Alaska vs. Hawaii

Why is Seward’s Folly the “real America” and the Aloha State not?

Throughout the Oct. 2 vice-presidential debate, Sarah Palin portrayed her Alaska roots as more authentically American than those of her opponent, Joe Biden, who hails from Delaware and Pennsylvania. “I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington, D.C.,” Palin declared at one point.

So that people there can understand how the average working class family is viewing bureaucracy in the federal government and Congress and inaction of Congress. Just everyday working class Americans saying, you know, government, just get out of my way.

Palin complained about “East Coast politicians” who wouldn’t let Alaska drill for oil at a time when ordinary Americans were paying sky-high prices at the pump. (Never mind that her running mate and fellow Westerner John McCain has long opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.) “[A]s the nation’s only Arctic state and being the governor of that state,” Palin boasted, “Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it’s real.” (Never mind that she said, in an Aug. 29 interview, “I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made,” an assertion that contradicts the scientific consensus.) “I’m a Washington outsider,” Palin observed, “and someone just not used to the way you guys [in Washington] operate.” She didn’t mean that as a compliment. To emphasize what she termed “my connection to the heartland of America,” Palin peppered her responses with endless winks and “doggone its” and “you betchas.”

Palin’s frozen-north authenticity won over much of the dreaded media elite. On MSNBC, Howard Fineman called Palin “a wolverine attacking the pant leg of a passerby.” David Gergen enthused on CNN, “[T]he Sarah Palin who showed up for the debate was the same spirited, authentic woman when she was announced.” CNN analyst David Brooks said on PBS, “The key moment is the colloquial, is the ‘gosh darn its,’ the soccer mom, the hockey mom, the Joe Six-Pack, the Main Streeter. … I think it’s authentic to her.” In a National Review Online column reprinted on the CBS News Web site, John J. Pitney Jr. enthused, “She reminded people at the grassroots that she is one of them.”

If Alaska is accepted as the Real America, Hawaii most assuredly is not. When Barack Obama took a few days off there in August to visit his elderly grandmother, Cokie Roberts complained on ABC News’ This Week that it did not

make any sense whatsoever. I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach, and, you know, if he’s going to take a vacation at this time.

A campaign memo by Hillary Clinton strategist Mark Penn, acquired by Joshua Green of the Atlantic after Clinton’s primary defeat, saw Obama’s upbringing in Hawaii as indistinguishable from the time Obama spent in Indonesia as a child. Under the heading “Lack of American Roots,” Penn wrote:

All those articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural, and putting that in a new light.Save it for 2050.It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values.

Why is Alaska authentically American when Hawaii is not? At bottom, of course, it’s a silly question. Both states, while disconnected geographically from the continental United States, are populated with people whose American-ness is beyond dispute. Every corner of each one of the 50 states is “authentically American.” But Alaska leans Republican while Hawaii leans Democratic, and the GOP long ago intimidated the media into believing that only Republican strongholds represent the “real America.” These Republican strongholds are usually sparsely populated, and I suppose the media’s been sold on the idea that because the United States started out as an agrarian nation, rural areas are somehow more authentic than urban ones.

But if it’s really true, as Palin said in the debate, that Americans are tired of “constantly looking backwards,” then perhaps it’s time we noticed that, as Rachael Larimore points out in Slate’s “XX Factor” blog, 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in metropolitan areas. We city-dwellers make no claim to being more “authentically American” than Alaskans or the inhabitants of any of this country’s many other big open spaces. But we are, by dispassionate numerical reckoning, more typical. And while most people probably don’t think of Hawaii as an urban state, 70 percent of its 1.3 million inhabitants live in and around Honolulu, the state’s biggest city. In Alaska, by contrast, only 42 percent of its 670,000 inhabitants live in and around Anchorage, that state’s biggest city. So if either of the last two states admitted to the union has any claim to being more characteristic of the nation as a whole, it’s Hawaii, not Alaska.

I’m not suggesting that Obama start prancing around obnoxiously declaring himself more authentically American than Sarah Palin. But I do wish the press would set aside its sepia-tinted glasses and consider this country as it is, and not as self-interestedly sentimental Republicans want us to think it is.