Palin’s appeal rooted in Alaskan culture

Part of the mystery of Sarah Palin is part of her appeal to Republican “outsider” voters who admire her qualities of independence and against-the grain political orthodoxy, says Alfred Darnell, Ph.D., visiting lecturer in political science and formerly its academic coordinator. Darnell’s doctorate is in sociology, and he knows a lot about Alaska, having grown up there and studied the politics of indigenous people of the North. He has completed a manuscript on the political-cultural processes of creating Alaska Natives as a category and population. Darnell calls himself “an inveterate Alaska watcher.”

Darnell says Palin’s novelty puts her in good stead with voters who disdain old-style politics.


“For the Republicans, Palin is a fresh new face for the party, and she has the potential to represent a younger Republican element that is largely outside ‘beltway’ and ‘insider’ politics of Washington and the Republican Party. This clearly is a facet of her success in Alaska, where she came from outside the old Alaska Republican guard. She has promoted this position by regularly challenging and opposing the more established and entrenched Republican leaders of the state. She has remained largely outside the troubles faced by Sen. Ted Stevens, who is under indictment for receiving undeclared monies from VECO. She has directly taken on Congressman Don Young, the third longest serving Republican in the House of Representatives, who is under investigation for financial irregularities, by actively endorsing Alaska’s Lt Governor against Congressman Young in the Republican primary. She was also an early and vocal critic of the cronyism and corruption among Alaskan legislators who were predominately Republican.”

Darnell says that Palin has probably made her greatest mark on the State through her aggressive efforts to reduce state spending.

“It is these qualities that the Republicans hope to communicate to the general populace to legitimize her as an unconventional Republican with governing experience, who works for what the Republican Party stands for rather than the cronyism that has come to characterize the politics of Washington,” he says.

The Republicans have highlighted Palin’s extraordinarily high approval rating in Alaska. It is perhaps more impressive in light of the highly varied constituency she is serving.

“The Governor of Alaska must negotiate between diverse interests across the state because the larger urban areas, smaller communities, and rural villages frequently have competing interests,” Darnell says. “Governor Palin has, to date, been uncharacteristically successful in appealing to each segment of the population. Past governors of Alaska have tended to cultivate core constituencies that excluded larger segments of the state — a condition hardly unique to Alaska. This would seem to suggest governing skills that have not been widely acknowledged.”

Darnell says this very point speaks to the problem Republicans face, and that is her “unknown” status. In spite of the fact that Palin has made these strides in Alaska, Democrats can exploit her tenure in Alaskan politics.

“Alaska is a marginal state in terms of national politics and is not well-known by the rest of the country,” he said. “They hope this can be translated into a view of her as a candidate with little or no experience in government. Her lack of a previous national profile and accompanying experience has been identified by Democrats as a problem of significance.”

However, problems with the issue of experience for Palin are much more pronounced with respect to her familiarity with international politics and diplomacy or with military matters. Here she has a significant gap in her background, underlined by the fact she never had a passport before she became governor, Darnell pointed out. This is a point that Democrats have focused on, and has left the Republicans with thin rebuttals. “She has not helped herself on this front by attempting to demonstrate she has experience that is really not there, which serves to only underline Democrats’ criticisms,” Darnell says.

“What we have not seen much talk of is the fact that Alaska has considerable international trade with Japan, Korea, and China being the top three destinations, in that order,” Darnell said. “The primary exports to these countries are seafood, energy or petroleum-related products, forestry products and minerals. Previous governors have spent considerable time developing relationships with and in the recipient countries. Presumably, Palin has developed more than a passing familiarity with these and other countries to whom Alaska exports products.”

According to Darnell, Palin’s biography itself is a potential source for mobilizing voters for the Republican Party, if it can be communicated to receptive parts of the electorate. She demonstrates a strong working class and conservative foundation by the life she has led. She has worked blue-collar jobs as a commercial fisher; she opposes government policies that are believed to stifle economic development in the state; she promotes oil drilling across the board and opposes invoking the endangered species act. She is an active hunter, and she has lived a fundamentalist Christian life with her family.

“These are qualities that have played very well in Alaska because they speak to an independent and libertarian ethos that is perhaps more prevalent in Alaska than elsewhere in the country,” Darnell says. “But these qualities also can be used by the Republicans’ opponents because they demonstrate marked differences in the types of policies that a Democratic administration would pursue as well as highlighting how an Alaskan Republican might be out of touch with the country as a whole.”

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