“Valley Trash.” That’s what Alaska State Senate President Ben Stevens called Mat-Su Valley residents, (including Wasilla), in 2004.White trash with an Alaskan twist. The country bumpkins down an icy dangerous road from Anchorage. It struck a chord and spawned bumper stickers on four wheelers and tee-shirts that said “Proud to be Valley Trash.” Who knew then that Republican Senator Ted Steven’s son would define the Democrat’s national campaign when Sarah Palin jumped into the Vice Presidential race? For quick moving political operatives, Sarah became Daisy Mae and Todd, her own, Li’l Abner, a diverting sideshow to the Big Race. In the short term, Ben’s slur did a good thing for Alaska. It helped break the state Republican party in two, separating those rich car dealers, doctors and bankers who live in mansions on the Hillside in South Anchorage from working class conservatives in the Mat-Su Valley. Valley Trash are people, a bit like the ones Obama described in his San Francisco fund raiser, but, in fact, different; they have taken charge of their own destinies and, (as Alaskan license plates and a former governor once proclaimed), gone North to the Future . These folks aren’t bitter. They are living the Alaska Dream, a tough, independent and, sometimes, dangerous reality, cushioned with paybacks from oil field socialism that narrows the gap between economic classes, ( at least, among suburban and urban, non-indigenous Alaskans).
For a time, the Obama campaign thought it could win Alaska’s electoral votes. But when Palin was nominated, party operatives snapped up Ben Stevens’ Valley Trash campaign in all but name only, projecting Palin’s private life and her small town conservatism onto her would-be Vice Presidency. Bloggers and journalists went to work on Alaska and Palin, defining it as out of the mainstream and Palin as a Far Right Religious Zealot. Palin was ridiculed as a country rube among rubes, a possible witch whose family might have flirted with incest. Her Alaska became Dog Patch, Wasilla, Lower Slobbovia. James Carville called her a Buchanan supporter (read, anti-Semite), twenty minutes after she was named, even as Mary Matalin, his loving wife, played the other side of the street with her publication of Obama Nation by James Corsi. As Matalin and Carville explain it, in their co-authored account of the 1992 Presidential campaign, it is not really about Palin, Alaska or even handing the state back to Exxon-Mobil: “All’s Fair Love, War and Running for President.” But when you are on the receiving end of this abuse, that’s hard to understand because it feels so personal.
It’s amazing how quickly Alaskan liberals bought into the new Palin story, dismissing the recent past as if it had never happened. If Palin had come to Juneau with an agenda crafted in her church basement, cultural lines would have been drawn and no attacks on the Big Oil hegemony would have occurred. And state Democrats, who may have looked down their noses at Valley Trash, just like Ben, were smart enough to keep their mouths shut and find common ground while old-line Republicans leaders looked over their shoulders for subpoenas flowing from their overly cozy relations with VECO, the oil service company. To the dismay of oil company executives, she formed a working coalition with Democrats who represent West Anchorage’s well- paid liberals among unionized public employees and the professions. These Alaska Democrats were not conversant with the tactics of national political spin machines. Still, after 2000, they bought the Ralph Nader-as-spoiler line, hook and sinker as spun from distant Washington, despite Nader’s founding of Alaska PIRG and his steadfast support of Alaska in its fight with natural resource giants. They really couldn’t be blamed. Until this year, the spin and slime and sophistication of national Presidential campaigns were as elusive in Alaska as sun at noon in late January.
While the Alaska coalition, useful to Valley Trash and Democratic liberals alike, is gone, on the national playing field, the attacks against Palin could boomerang against Obama, especially as a national depression threatens to sweep away illusions of a better future.
Millions of Americans envy the Palins and aspire to their Alaskan lives as their own personal dream of security. Their piece of the corporate rock, peddled by Wall Street, sank like a stone. NYT writer, Timothy Egan, usually the smartest Alaska analyst, asked readers whether American voters could relate to an Alaska where, “Every home seems to have a freezer in the garage stuffed with moose meat and 10 pounds of alder-smoked chinook? Owning a small amount of marijuana is protected by the privacy clause of the Alaska constitution, the courts have ruled.” Are you kidding, Timothy? The answer is HELL, YES! A place where you make great money on the North Slope, do some commercial fishing or gold mining like Todd Palin and have time to compete and win Iron Man cross country snow machine races? All of this and three thousand plus dollars each from Alaska, your yearly share in the oil wealth? How many folks would like to live like the Palins on Lake Lucille in the half million dollar house that Todd designed and built?
Sarah Palin is selling the Alaskan dream as a remaining fragment of the American dream, not her foreign policy or economic claptrap drawn from Republican handlers. If her husband spends time helping her at work, or if she confuses her personal internet with the one the state provided, well, she is still Citizen Palin not Professional Politician Palin, like Senators Obama, Biden or McCain with their legions of reliable staffers. Her supporters understand and want to forgive her because she has the life they want. Level-headed Obama supporters need to develop a quick antidote to their own Valley Trash strategy. It’s not going to be Joe Biden, declared champion of the credit card industry and asset forfeiture for drug offenders. If people can’t relate to a United States Senator and his world, dumping on Sarah won’t rein them in. If James Carville thinks he can herd this crowd, the way he cowed progressives into voting for corporate candidates,instead of Ralph Nader, he has –once again- blown it for the Democrats.
Steve Conn lived in Alaska from 1972 until 2007. He is a retired professor, University of Alaska. His e mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.