Sarah Palin and Small Town America

When Sara and I were working through our marriage preparation last fall, Fr. Gallinger warned all of us that we should make sure to have the marriage license ready before the ceremony. After all, there’s nothing like reaching Saturday and finding out that the courthouses are closed. I assume this is a general cautionary for people getting married elsewhere, for he continued in a humorous vein: “Of course, in Wyoming, if you can’t get into the courthouse, you know someone who knows someone who has the keys to let you in.”

Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, at around 520,000 people. To put that in comparison, we humans are a minority if we consider antelope (580,000 or so, though there may be illegal immigrants); there are at least 30 cities in the United States alone with more people than Wyoming; and there are only 6 other states with populations below 1 million, of which Alaska is one.

There’s a dynamic about Wyoming you tend not to find anywhere else. Everyone knows each other in Wyoming. Well, that’s a bit of exaggeration. The truth is that if a Wyomingite doesn’t know another Wyomingite, he knows someone who does. Forget the six degrees of Kevin Bacon; in Wyoming, there’s at most two degrees between any two people. Despite the fact that our cities and towns are spread out across vast tracts of empty land, our people are closely connected.

Consider Fr. Gallinger’s words. Now consider the fact that Sara grew up in Riverton, WY, three grades my junior. We never once encountered each other until we were in college, and then only because we belonged to the same gaming club. Yet when we started dating, we made some remarkable discoveries. Not only did we have a number of acquaintances in common, but our families had a history. My grandfather was principal of the Torrington Middle School for a number of years, and principal not only for Sara’s mother, Shannon, but all of Shannon’s siblings, as well. My grandmother hired Shannon and her elder sister as intern nursing assistants. My uncle Dan was close friends with Sara’s uncle Dan, as well as Sara’s father. In a different part of the state, Sara’s step-family knew my aunt Heather’s family (she married Dan) for many, many years.

I know the connectedness of Wyomingites is a fairly unique thing. When students come to the University of Wyoming from elsewhere, they’re quite often astonished to discover how their roommates know or are even close friends with the only other Wyomingite they’ve met. And consider how when two Wyomingites encounter each other on the other side of the world, they can sit down and talk about people they both know back home in friendly ol’ Wyoming.

In Wyoming, we know our public officials. We went to school together, or our kids went to school with their kids. Or maybe they live across the street. For a number of years, one of our state legislators lived across the street from my parent’s house in Casper. We don’t just see the scandals printed in the papers; we know them, and have lived through them. My father had to deal with Barbara Cubin (arguably Wyoming’s worst representative in Washington, ever), and Sara’s great-uncle, a game warden, caught Dick Cheney poaching.

All this is in sharp contrast with big-city America, from which we receive our loud opinions, our talking heads, and our presidential candidates. Big cities are packed full of strangers; there are simply too many people to know. Consider governmental buildings. In the big cities, they are enormous, staffed with hundreds of people, have metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and numerous other levels of security. In Wyoming, there might be a metal detector, and it might even work. And because there are so few people, they often share office space with businesses, banks, and care facilities.

In Wyoming, we tend to be informal and typically don’t get anxious over little things. Consider that Sara’s stepfather once walked into a bank armed, and nobody cared. Why? Because he was dressed in camouflage and was ready to head out hunting. The fact that he had his handgun in a holster didn’t cause anyone in the bank to bat an eye.  Everyone at the bank knew him, knew he was headed out hunting, and knew he would never draw his handgun except in dire need.  I don’t think he could have gotten away with that in a big city.

In big cities, when a scandal occurs or a crime is committed, it happens far away to complete strangers. In Wyoming, because we’re so connected, scandal and crime has a tendency to shock us all. We may not know it when we read in the newspaper about a vandalism, a rape, or a murder, but quite often before the week is out we learn that the victim was a friend’s friend, and everyone is hurting because of it.

Now, the point of all this bucolic rambling is this: Alaska is also a small-town state. True, Anchorage itself has over a third of the state’s population, but the rest of the cities are small. Alaska itself only has a population of 670,000 or so, and the state is the largest in the union, geographically.

I’ve not been to Alaska, and I don’t know its people, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are many similar dynamics there that are in Wyoming. I would bet that there is a low degree of separation between people; I would bet that one person’s problem is the whole community’s problem; and I would bet that people know their elected officials.

