Just over half a century ago, conventional wisdom declared that America was all liberal, with a few McCarthyites on one fringe and a handful of communists on the other. The liberal scholar Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950, “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Rather, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”
Much the same could be said for the Northwest these days. With the resounding defeat of Republicans in statewide and Congressional elections last month, there are reasons for liberals to proclaim their title to the Pacific Northwest. There are also reasons to suppose that Republicans are doomed to an inherent disadvantage in Washington state.
Of course, there’s nothing new about the idea that this is a liberal state. Our earliest settlers included experimentalists of various sorts, socialists, hookers, hard-living loggers, and — like anyplace out West— people who wanted to leave behind their roots for a fresh start and no rules. It’s not just geography that separates us from the Bible Belt. And for the most part, Washington has been a Democrat-voting state since the Great Depression. Most of our great politicians — Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson among them — were Democrats.
One reason that Washington Republicans have not been successful at building a long-term governing majority is that Northwesterners are independent. It’s difficult for any society, much less one that abhors establishments, to get together the sorts of broad coalitions that make it possible to elect candidates. Democrats can pull it off because they tend to organize around interest groups (unions, public employees, feminists, seniors) instead of shared principles. As for Republicans, Tim Eyman’s signature gatherers don’t deal much with Dan Evans’ disciples, who don’t want much to do with Ellen Craswell’s crowd. Dino Rossi was the closest Republicans came in generations to having a statewide leader who could unite the party from east to west and from middle to right.
But even unity in the party would not be enough to change the idea that this is a liberal, Democratic region. The main reason that Washington Republicans lose elections is that they have never attached themselves to the idea of the Pacific Northwest. They have generally fed off of “conservatism” as a national movement (“I liked Ronald Reagan, therefore I’m a Republican”), or they have constructed the party on policy impulses (“I don’t like taxes, therefore I’m a Republican”), instead of identifying a distinctive and unifying vision that matches the place we live.
If Republicans are ever going to challenge the assumption that this is a fundamentally liberal state, conservatives — the ideological base of the Republican Party — will have to engage in a deeper conversation about our region than we’ve ever had before.
Finding a Northwestern vision will require more than tweaking campaign talking points or finding better candidates in the next election. Of course they have to do those things. But demographic charts don’t win over the public imagination. Building a Republican Party that wins elections time and again will require serious thinking about the basic identity of the Pacific Northwest.
When Trilling observed that there were no conservative “ideas in general circulation,” he didn’t mean that America was without conservative impulses. But Ronald Reagan would never have been elected if the conservative movement was a mere bundle of impulses. Impulses must be articulated, and the conservative movement began with ideas, with thoughtful scholars and writers like William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and several others who were willing to challenge the assumption that America was fundamentally liberal. These thinkers were concerned about recovering the defining principles of America. They didn’t ask, “What is conservatism?” because there wasn’t a conservative movement to speak of. Instead they asked, “What is America?” and “What about America is worth conserving?”
The answer, which Reagan translated into a winning political message, was limited government, strong defense, and traditional values. To communicate these principles, Reagan didn’t have to become a policy wonk. He told the American story and captured the nation’s imagination.
Today’s conservatives across the country need to update the conversation about America’s identity to the demands of a global information age when we face new kinds of challenges in the world and a new search for meaning in our communities. As the world of Microsoft and Amazon draws us beyond home, it’s all the more important for us to conserve the good things close to home.
And conservative leaders in the Northwest ought to come together over the question: “What is the Pacific Northwest?” In other words, “What about the Northwest is worth conserving?”
I suspect that they would be delighted and inspired by what they find. We live in the most beautiful corner of creation. We take pride in our cities and towns, our families and schools. We believe in the freedom to create and innovate and prosper. It is the story of pioneer settlers and mountain women, of the Pacific Rim and the Scandinavians, of Bill Boeing and Bill Gates. When we finally get down to what the people of Washington love and want to conserve the most, we’ll find that it’s the stuff of a broad movement that translates to politics: free markets, strong local communities, and the environment.
Nothing about these Northwest values necessitates liberal policies. All of them are compatible with familiar conservative maxims like limited government and traditional values. But conservatives' language should match our region’s political and cultural orientation: they should speak of loving communities more than overturning Roe v. Wade. They should celebrate private opportunity and the entrepreneurial spirit more than they demonize Olympia. They should be more sentimental about Puget Sound than the sound of family farms being paved over. They may even have to think beyond the stereotypes of conservatism that come to us from the mass media world of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter.
We’re a state of hippies who belong to the NRA, organic farmers with Ron Paul bumper stickers, apple orchard constitutionalists, blue-collar Boy Scout leaders, suburban home-school libertarians, tree-hugging evangelicals, CEO conservationists, and coffee shop missionaries. Not all of these people think of themselves as conservatives, or Republicans — but they’re generally not liberals. Many of the older Democrats I’ve known in my hometown of Puyallup are men and women of thoroughly conservative dispositions. Unlike Democrats in other parts of the country, many Washington Democrats are enthusiasts for free trade. The one thing these diverse people hold in common is that they are proud members of the Pacific Northwest. They love the place and they’re here to stay. A conservative movement — a movement that aims to conserve Northwest values — can be built on that.
One good step would be to invite writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, small town historians, and big city after-hours intellectuals along to help craft a conservative imagination about our place and its people. There ought to be conferences, blogs, books, a journal or two, and even an open dialogue with liberal graduate students in the University District, liberal shop owners in Bellingham, and liberal teachers on the Olympic Peninsula. We may shatter some worn-out assumptions and find some things in common when we initiate a conversation about the culture we share.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!