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Amy Traub

The Alaska Contradiction (Why the Right Doesn’t Want You to Notice the Streetlights)

A cognitive dissonance animates the Right in America, and the New York Times nails it with today’s front page case study of Alaska. The state depends more than any other on public support, from its earliest days when “the federal government expended great amounts of money carving this young state out of the northern wilderness” to the present in which Alaska benefits from an outsize allocation of stimulus dollars and other government spending – not to mention tremendous public subsidies for the oil and gas industries that have driven the state’s economy. Yet Alaska is also a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, denouncing the very support that built it and keeps it functioning. “It just feels like the federal government intrudes everywhere,” complains a local GOP official, apparently heedless of the ways that this “intrusion” enables Alaskans to get by on a daily basis.

The same contradiction has lain at the heart of American conservatism from the birth of the New Right in 1960’s Southern California (see historian Lisa McGirr’s brilliant book on the topic) to the present day: the very people who denounce an interfering government most intensely are often among the greatest beneficiaries of our public institutions. How is the contradiction bearable? It helps if you don’t think too much about it, if the government’s role in one’s life can be made invisible, even forgotten. Dependence on public support must be made to look like rugged individualism; reliance on webs of regulation must appear to be the work of unconstrained free markets. Problems may not arise until the efforts to hack away at “big government” become too successful: the “invisible” public services we need to live our daily lives are most apparent when we begin to lose them. Alaska may still be cushioned by disproportionate federal largesse, but in communities across America, the loss of basic services is happening now. Reporter Michael Cooper recently summed up:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further — it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

Pundits wonder why Republicans are focused on a renewed campaign scapegoating immigrants rather than focusing exclusively on the nation’s economic straits. The need to distract from the loss of public services which undermines the anti-government message, may have something to do with it. This in turn is an opportunity for progressives to highlight the ways ordinary American rely on government, starting at the most local level – and should fight to keep it strong.

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Posted at 10:45 AM, Aug 19, 2010 in public services
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