One of the reasons I feel I can safely make this assertion is because of the corny ad against Sarah Palin promoted by few hockey moms in Alaska. You can view the video:

What is so fascinating about this is that it isn’t your typical Sarah Palin bashing. These are the real grievances people have against real people. Consider the complaints: Palin wouldn’t do her share of driving for the carpool; Palin wouldn’t help carry a big tub filled with ice in from the car, leaving it for someone else to carry; Palin doesn’t know the difference between “icing” and “offsides” in hockey, and yet she calls herself a hockey mom.

In light of all the hot-button issues facing the country, these seem so pitiful, so trivial, that they can be easily laughed away. But that’s not true in small-town America. These things do matter, because who wants a jerk who shirks on the small chores handling the big issues? The advantage in small-town America is that we know the character of our officials, and character can be as important as spoken policy, because it helps us judge whether or not we can believe the propaganda.

So, I’m personally satisfied that I’ve established that Alaska is a small-town state. The reason to even ponder this issue is because I think our talking heads are missing the dynamics behind the recent panel findings in the Troopergate controversy.

To recap, Palin is under investigation to see if she misused her powers as governor in the firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan. The charge, as it is told, is that Palin fired Monegan because Monegan would not fire state trooper Michael Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin’s sister. It is easy to see why this investigation occurred: it certainly sparks of using governmental powers to settle a personal vendetta.

The panel concluded the following: while Palin had legitimate reason to fire Monegan aside from the Wooten issue, she still pressured Monegan beyond a reasonable limit to fire Wooten, and she also permitted her husband, Todd Palin, “extraordinary access to the governor’s office”, where he then hassled employees to get Wooten fired. You can read a summary here.

I look at the findings and I’m agape. This is what they concluded? They decided that having Todd in and out of the governor’s office, speaking with employees, was a matter of abuse of power? True, they did state that Palin should have reined her husband in (and I’ve heard rumors she did tell him to cool it, but was ignored), and that was where the abused occurred. But it is obvious, to me at least, that anyone making a big deal about this isn’t aware of how small-town America works.

I’m not going to make any presumptions about what really happened. But I can speculate. Because the small-town mentality is much less formal, it doesn’t surprise me that Todd Palin was in and out of the governor’s office, or that he had “extraordinary access”. He’s the governor’s husband, and even if it is a government establishment, why wouldn’t he spend some time there? Why wouldn’t he visit his wife at work, especially if he had nothing to do that day? I understand that policy and privileged information make a case against that, but that doesn’t mean so much in small-town America.

What about using access to the governor’s aides to make a case against Wooten? I understand that the office isn’t necessarily the place for that, but at the same time I also know that informality and connectedness play a role, here, as well. The issue with Wooten—that he drank while on patrol, that he used a taser on his stepson, and that he made threats against Palin’s family—is one that affects the whole community. And if Todd was acquainted with the governor’s staff, it wouldn’t come as any surprise that he would talk to them about the issue and seek their support. I reiterate that it was inappropriate to do so on the government’s time, and I’ll add that Todd probably should have saved his case for the bars or other types of get-togethers. But again, I think the talking-heads miss that that small-town America isn’t so concerned about making sharp distinctions between business time and personal time.

Now, don’t mistake my position. I think the investigation was legitimate and justified, and I’m not willing to call “foul” on the Obama campaign because of it. But I do feel that we would be selling the Palins short, and allowing the media to break the eighth commandment with impunity, if we didn’t examine the small-town aspect of this case. I may be completely off base in my suppositions. I’ll freely admit that. I’m from Wyoming, not Alaska. But if any of the same principles apply in Alaska as they do in Wyoming, then I think the small-town aspect factors greatly into why there was an appearance of impropriety, and why we shouldn’t make a huge deal about it.

UPDATE:  Click here.  This helps resolve the mixed messages we’ve been receiving about Palin’s cooperation with the investigation.  Palin didn’t cooperated with the legislative probe backed Obama’s team of lawyers, which makes sense since this probe doesn’t have the authority to do anything.  She has complied with the genuine investigation led by the state Personnel Board, which does have the authority to sanction her.

One Response to Sarah Palin and Small Town America

  1. Lisa Kelly says:

    Dear Ryan,
    Very good!! I was amused by the small town “keys of the courthouse”:) story. I think you may be right about the small town factors. I like living in Wyoming, too.
    Take good care.
    Sincerely yours,
    p.s. Because of your giving me the Catholic websites, I realized that it was the debate tonight, and I ran over to the Newman Center and saw the entire final presidential debate. Thank you so much for that!

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