan, or, more accurately, an expat Alaskan. I wasn't born in Alaska and didn't move there till I was almost a teen-ager, but I lived there longer than I have anywhere else and it was in Alaska that I received my political education and formed my political identity. Even after living in the southeast for fifteen years (in a place you Americans call the Northwest), I still follow Alaskan Politics closer than I do the politics of my state of residence. It is for this reason that I find myself feeling pretty proud over the recent nearly unanimous votes of both houses of the Alaska legislature to mandate statewide noncooperation with the Patriot Act (the full text of the final bill is here). Although many cites have passed such bills, Alaska is only the second state to do so (Hawaii was the first).
House Joint Resolution 22 says the state supports the fight against terrorism that led to passage of the federal law in 2001. But it urges federal lawmakers to go back and fix parts of the law that infringe on civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

The measure also says state agencies may not participate in investigations unless there's reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

That prohibition includes recording and sharing information on a person's library records, bookstore records, medical records and other personal data even if authorized by the federal law....

The measure also says state agencies may not use state resources to enforce federal immigration laws and may not collect information about political, religious or social views of individuals or groups unless that directly relates to a criminal investigation.

This really is quite remakable. Alaska is not a liberal paradise. Not long before I moved down here for grad school, my best friend, Rob Endicott, and I calculated that there were nine liberals in the entire state. Rob died of a failed kidney transplant and I married an old friend and never returned after school. That means there were only seven liberals in the state at the atart of the 90's. Even assuming a few more may have been born or emmigrated over the last decade, I don't think liberals have suddenly become a majority on the last frontier.

At one time the West was a bastion of liberalism. It elected such giants as Warren Magnusen, Mike Mansfield, and Frank Church, rather than such recent droolers as Don Young, Helen Chenowith, and "Undisclosed Location" Cheney (I know, I know. I owe an apology to anyone suffering from a condition that may lead to them drool for comparing them to Don Young. They can't help it; he can). The story of how the West changed is complicated.

The key to understanding such an action is to focus on the West's attachment to individual freedom and self-reliance (whether, in truth, this self-reliance is a myth or not is irrelevant to the power of the image). Alaska's politics resemble those of the intermountain West. Since statehood, Alaska has never voted for a Democratic president. The entire congressional delegation is Republican and has been since 1980.

Western politics are not so much conservative as libertarian and anti-liberal. In the late 60's and early 70's the Democratic Party gained a reputation as the party of big government (fairly or unfairly) and the Republicans gained a reputation as the party that resisted big government (again, fairly or unfairly). This message played well in the West and led to the Republicans forming a safe solid block of congressional and electoral votes in the West. This was part of the same redefinition of the Republican Paty that led to them capturing the South (a lot has been written about the Southern Strategy, far less about the Western Strategy). This redefinition swept Reagan into power and has been core to Republican strategy ever since. Like most things in life, the truth was not as simple as the popular image. As the Reagan budget deficits showed, Republicans are perfectly comfortable with big government as long as it is their big government.

Meanwhile, the Democratic obsession with rights appeared to the law-abiding, white middle class that dominate the West to be a sign that the Democrats were more interested in the interests of "others"--dusky, criminal, city dwellers on the coasts. If the Democrats didn't care about them, then the Westerners didn't care about the Democrats.

This perception can change. A concern with rights is not the exclusive property of right or left. Both ends of the spectrum and both parties have their pet rights to protect and their demonized rights to restrain (though they usually never call these rights; they call them privileges, abuses, or some other euphemism). Today, Republicans and conservatives are not the best allies of the libertarian West. It could be possible for Democrats to build on their history of rights protection and portray themselves as the defenders of key American values and rights.

Will they? I don't know. After 9/11 too many Democrats rolled over and played dead while the Bush administration used a moment of national insecurity to push through a reactionary wish-list called the USA PATRIOT Act. Lately, the candidates for president have been showing encouraging pluck in calling Bush a fraud and pointing out how little his administration has really improved our security. I doubt as if the Democrats can manage a permanent realignment of the libertarian West, but they may be able to forge a tactical alliance to remove Bush. To do so they need to portray him as a loose cannon and threat to core American values. No more playing nice for the sake of "the troops" or to present a unified face to "the enemy." The last election showed that Bush is not willing to return Democratic good will.

For now, bully for Alaska.

If I'm not busy in my yard all day tomorrow, I'll say more about possible fracture lines in the Republican coalition.

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