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History shows Alaskans don't take well to bullies

Steve Haycox
OPINION: Steve Haycox says the oil industry isn't the first dominant economic power Alaskans have dealt with. One of reasons Alaskans fought for statehood was to break the power of the Seattle-based salmon industry. Pictured: Alaska leaders, including Ernest Gruening (below flag), celebrate Alaska's admission to the Union on Jan. 3, 1959. Abbie Rowe / National Park Service

 

It’s remarkable that though the oil industry is out-spending supporters of Ballot Measure 1 on the August primary ballot 100 to 1, the polls are showing support for the repeal three points up. It appears we are experiencing a backlash, directed against an industry that seems willing to bully and bludgeon Alaskans into accepting their agenda which is, mostly, lower taxes, which means more industry profit, and less revenue for the state.

Alaska has been subjected to such bullying before, in the era before statehood when the canned salmon industry controlled the primary revenue-generator for the territory, commercial fishing, and by lobbying Congress and co-opting the territorial Legislature through campaign contributions, kept their taxes low and the revenue stream to the territory meager. Back in those days, Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening wrote, the territorial Senate could be bought with a case of good Scotch. Those spending the money to defeat today’s repeal effort might reflect that Alaskans reacted to the bullying of that past era by embracing statehood as the instrument that gave them the power to force the salmon industry to pay its fair share, to leave an equitable portion of the profitability of exploiting an Alaska resource with the people willing to live and try to make a society here. Alaskans don’t like to be pushed around as if they didn’t much matter, and they don’t like their senators being paid by the people whose taxes they’re lowering.

The current backlash shouldn’t be a surprise given Alaska’s history, and it can be put in the context of the broader scope of American history. The framers of the American government back at the beginning, in 1787, did not believe heartily in democracy and did not craft a particularly democratic constitution. Many thought like Alexander Hamilton, who wrote once that “men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.” The framers did not trust the people much, and they did not give them much power.

Thus, the Constitution provides that the president is not elected directly by the people, but by the Electoral College. Supreme Court Justices serve for life and good behavior, once appointed and confirmed. And the Constitution as written and as implemented for its first 125 years provided that U.S. Senators be elected by their state legislatures, not directly by the people, as now. Moreover, the Senate has special powers the House does not have, including ratification of treaties, and the privilege to advise and consent to judicial and executive nominations.

All this changed during the Progressive Era, around the turn of the 20th century. By then, the overwhelming majority of the American people were literate, and they had over a century of experience with democracy, in their towns, in their states, and in national politics. The Progressive Era witnessed a mass reform movement generated by what people had come to understand as abuses of their rights as citizens. Politics were corrupt, especially at the local level; monopolies took advantage of labor and consumers; banks speculated without regulation with people’s money; adulterated medicines and food proliferated; and children were exploited in the workplace. The people rose up against such arrogance on the part of the powerful and empowered their government to regulate the economy, the workplace, and consumer goods. They changed the Constitution to provide for the direct election of senators, and to entitle women to vote.

They also developed a new, formidable set of political instruments to empower people to get the attention of politicians when those making the laws turned unresponsive to the people’s needs and rights: initiative, referendum and recall. Though differing in detail among the several states, these instruments enable the people to place on the ballot measures their legislatures won’t vote on or approve, the repeal of laws the people find unacceptable, and even the diselection, the recall, of elected officials.

Initiative, referendum and recall have been used effectively to give political power to the people, to create democracy. The framers of the Alaska Constitution wisely included these instruments so that they would be available to Alaskans when they might be needed. It’s quite clear that a great many Alaskans think they’re needed now.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.