My hometown, Portland, Oregon, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the Democratic Party lost almost everywhere else in the state, including in every county east of the Cascade Mountains. Except for in Vermont and Massachusetts, the same urban/rural divide in American politics exists around the country. A county-by-county map of the election looks like a Clinton archipelago in a vast Trump ocean.
Lots of journalists have ventured into the rust belt to find out why so many working-class voters abandoned the Democrats for Donald Trump, but hardly anyone is asking why blue-collar voters in the rural West have been going the same way for years. Perhaps many people think that they already know. In his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, journalist Thomas Frank argued that the Republican Party wins in his home state by pushing a culturally conservative platform to manipulate rural blue-collar folks to vote against their economic interests and for the party of big business and the wealthy instead of the party of labor unions and government assistance.
That’s not what happened in Oregon. Yes, rural Oregonians are more culturally conservative than urban Oregonians. Rural people are more culturally conservative than their urban counterparts everywhere in the world. Oregon, though, is not fighting a cultural civil war. Rather, people on the inland eastern side of the state have an entirely different set of priorities. Rural voters are being micromanaged by Democratic politicians elected in Portland, whose land-use and water-rights policies are inflicting at times devastating economic hardship on the other side of the mountains. Contrary to Frank, they prefer the Republican Party not despite their economic interests but because of them. If the Democrats want to win back these votes in the upcoming midterms, the first thing they need to do is stop kidding themselves. Understanding Oregon is a good place to start.
Oregon is divided geographically, culturally, and politically by the Cascade Mountains, a spectacular range of volcanoes roughly 100 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean that pick up where the Sierra Nevadas leave off, stretching from Lassen County in northern California to the international border with British Columbia. Those mountains are invisible on non-topographical maps. No political boundary takes them into account. The state line between Oregon and Washington mostly follows the Columbia River, and the international border between the United States and Canada follows the 49th parallel. The Cascade Mountains are natural borders, however. Instead of dividing the Pacific Northwest into northern and southern halves along the Columbia River, it might have made more sense to place Portland and Seattle in one state and everything between the Cascades and the Rockies in another. Coming from Portland, I feel more at home in Seattle and even in Vancouver, British Columbia, than I do just an hour east of my house.
The climate is also radically different on each side. Western Oregon is lush, green, and temperate all year. Eastern Oregon is dry; much of it is desert. It is colder in winter and hotter in summer, and it’s as sparsely populated as Wyoming. Vast and empty Malheur County—by itself, five times the size of Delaware—is the least densely populated place in the United States outside Alaska.
The aesthetics are different on each side. Portland is made of brick, glass, steel, green spaces, and Victorian architecture. Eastern Oregon towns are made of wood and iron and rock. Portlanders like water features and art. Eastern Oregonians opt for wagon wheels, antler racks, and animal heads on the walls.
In Portland, nature is close at hand. Forest Park begins adjacent to the city center and runs for eight miles. At more than 5,000 acres, it’s almost six times the size of Central Park in New York. The Intertwine is a system of more than 150 miles of hiking trails in forests and along bodies of water inside the metropolitan area. People love living here because it’s beautiful, and one reason that it’s beautiful is because we want to protect nature, not pave it. It is this powerful impulse, felt by many conservatives here as well as progressives, that causes trouble out in the hinterlands.
“People here are more tied to the land,” says Jason Carr, a former city council member in small-town Prineville. “Things like agriculture and water rights have no effect on people who live in skyscrapers. Property rights issues don’t resonate with them. Out here we constantly have agencies and bureaucrats telling us we can’t do things on our own land that we were able to do in the past. It has a huge impact on people who live here.”
“The Democratic Party is notoriously anti-rancher and anti-farmer,” maintains John Philo, a semiretired Bend resident who works as an unpaid volunteer for the Republican Party. “People who work in rural industries are abused by the regulations that come out of the cities.”
Oregon has had a centralized land-use regime since 1973. Local land-use plans are subject to approval or rejection by the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC), located in Salem, the state capital. The LCDC has become increasingly strict since it was founded. Environmental activists love it; farmers, ranchers, and real-estate developers hate it; most urban Oregonians have never heard of it.
Urban Oregonians are, however, familiar with the statewide mandatory urban-growth boundaries that surround cities and metro areas and prevent sprawl. (In the Portland area, the urban growth boundary necessarily surrounds the suburbs rather than the city proper.) These boundaries protect farmland and ranch lands from encroaching urban and suburban development, forcing greater urban density.
Urban-growth boundaries make a lot of sense in the Willamette Valley, where the vast majority of Oregon’s population lives. Here is some of the best farmland in the entire United States. Pioneers who risked their lives on the Oregon Trail 150 years ago came out West not for the mountains, beaches, and forests, but for that valley, with its rich soil and mild year-round temperatures. The Willamette Valley is just a tiny fraction of Oregon’s territory, and if it were to fill in with sprawl, we’d have little room left to produce food in the state, because the rest of Oregon is made up almost entirely of mountainous forests and desert.
East of the Cascade Mountains, though, urban-growth boundaries protect land mostly unsuitable for any kind of farming, and it artificially raises the price of real estate—it has the same effect in the valley—which, in turn, jacks up the cost of living. In Central Oregon, for instance, Bend has given up on finding a market solution for affordable housing. The state government in Salem won’t allow the city to extend its urban-growth boundary far enough to the east into semiarid and otherwise useless land so that it can develop the inexpensive apartments that lower-income people need.
The biggest problem is land- and water-use regulation. According to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, wood products accounted for 12 percent of Oregon’s GDP in 1979. The 1980s recession knocked that number down to 8 percent, and regulations restricting logging in federal forests in the 1990s sent Oregon’s timber industry into a death spiral. Wood products now make up just 2 percent of Oregon’s GDP. Tens of thousands of jobs vanished forever, most of them in rural areas, where they’re hard to replace. The result in some parts of the state is an economic depression that hasn’t lifted for decades.
Just on the eastern side of the Cascades, the city of Bend lies in the transition zone, in more ways than one. (Where the clouds and the rain vanish farther east, so do Democratic Party voters.) Leave Bend toward the west, and you’ll find yourself in a dry pine forest on the eastern slope of the mountains beneath the great Cascade glaciers. Head east, and you’ll end up in a vast desert sagebrush wilderness. Bend almost seems to cling to the mountains and the forest for dear life. While the city is Democratic, the county leans slightly Republican. From the crest of the Cascades, you’d have to drive hundreds of miles before reaching a county that voted for Clinton, and you’d pass through just two—one in Idaho and one in Wyoming—before reaching the Continental Divide.
“If you go to the west side of Bend,” says Mayor Casey Roats, “you’d think you were in a dot-com bubble. Buildings are going up and everything’s great. That isn’t experienced by everybody. If they’re surprised Trump won the election, it’s because they hardly even know that people who haven’t recovered from the recession exist.”
Bend is a slightly blue city in a red county because it’s transitioning from rural to urban. In 1990, the population was 20,000. Now it’s 75,000. Most of the newcomers arrive from cities, and they bring their politics with them. “The urban transplants are deeming rural land not usable,” says former city council member Scott Ramsay, “so they can enjoy it for their purposes without taking into consideration what that land used to be used for.”
When I was a kid, Bend was one of the largest lumber-producing towns in the country, but the 1990 decision to place the spotted owl on the endangered-species list struck a deadly blow. All the mills have closed since then. The Old Mill District is now a fancy, postindustrial shopping and entertainment area. The only reason Bend recovered economically is that the spectacular scenery and year-round recreation activities attract people and businesses from around the country.
Now the survival of the spotted frog is threatening ranchers. The frog lives in the Deschutes River and up in the reservoirs in the Cascades. Last year, environmental groups filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Eugene that would force the federal government to ensure that the frogs have enough water to survive—which would mean that ranchers would not have enough water to keep working as ranchers. In this case, the lawsuit was settled amicably, with the irrigation district agreeing to make modifications to protect the frog while letting ranchers exercise their water rights. The controversy isn’t over, though. In January 2017, a judge ordered a halt to cattle grazing in the Fremont-Winema National Forest on behalf of the frog, which is currently on the list of vulnerable species. If it finds its way onto the more dire endangered-species list, what happened to Oregon’s logging industry may yet happen to Central Oregon’s ranching industry.
Even before the spotted-frog controversy, water usage became so restricted and expensive that some people south of Bend bought ranches and let them go fallow just so that they could sell the water rights. The rural economy outside the city is crippled. With some notable exceptions, most towns east of the Cascades are struggling, and some are dying. Small towns in Oregon were once moderately prosperous, but now the biggest source of income for some of them is Social Security.
“The extreme environmental groups have driven the rural economy into the ground,” says former Bend mayor Jeff Eager. “The places in Oregon that are doing okay, like Bend and Portland and Hood River, are lifestyle cities where people come from outside to live. And because of the urban growth boundaries, these places have become exorbitantly expensive. People who are from these places and used to work at a mill that doesn’t exist anymore are really feeling the pinch.”
“One out of six families in Oregon is on food stamps,” says political scientist and former Bend city council member Victor Chudowsky, “and they need the help because so much of their income goes toward the rent. If the pioneers who came out here 100 years ago knew that one-sixth of their descendants would be dependent on the state just to eat, they would have turned around and gone back to New Jersey.”
Despite Bend’s now-staggering real-estate prices, the city is doing fine overall. I could happily live there. Immediately east of Bend, though, is the arid high desert. The next town over is Burns—but it’s more than 100 miles away.
Burns is not doing fine. Forty years ago, residents of Harney County earned more money per capita than anywhere else in the state, including Portland. A third of the working population was employed in the timber industry, but now nobody is. (Burns is in the desert, but the Malheur National Forest is just a five-minute drive to the north.) Burns “was actually a pretty exciting little town when the mills were going,” longtime resident Ty Morris told Portland’s Oregonian newspaper. “The mills went out and Burns died.”
The rural West is a long way from the rust belt, but the two regions have more in common than many Americans realize, and their voting behavior now aligns. Nearly all of Harney County is high desert and almost entirely covered with sagebrush and alkali flats. Hardly anything can be farmed there. Ranching is the only way to make a living off most of the land anymore, and even that gets harder every year. Cattle grazing is more heavily regulated than ever, in order to protect the sage grouse.
In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service considered placing the sage grouse on the endangered-species list, which could have terminated what little remains of Harney County’s economy. To everyone’s relief, the agency determined that the grouse faced no foreseeable risk of extinction. Ranchers and the government, which covers some of the costs, are installing ramps in water troughs so that the birds don’t drown, placing reflectors on fences, and controlling invasive grasses and juniper to protect sagebrush—and, by extension, the sage grouse.
Nobody wants to kill off the bird, an “indicator species,” like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If the sage grouse is in danger, the entire ecosystem, including the ranchers’ cattle, is in danger. Environmentalists aren’t wrong for wanting to protect it. Even so, environmentalists aren’t the only ones getting in eastern Oregon’s way. Many who live and work there see the government as a hostile force, and sometimes it is. Just look at what happened to ranchers Steven Hammond and Dwight Hammond, Jr. They’re serving five-year prison sentences for starting a controlled burn on federal land in order to stop an approaching wildfire from spreading onto their property. That’s what triggered the armed standoff in early 2016 when militants, led by Ammon Bundy, occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge for five weeks, ending with their arrest and prosecution. (A federal jury in Portland acquitted them last October.)
I couldn’t find anybody in central or eastern Oregon willing to defend the Bundy group’s occupation of the wildlife refuge, but plenty of people sympathize. “I feel heartsick for the people out there,” says Philo in Bend. “Fifty-two percent of Oregon is under the control of the federal government. If you see the Bureau of Land Management in action, they’re out there in these trucks that are loaded with all kinds of fancy equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. A lot of people resent that. Whether it’s fair or not, the BLM looks to them like the king’s tax collectors or a controlling foreign entity.”
It’s one thing to hear complaints about environmentalists and their allies in the government from politicians and political activists and another to hear from ranchers trying to eke out a living. So I interviewed a gay Native American who sports an “I Stand with Standing Rock” T-shirt on his Facebook page. You might think that a gay Native American must have voted for Hillary Clinton, but you would be wrong. Ty Yazzie is a rancher, and he voted Republican. “I’m a Navajo from southern Utah,” he says. “The core of my culture is a harmonious life. It’s about interacting with one another as if we’re in a dance or a song together. In my culture, we sit and listen and try to understand. Donald Trump needs to do that more and not run his mouth.” He voted for Trump, though.
He grew up on the Navajo reservation without running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. His family hauled water by hand. “It’s high desert, like here,” he says. “And the Environmental Protection Agency really hurt us. In 2015, they were trying to clean up a mine in Colorado, and they spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of groundwater contaminated with arsenic into the San Juan River. That’s where most of our drinking water came from. We had to drink bottled water. The EPA didn’t even try to fix the problem, and they never apologized.”
“If we start irrigating less, we will lose our water rights even though we’re paying for them,” says his partner, Bob Cain. So the government gives Yazzie and Cain and everyone else an incentive to waste water during years with above-average rainfall. These kinds of regulations drive rural Oregonians crazy.
I asked them what would have happened if the environmentalists had won their lawsuit against the irrigation district on behalf of the spotted frog. “I don’t want to ruin the environment,” Cain says. “There is not a person in America who actually wants to ruin the environment. We just need a little common sense, and right now it’s out of control. We have a cattle ranch. We can’t have a ranch without water. If the environmentalists had won their lawsuit, our ration would have been cut by a third or even half. We’d be out of business.” So he and Yazzie voted Republican.
“Rural Oregonians,” says Philo, “see Portland as an alien entity. Portland sees rural Oregonians as a bunch of hayseeds dragging their knuckles on the ground.”
He’s right, but these stereotypes are as half-baked as most. A small but unquantifiable percentage of Portlanders think and say the most ridiculous things sometimes, and they’ve been brilliantly spoofed by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in their hit TV series, Portlandia, but the truth is that Portland is an advanced Pacific Rim city and the third-largest producer of high-technology in the United States. Property values have more than doubled in the last 15 years. People are stampeding in. The city is rapidly growing bigger, taller, and denser. I rarely meet anybody my age born here. The city has never been more cosmopolitan.
Rural Oregonians are more provincial, but they know the city better than urban Oregonians know the hinterlands. Salem may be the political capital, but Portland is the capital of statewide media that everybody in Oregon watches and reads at least occasionally. Rural Oregonians know perfectly well that Portland has culture, a world-class restaurant scene, and some of the best beer, wine, and coffee anywhere. Almost everyone in the state comes to the city at least once in a while because every other large city is a plane ride away. Sure, Portlanders go to the beach during the summer and visit the Bend area to hike, fish, camp, and ski, but few urban Oregonians visit remote places like Lakeview, Burns, and Ontario. Dismissing people who live out there as rubes is mostly a consequence of a lack of exposure.
Rural Oregonians aren’t even all that conservative. Instead, a huge proportion of rural Oregonians are small “l” libertarians. They have a sense that distant forces are imposing on their lives, and they’ve been feeling it since the 1980s. They want to be left alone, and urban political leaders refuse to leave them alone.
“East of the Cascades is like the surface of the moon,” says journalist Mark Hemingway. He grew up in rural central Oregon, lives now in Washington, D.C., and writes for The Weekly Standard. “People on the East Coast can’t imagine how isolated the eastern part of the state is from the western part of the state. I didn’t grow up around a bunch of Bible-thumpers. The general attitude has always been that if a person can mind his own business and be a valuable member of the community without causing trouble, people will leave him alone.”
Oregon has been infused with a libertarian spirit since it was settled by pioneers—mostly from New England and Appalachia—in the nineteenth century. This is a place where conservatives smoke pot and liberals shoot guns. (Firearms and marijuana are both legal and easily obtainable.) Oregon and Washington are among the least religious states in the country. Seventy percent of the state is pro-choice. Almost half of the state’s Republicans support amending the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage. We still don’t have a sales tax; no politician in either party would ever propose one. A ballot measure last year for a proposed gross-receipts tax levied against large corporations failed by a wide margin, mostly because it was perceived as a hidden sales tax.
The skepticism is based on a simple principle: democratic local control is better than ignorant distant bureaucracy. Urban progressives shouldn’t have trouble grasping this because it cuts both ways. Elitists in the cities are no more capable of competently running rural affairs than a bunch of ranchers could effectively micromanage urban affairs from the middle of nowhere.
Eastern Oregon’s resistance to environmental activists is based partly on this leave-me-alone libertarianism and partly on the fact that many people use the land to earn a living—and also, perhaps, on how the environment affects human beings differently on each side of the mountains. Western Oregon’s climate is wet in the winter but relatively comfortable all year, even during heat waves and cold snaps. The climate in Eastern Oregon is harsher. “I grew up 18 miles outside of Bend in the era before cell phones,” Hemingway says, “and if your car breaks down on the wrong road in the wrong time of the year at the wrong time of night in four feet of snow, you might die. People out there have more of a nineteenth-century naturalist view of nature, where you have to respect it and also fear and loathe it when necessary.”
Reading all this, you might think that rural Oregonians don’t care about the environment, that they’d be willing to extract natural resources to exhaustion and shrug while wiping out endangered species until an ecological catastrophe finally forced them to stop, that they’re unwilling to redirect their energy away from the resource economy and toward a different model—but it’s not true. Just look at the small town of Prineville in Crook County, about 45 minutes north of Bend.
When the recession hit in 2008, the last of Prineville’s mills closed and unemployment crested to 20 percent. Unemployment is down to 6 percent now, but it’s not because the mills came back. It’s because Apple and Facebook moved in. The two Silicon Valley firms built gigantic server farms on the outskirts of town, and they chose the location because of a quirk in the climate. Because of its clear skies and high elevation, central Oregon gets colder at night in the summer than almost anywhere else in the country, even during heat waves. Apple and Facebook thus don’t need to spend as much money on electricity to keep their server towers cool. They just open the roof after the sun goes down. The companies have hired hundreds of people, mostly locals, and pay solid middle-class salaries. Fewer than 10,000 people live in Prineville, so hundreds of high-paying jobs that include paid training are transformational.
Another reason Apple and Facebook like Prineville, aside from the climate and the well-educated workforce (Crook County has some of the best schools in the state), is the serious local commitment to protect the environment—and this in a county where Trump won almost 80 percent of the vote. “We have a new wetlands project,” says Mayor Betty Roppe. “We were going to have to put in a mechanical plant for our sewer. It was going to cost $62 million and we couldn’t afford it, but we could put in a wetland for $7.8 million, and we got half the money in grants, so it didn’t cost our citizens much. We can polish the water from the sewer lagoon and Apple can use that instead of potable water for their cooling system. When Apple cools with potable water, they can recycle it twice and then they have to clean the cooling units. If they use the polished water, which takes everything out including the ground minerals, they can recycle it seven times.” So it’s cheaper for Prineville, cheaper and more efficient for Apple and Facebook, and better for the environment. Everybody wins. It is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all game.
A nation without environmentalists would be as polluted and ravaged as Russia and China. But many rural people have been devastated economically by what they see as environmental overreach, and they vote against the people who did this to them. The two sides are likely to continue battling it out for the foreseeable future. Only time will tell if they can eventually find enough common ground to work together, as they did in Prineville.
Top Photo: Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, part of Malheur County—the least densely populated place in the United States outside Alaska. (Photoshot/Everett Collection)