Adriaan Lanni examines Sarah Palin's working-class appeal

The following article, “Working-class hero,” co-written by Harvard Law School Assistant Professor Adriaan Lanni and Wesley Kelman, was published on September 2, 2008, in Slate.

Most of the initial reaction to Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s running mate has focused on her youth, gender, and conservatism—and more recently, her daughter’s pregnancy. But the pregnancy (which could help swing voters identify with Palin) threatens to obscure a seductive and misleading subtext in Palin’s biography that may play a key role in the election: the way she embodies the hope of a blue-collar life without economic insecurity.

Palin’s background reminded us of an Alaskan we met several years ago. We had just moved to Anchorage for a temporary job in the state court system and struck up an illuminating conversation with a bricklayer while on a hike outside town. He made a surprising amount of money—he had moved to Alaska because its wages were so high. He also had enviable stretches of leisure: He worked long shifts during the short construction season, then spent all fall and winter riding his “snowmachine” (Alaskan for snowmobile), panning for gold—yes, people still do that there—and hunting and fishing. He exuded optimism; his life was good and he knew it, and there was no resentment of yuppies like us.

Palin’s family, warts and all, has some of the same features. Husband Todd’s two jobs—commercial fisherman and oil production manager on the North Slope—required little formal education and provide ample time off. Yet they pay extremely well. If you include the permanent fund dividend that Alaska distributes to its residents as a way of sharing oil tax revenues, the family made about $100,000 last year, not counting Sarah’s $125,000 salary as governor.

Mr. Palin’s income alone would put the Palins at about the same level as many well-educated, white-collar workers we knew in Anchorage. It is also enough money to enjoy a quality of life that is, at least to a certain taste, superior to what is enjoyed almost anywhere else, either in cities or in the countryside. Like the bricklayer, the Palins can hunt and fish in a place of legendary abundance. Their hometown may be a dingy Anchorage exurb, but it has cheap, plentiful land bordering a vast and beautiful wilderness, which is crisscrossed by Todd (the “Iron Dog” champion) and the Palin children all winter. (By comparison, in the Northeast many leisure activities are brutally segregated by income: Martha’s Vineyard vs. the Poconos, the Jersey Shore vs. the Hamptons.)

Continue reading “Working-class hero.”

Adriaan Lanni teaches at Harvard Law School. Wesley Kelman is a lawyer in Boston. They lived in Anchorage in 2004 and 2005.