In Tocqueville on American Character, I recounted a fascinating trip that the great Frenchman took in 1831 to the then-frontier, a bit north of Buffalo. He walked across the border with Canada, reminded himself that the settlers on both sides were culturally and ethnically identical, and then remarked on the dramatic difference in character between the Americans and the Canadians. You couldn’t miss it. On the Canadian side, the roads were good, the streets were laid out in an orderly fashion, and the houses were built to last. On the American side, everything was temporary; the houses were thrown together just to survive the winter, because everyone was going to move on once the spring arrived. They were going west. The Canadians were going to stay put and make a nice life for themselves and their families.
The border divided those who wanted to stay put from those who wanted the maximum freedom to own their own land, create their own communities, and worship in their own faiths. The new lands to the West, the Virgin Land, as it was often called, provided all those possibilities, and generation after generation of Americans filled them with all manner of courage, foolhardiness, religious vision, and entrepreneurship, all those things that make up the American Dream. Nowadays their adventures are often demeaned and scorned as colonialism or imperialism, and Native Americans were conquered by the frontiersmen and their successors. But if you read — as you should — the magisterial three-volume history of those people written by Bernard de Voto, you will see that American democracy owes a lot to them, and indeed in many ways they defined 19th-century America. From the mountain men to the Mormons, they carried the American vision across the plains, the deserts, and the mountain ranges all the way to the Pacific.
The frontier — the possibility of packing up and moving on to make your own life as you wish to live it — was enormously important, and generations of American historians have recognized its significance. Indeed, the great Frederick Jackson Turner pondered with profound alarm the significance of the closing of the frontier in the 1890s. He feared American democracy would not survive the results of the most recent census, that showed there was no longer a vast expanse of virgin land. The continent was “full,” and henceforth we would have to live with one another and come to terms with our fractious character.
Over the course of the next century, and with increasing speed starting with the world wars, the federal system became more and more centralized, and many of the old traditions of fierce independence dissolved in what we now call the welfare state. From time to timesometimes from the left, sometimes from the rightthere have been spasms of romantic rebellion against “big government,” but they have largely failed, and are most commonly encountered in the arts, as in “Star Trek” (the last frontier, etc.) or the Clint Eastwood movies, whether set in the West or on the streets of San Francisco. But all along, the values of the frontier have survived, hidden in fly-over country, or, in the state that rightly calls itself the last frontier, Alaska. Which brings us to Sarah Palin.
For the first time in memory, we have a major candidate who comes from the frontier, and it’s not surprising that the pundits are having a hard time coming to grips with this phenomenon. For Sarah Palin’s world is not defined by the major media or by the glossy magazines; she hunts and fishes, she’s unabashedly patriotic, her son is in the Army, her husband races across the snow. Unlike the other three candidates, she is not a member of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. When she talks about shattering the glass ceiling, she actually means it; it is not a mask for yet another ideological program. Some of her supporters sense this when they call her “authentic.” It’s the wrong word, however; Barack Obama is an authentic radical, for example. Palin is a frontierswoman. Her state capital, Juneau, cannot be reached on the highways of Alaska. If you want to get there, you must either fly or sail. And for much of the year, sailing isn’t smart. No subways in Juneau, but lots of bars. The main bookstore caters mostly to the tourist trade, with a small selection of used paperbacks and a few recent best sellers.
It’s not so much authenticity as independence, and self-reliance, which have always been the basic characteristics of frontier people. They think for themselves. They have to think outside the box, because there’s no available box for them to think in. If they accepted the conventional wisdom they wouldn’t be on the frontier, they’d be in some city and they’d brag about their degrees from the failed institutions of higher education. They’re not big on “conflict resolution,” they prefer zero-sum games. If you go up against a grizzly, you’re poorly advised to look for a win-win solution.
She comes from a world that’s almost totally unknown to the pundits, which is why so much of the commentary has been unhelpful. Most of the intellectuals I know have never driven across this continent. They have little appreciation of the life of the Great Plains and the Klondike, and I suspect that, as time passes, they will have increasing difficulty defining Sarah Palin in the outmoded terms of left and right, liberal and conservative. As McCain said when he introduced her, she’s very serious about changing government, as her record shows. She knows that means purging corrupt people, a dangerous notion among the inhabitants of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Is it a conservative notion? Wrong question, I’d say.
The real question is whether there is any hope for a basic transformation of government in this country. We all know that government is broken; every citizen who has to deal with the bureaucracy will confirm that. If there is hope, it can only come from people who are outside the box, and Sarah Palin is decidedly that. We’ll soon see whether she’s coherent enough, tough enough, and charming enough to build a national consensus for the tough work that needs to be done.
I’m hoping she does, and that, paradoxically, we can have a revolutionary leader who espouses our oldest ideas. She’s got the right DNA. Facing the border Tocqueville visited in 1831, she’d have stayed in America, and moved West when the snow melted.
— Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.