By design, Sarah Palin has been all over the national media in the last couple of weeks, since the publication of her book, Going Rogue: An American Life (New York: HaperCollins, 2009). Since her nomination as John McCain’s running mate, Palin has had a major impact on the public consciousness. In the process, she has given many people from the Lower 48 their first serious look at our 49th state, and their first chance to watch a talented Alaskan woman in political action.
Another Alaskan woman, a contemporary of Palin, provides a fascinating counterpoint to the story Palin tells. Riki Ott, perhaps a decade older than Palin, came to Alaska as a young adult in the mid-1980s, while Palin was just a toddler in 1964 when her parents brought her. Ott. with a doctoral degree in marine toxicogy, settled in the fishing town of Cordova and took up the fishing life. Her book, Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), is the story of how that 1989 spill tore her community apart, and how the people of Cordova fought back over 20 years.
While Ott focuses her entire book on the struggle for justice in the Exxon Valdez case, Palin devotes just four pages (59-62) to the entire 20-year saga, though she claims that it crystallized her resolve to enter public service. Ott tells of the community’s struggle; Palin tells us about hers. Palin’s political story spans the same years as Ott’s, but you would hardly know that they were talking about the same place.
Both tell of disillusionment. Ott started out accepting Exxon’s assurances that “not one drop” of oil would spill in Prince William Sound, only to learn of gross negligence and determined avoidance of responsibility. She gave up fishing and lost her marriage in order to use her education and leadership skills in service to her community.
Palin portrays herself as a devoted wife and mother of five, impelled into public service to help average people with a “commonsense conservative” approach to government. After successively vanquishing foes at the local and state levels, she confronts defeat and frustration in national politics. Finally, after defeat in the presidential election and a steady drumbeat of harassing corruption charges, she decides that it is best for her state and her family to resign as governor. She is, she says, “impatient”(2) with politics.
Palin’s attitude towards Exxon Mobil is either interestingly nuanced, or thoughtlessly inconsistent. On one hand, she accuses the petroleum giant of arrogant abuse of power, not only with respect to the Exxon Valdez case, but also in refusing to drill for oil in concessions it already has on the North Slope. She pats herself on the back for insisting on an open bidding process for the trans-Canada gas pipeline that was her signature achievement as governor. But she also celebrates the ultimate involvement of that company in the final plan for the pipeline. Like the Republican Right in general, she want to identify herself with small business and the competitive market, but she is in thrall to, and enthralled by, big business.
Riki Ott arrives at a contrary conclusion. Her experience taught her that massive corporations constitute a lethal threat to democracy, because they wield unimaginable economic power, and especially because they are protected in wielding that power by a legal system that gives them all the rights and immunities of citizens. Even though corporations are publicly chartered to serve the public good, in practice they serve only themselves, exploit their workers and the public, and have the resources and legal rights to resist and delay being held responsible for the damage they do. She wants to amend the federal constitution to undo more than a century of case law that vests corporations with the rights of citizens.
Sara Palin, in contrast, would strip the federal government and the courts of their ability to regulate the economy, leaving us to the benevolent ministrations of the free market. Her personal style may excite the mistrust of Republican regulars like those who ran the McCain campaign, but her free-market, small-government conservatism is very appealing to a broad swath of the middle class. She would happily ride her formidable rhetorical skills to the White House. Those who remember ridiculing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush should pay attention.
Palin and other conservatives want us to ignore the fact that shrinking the government and deregulation doesn’t help the small business person and the average worker; it turns the country over to massive corporations like Exxon Mobil. That’s what Riki Ott is telling us.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University