Opinions

Does Alaska’s history follow a direction? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

Alaska Legislature, Capitol, Juneau

The warp and woof of history are often confusing and even mysterious. Which way is it trending, or is it trending at all? Can we really make enough sense of it to use it as a guide to the present and a glimpse into the future? Or is written history simply the expression of any one writer’s biases and pet peeves?

A popular notion is that history manifests an invisible pendulum, swinging back and forth through time from one extreme to another, right, then left, then back to the right again. Another, more sophisticated idea, traceable to the early 19th century German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, is his dialectic theory. It posits that any idea or zeitgeist – the spirit of an age – can be seen as a thesis, which inevitably generates a contrary idea or spirit, an antithesis, and further, that from the contest between these two emerges a new idea or zeitgeist, a synthesis: thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. But that process doesn’t stop. Any synthesis can be seen as yet another idea or zeitgeist, a thesis, which generates its antithesis, and from their competition comes yet another synthesis, and so on through the ages. Hegel suggested that this process had a direction, a teleology, through which culture becomes ever more rational, more driven by reasoned analysis than by blind reaction to people and events. But he allowed that the process was not easily discernible, if discernible at all, and that in any case it was likely to be uneven, a case of two steps forward, one step back.

It is an optimistic concept, and some aspects of it might apply to American, and even Alaska history. For example, during the 1930s, the country seemed in thrall to the New Deal reforms: Social Security, federal protection of labor organization, federal insurance of bank deposits, federal stimulus programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. And after World War II, Harry Truman called for a limited extension of measures along the lines of the New Deal.

There was a substantial pushback, led by Republican Sen. Robert Taft (the eldest son of former President William Taft) and hard-right conservatives who opposed more federal support for the economy and for the greater society. They fought Democrat Truman on every front. Truman won election in his own right in 1948, partly by blaming the Taftites for a “do-nothing Congress.”

But subsequently, Republican Dwight Eisenhower sought a middle ground, a synthesis. Social security, he said, is here to stay. Eisenhower adherents introduced into Congress bills calling for aid to higher education, a federal highway construction program, slum clearance, federal medical insurance and widened social security benefits. Some of these passed, but not all, most notably medical insurance. And the Taftites pushed through a moderation of labor protection, the Taft-Hartley Act, calling for a federally imposed “cooling off” period for strikes. In all, it was an extension of the synthesis.

Does that fit Hegel’s dialectic? Perhaps, but there are many variables.

The next reform period after the New Deal was the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, Endangered Species Act in 1971. The Equal Rights amendment, though never ratified by enough states, passed the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972.

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It was a period of reform in Alaska, also. In the 1964 presidential election, Alaskans voted for Democrat Lyndon Johnson, though they went for Nixon in both 1968 and 1972. In 1970, the Alaska Legislature repealed several of the state’s abortion laws, and in 1971 repealed the law declaring abortion to be a criminal offense, effectively guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion in the state. There were other liberal measures. But since then, abortion rights have been less supported. When he was elected governor in 1990, Walter Hickel vowed to re-criminalize abortion. That did not happen and has not happened yet. Since the arrival of “Big Oil” in the mid-1970s, Alaska has become more conservative, though a number of Legislatures have been led by coalitions. Perhaps Alaska fits Hegel’s paradigm.

Pundits today wonder where American democracy is headed with the country foundationally polarized. Will the current unpopularity of democracy on the right and the erosion of faith in our electoral processes generate a new version, perhaps a new synthesis? If so, what might it look like?

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

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Steve Haycox

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

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