Sarah Palin is in the news again. Another way of saying this is that Alaska is in the news again.
Palin is a case study for the media’s scant coverage of Alaska and other flyover states. Her well-known love for Alaska often subjects her to ridicule. Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live impression and the 2012 movie Game Change depict Palin’s references to Alaska as a ditzy folkiness that makes her out of touch with most Americans. This is because most Americans know little about Alaska (in a misunderstanding of geography, hosts on The View said that candidates for Alaska’s special U.S. House election include “everyone but the penguins”).
Proud flyover residents can blame the media for the ignorance. When flyover states do receive coverage, it’s because they behaved badly by the standards of a media that is overwhelmingly coastal and liberal: flyover states helped elect former President Donald Trump, lawmakers restrict abortion in Oklahoma, or an unorthodox former governor runs for office in Alaska. When the media punishes flyover states for their transgressions, it expresses a desire for an American monoculture. In this elitist ideal, all states resemble the east and west coasts. Based on my experience of the rich, distinct cultures of flyover country, of America’s heartland, I believe that cultural erasure is a loss worth mourning.
A broad definition of flyover states is those between the coasts. Though people disagree on the definition, there’s something that it feels like to live in a flyover state. The president visits your state last. Your cities will “die off” because traditional industries collapsed. Publications reject your pitch or endowments reject your grant application because your ideas and projects are “too niche.” In other words, they don’t matter because they’re about and for states with sparse populations.
The media’s marginalization of flyover country is similar to other cultural schisms, such as that between the coastal elite and American South. However, coverage of the South actually acknowledges the region’s culture. Because flyover states might not have the population and economic prosperity of oil-rich Texas or tourism-rich Florida, they’re treated as places where nothing important happens. Instead, coverage of flyover country often reverts to “decline porn,” a genre of journalism criticized in an opinion piece by Blake Hurst. Decline porn follows a script of urbanites visiting their flyover hometowns, shocked by racism and economic decline. Hurst writes that, in the end, “they are ever so glad to return to more agreeable precincts in New York or San Francisco.”
Based on this unfavorable comparison between regions, the media often suggests turning flyover country into coastal America. Typical news stories optimistically describe the exodus of technology companies and their workers from Silicon Valley or the political transformation of flyover states by people who vote blue. Though introducing the people and industries of the east and west coasts could revive flyover states, this solution treats cultural transformation as unequivocally positive. These suggestions fail to consider that people in North Dakota or Nebraska might not want a series of shopping centers anchored by Trader Joe’s. They might not want militant progressivism or startups that, from Theranos to WeWork, have terrible ideas.
There’s not a clear alternative to this cultural encroachment. After all, flyover states may be skeptical about an influx of Californians, but what should “refugees” do when they can’t afford the cost of living? Is it worth avoiding technology to support traditional industries like agriculture if, as the Cato Institute argues, its subsidization causes “all sorts of economic, environmental, and political problems”?
There’s a worthwhile debate about how best to accommodate coastal refugees or revive struggling economies. But there must also be a debate about how to assist flyover states while preserving their unique cultures. One organization provides an outlet for this debate where few exist. The Flyover Coalition produces original content on and aggregates stories about flyover states within a media landscape that “almost entirely reflects coastal sensibilities.” While some of the site’s content follows the technological-development-as-progress script, other stories highlight opportunities that leverage the region’s traditional industries and values, including using localism, a “we’ll do it ourselves” attitude, to restore communities and compromising between old and new industries. If there’s an antidote to a coastal takeover that turns America into a monoculture, it’s nuanced media by and for the people of flyover country.
In a 2015 CBS interview, reporter Tracy Smith asked Palin about her return to Wasilla. “After the loss in 2008, did you come back here to kind of nurse your wounds?” Palin responded, “Came back here, man, ’cause gotta get back to real life, you know?”
Coastal Americans might not understand “real life,” but after living in Alaska, I think I know what Palin means. She’s referring to a place where people immediately receive help if their vehicle breaks down on the side of the road. She’s referring to a place where people believe that hardship builds character, so they choose to live in dry cabins without running water or hunt and fish for their food.
The culture of flyover states looks more and more like coastal America every day. If we’re to preserve what makes them special, we need more stories that provide a glimpse of real life.
Shelby Kearns is a writer who covers pop culture, religion, and military affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbytkearns.