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Alaska politics, the existence of reality, and Ben Carson

  • Author: Forrest Dunbar
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 13, 2015

The Ben Carson phenomenon is bizarre. The former neurosurgeon's presidential campaign appears to be tanking under the weight of increased questions about his back-story, but until recently he actually led some national presidential polls, and continues to perform well in Iowa.

As others have pointed out, long before his personal, falsifiable anecdotes became part of the campaign narrative, Carson was engaging in a style of politics only loosely based in common understandings about policy, or even objective observations of history or law. In short, he was engaging in nonreality-based politics.

Among the many strange claims made by Carson prior to his implosion:

• Joseph of the Hebrew Bible, and his people, built the pyramids to store grain. (1998 and reiterated this year)
• America is currently “very like” Nazi Germany (March 2014)
• “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience.” (November 2015)
• "A lot of people go into prison straight, and when they come out they’re gay." (March 2015)
• Medicare and Medicaid fraud is “a half trillion dollars.” (November 2015)

Of the 21 Carson statements rated by Politifact at the time of this writing, not a single one was found entirely true. On a more wonkish note, Carson also demonstrated a total misunderstanding of the debt limit and how it functions in a "Marketplace" interview on the economy and budgetary process.

To be clear, I am not trying to tell anyone whom he or she should vote for. If this type of politics is appealing to a segment of the population, so be it. But I consider it fortunate that Alaska seems to have resisted Carson's style of politics a bit better than some other parts of the country. In my experience, most Alaskan politicians base their arguments in reality most of the time, particularly in the hearings and closed-door meetings where the majority of policy gets hashed out.

In Alaska, when a legislator or governor is challenged on their facts they usually -- not always, but usually -- are expected to give a non-nonsensical answer. There are certainly disagreements on exact numbers and impacts and the like. And certainly, there are "characters" here. There are gaffes, and there is weirdness. But in most cases, just saying crazy stuff with nothing to back it up rarely plays well.

For example, look to the discourse regarding the TransCanada buyout in our most recent special session. There was dissent, no doubt, and a few legislators eventually voted "no." But by and large, the debate proceeded based on actual facts, figures, and projections, and ultimately an overwhelming bipartisan majority voted with the governor.

Why is a more pragmatic politics more common here than in some other parts of the country? Moreover, could we lose that tradition? I believe reality-based politics became more prevalent here due to three factors (I'm certainly open to hearing more): First, the challenges of the environment we live in, which very quickly punishes unrealistic thinking. Second, our small population and the intimacy that engenders between people and their elected officials. It's harder to spew crazy nonsense when the people looking at you askance are your friends and neighbors. Finally, Alaskans' fierce independent streak helps us avoid at least some of the tribalism and circle-the-wagons thinking that leads to a reflexive, partisan defense of people like Carson.

But this is not to say Alaska's political discourse couldn't take a turn for the worse. Like freedom, reality-based politics requires eternal vigilance. There's going to be an increased push towards fanciful thinking in the next several years. With the size of our fiscal challenge, how could there not be?

In the coming months, when you hear someone say, for example, we could balance the Alaska budget just by eliminating unions and cutting government waste, please do not let a claim like that go unchallenged. It's mathematically impossible. Or when an Internet commentator says all we need to do is tax marijuana and embrace the hemp revolution, you should … well, it's never good to engage on the Internet. But you know what I mean. I supported legalizing and taxing marijuana, but I still know that is a bogus claim. The revenue from marijuana may be helpful, but it will not get us close to where we need to be.

If in the coming years demagogues threaten to pull Alaska away from more practical politics, it will take our fact-based tradition to stop them. Hopefully we can push back on nonreality-based politics on its own terms, based on policy, and long before we have to poke holes in a politician's biography and identify them as a charlatan.

Forrest Dunbar is a lifelong Alaskan and a member of Our Alaska, an Anchorage-based informal group of policy-oriented young Alaskans.

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, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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