“Alaska is the last frontier, the last place in this damn country where you can be free,” the ol feller said in the Izzy Jack’s bar, half the Miller Lite I’d just bought him going into his beard, presumably to be wrung out later. It’s half true of course.

You can go up to the north slope, and earn six figures driving a truck, and you can get drunk fall asleep in the street and get eaten by a polar bear. You can take advantage of the “circle [i.e. Arctic] rule”, which is pretty much what it sounds like — or you can steal another man’s camp wife, and end up dumped down a hole in the ice, and come bobbing up downstream six months later during the thaw.

The ol’ timer told me all this, and I suspect it’s pretty much true, even though it’s entirely possible that he’s a failed dotcommer paid by the tourist board to hang round the bars spinning tales for free drinks.

But whatever it is, it’s mostly bollocks of course. Alaska preserves the image of America as the land of free enterprise and individual effort, while quietly carrying on as a quasi-socialist fiefdom of social dividends and big money patronage. In a month, every Alaskan is going to get a three thousand dollar cheque, their share of the huge tax the state charges the oil industry. The underlying idea, unless I’m very much mistaken, is that the oil is the property of ALL ALASKANS, not merely the private enterprises that staked the claims on it. Effectively, the place runs like Norway, which has had a similar fund in place for thirty years.

Unlike Norway, Alaska hands over most of it as a cash payment, which is treated by the populace with the same prudent thriftiness as any chunk of free money is — i.e. not all of it goes on booze and crystal meth. Besides why do boring old infrastructure and investment like Norway does, when there’s a federal government?

“We got a lot of time for Ted Stevens up here,” the cab driver told me as we drove into the main entrance of the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, having passed a plaque commemorating Ted Stevens as “Alaskan of the century”.

Stevens is, of course, the still-living six time Senator, who is to stand trial in Washington in September for decades of alleged rorting via undeclared gifts, the most recently being a sled dog, or huskie money, as they call it here.

Of course they’ve got a lot of time for Ted — he’s head of the Senate appropriations committee, and nothing moves in nay direction without Alaska getting a little slice off the top. Consequently twenty-five per cent of the money in the state is big government investment, which spares Alaskans from funding their own development, which frees up the money for dividends to be used a political bribe.

The ultimate result of this half-assed dependency is that the state is uniquely dependent, not independent, on high oil prices and Washington pork. When either or both of these vanish, the underinvestment sends the state spinning into poverty, as occurred with the low oil prices of the 90s.

Unlike the Norwegians, who now have around $600 billion in their investment fund — and thus may be the first entire country to take early retirement — or Venezuela, which has plowed it back into poverty reduction, Alaskans simply let it float through the economy, inflating prices to the point where you don’t get much change out of ten bucks for a sandwich in downtown Anchorage.

Of course it’s not all rents and royalties and rorts. There’s the fantastically high wages the closed shop oil industry generates, the sort of wages that for example, allow for single income families, which allows a woman with four children to pursue a political career, as city councillor, then as mayor, and then…

“What about Palin?” I asked the Stevens-loving — and there is the faintest touch of North Korea ancestor worship about the place — cabbie.

“Oh we like her a lot too.”

“Isn’t she kind of famous for starting to bring down the whole Ted Stevens regime?”

Silence for a while, then “Oh fall is really here. Look at the golden trees. Well here’s your gate.”

True dat. Alaska is beautiful in every direction, the forests round Fairbanks striped gold and green, deciduous and evergreen trees planted together. Here, tonight, Sarah Palin is going to descend from the air like a returning hometown Goddess and speak in an aircraft hangar. Tomorrow, she farewells her son leaving here — on 9/11! — for Iraq. Nice touch.

The Republicans are killing the Democrats at the moment and it’s stuff like this that’s doing it. The “country first” slogan, combined with their audacious theft of the “change” slogan, the selection of Palin making the GOP look like a pair of outriders, while Obama and Biden look like the sort of black-white team of political pros that most big inner cities run, suddenly old tired hackneyed.

Though the Palin scandals are piling up — she took per diems for living expenses while staying at home in Wasilla as governor, she campaigned for “the bridge to nowhere”, the troopergate thing seems to go deeper than previously thought — none of it’s landing a blow. The GOP has played the last six weeks brilliantly, the kiss of the whip being placards featuring a modification of the old Rosie The Riveter WW2 posters, with Palin’s face in place. Suddenly, the historical impact of this campaign has become the way in which feminism, gender politics and all that were changed forever.

But they’ve only been able to because the Democrats have failed and are still failing. They’re still defensive, reactive, unbelieving that the initiative’s been taken from them. The gaffes pile up — South Carolina democratic heavy saying that Palin’s only a candidate because she hasn’t had an abortion was a doozy — and the only punch they’ve landed has been a ridiculous fuss over whether’s Obama’s use of the old “lipstick on a pig” political line was a sexist remark. And still they won’t hack into the McCain-Palin ticket for the single most important thing about them: they’re Republicans.

But really, after it looked that McCain had lost this months ago, it may be the Democrats who are now seeing the whole thing slip away. Why? Because the McCain team recovered from its disasters and pretty much changed the whole campaign around while the Democrats have had no campaign since the primaries.

Had they been attacking McCain as an enemy of ordinary people from day one, there would have been traction now. Starting from zero is going to be tough. Not impossible by any means, but tough.

And, when she descends tonight to farewell her son amid the flaming trees, the drifting mist and distant blue mountains of the Alaskan promised land, in this weird cult of death whereby parents contemplate the dispatch of their children to futile wars with pride, they’ll win this one too. This ain’t America, but it looks like it. As does America. And that is something the GOP understood, that the Democrats are yet to.

Peter Fray

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