For any Alaskan interested in getting a better understanding of our state’s history of resource development and the resulting impact on our state’s political culture, Icebound Empire: Industry and Politics on the Last Frontier is well worth the read.
As the book notes, July 1906 was the year Daniel Guggenheim worked with the Morgan Bank to form a partnership know as The Syndicate. which enlisted Stephen Birch as one of several managing directors (pg. 113). The new access to capital and talented management provided by the Syndicate’s creation resulted in some of our state’s first large-scale mining. Perhaps more important, the Syndicate birthed one of the most enduring political tactics used by Alaskan politicians: rallying against the influences coming to Alaska from Outside (with a capital “O.”)
Territorial Judge James Wickersham ran for office with a platform of populism, on which he cast himself as a fighter for Alaskans against those Outside moneyed interests whom he argued would exploit our resources and our people. “Wickersham’s dynamic oratory appealed to the populist leanings of an electorate of placer miners fearing the encroachment of capitalists with modern mining technology,” the author notes . “He created a ‘bogey man’ and named him ‘Guggenheim.’ Wickersham’s war on the ‘Guggs’ served him well politically and kept him in office for 10 years. His populist followers, called ‘Wickites,’ bested both Republicans and Democrats, even when the two major parties combined against ‘Fighting Jim,’…His persistent opposition to ‘big interests’ with capital to invest, however, kept industry from coming to Alaska.”
These concerns about Outside interests seem to have seeped into our collective political unconscious, and we have perhaps only briefly overcome our resistance to Outside specialists when we built the Trans Alaska Pipeline. We have politically struggled with how to balance a need for resource development with a fear of being taken for a ride by the corporations we depend on for development expertise and sufficient capital investment. The result has been regular and perhaps problematic changes to our tax structure, and a long-standing debate about whom should be responsible for the cost of gasline construction, both of which affect our state’s long-term economic growth and perpetuate the “us versus them” politics that have plagued us since the days of “Fighting Jim.”
More recently, arguing that corporate political influence is outsized and problematic in Alaska has met with mixed results as the electorate has seemingly developed some sense of nuance. Our state’s relationship with the oil patch has perhaps been unique; 78 percent of Alaskans and 49 percent of Americans support increased oil exploration in ANWR , a gap of 29 points in a poll conducted by Gallup earlier this year. While a clear majority of Alaskans supporting oil development, especially when compared to our neighbors in the Lower 48, the number of Alaskans opposed to other types of development is notable: 54 percent of Alaskans and 81 percent of Bristol Bay Native Corporation shareholders hold negative views of the Pebble Mine . The Pebble project may be an aberration, and we would be interested to know if a new poll would show similar negative views of mining statewide.
Adopting this theme of outsized Outside influence to federal regulation, however, has been a popular campaign theme among winning Alaska candidates for political office for many years. That said, the politically popular theme of undue federal influence and involvement in Alaskan matters is in danger of ignoring the reality of Alaska’s economy when candidates fail to differentiate funding from regulation, as our economy has been heavily dependent on federal spending throughout our history, and has suffered as a result of federal regulation that holds back resource development.
Whether Alaska’s political culture can balance both the notion of necessary federal spending and the need for limited federal regulation and resource development in the years ahead is perhaps Alaska’s greatest political question.
Any active member of Alaska’s polity should take note of the gap between Alaska’s economic and political realities as they look to their next trip to the voting booth, and every one of us would be better for having read Icebound Empire to inform their views. We should look for ways to move beyond the talking points: The old conservative standard of railing against the outside federal investment that we need at least some of, and the old liberal screed of taking every possible dime from oil companies, even at the cost of future development. Instead, we should be asking how we can adequately develop Alaska’s economy with needed federal investment in infrastructure and defense while pushing back against federal regulation that holds us back against the responsible resource development our economy also depends on.
We would argue that, regardless of our readers’ views, moving the present debate over Alaska resource development forward to resolution and progress requires a strong sense of history. With that in mind, we wholeheartedly recommend Icebound Empire.