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Election 2012: Tale of 2 counties, 2 Americas

King County and northeastern Oregon's Wallowa County are two very different places that I know and love. The way they voted tell us a lot about the changing Pacific Northwest and the nation.
Joseph, Oregon, lies in Wallowa County.

Joseph, Oregon, lies in Wallowa County. Sam Beebe/Wikimedia Commons

Oregon's Wallowa Mountains

Oregon's Wallowa Mountains Flickr user superphoebe

As we pour over the tea leaves of the 2012 election to find meanings and future portents, I’m thinking of the two very different counties in America where I have roots and a stake.

One is King County. And perhaps to sharpen the point, I live in the 98118 zip code. The area was identified (until the Census Bureau said such designations were “unofficial”) as the most diverse zip code in America. In the southeast corner of Seattle, 98118 is a busy crossroads of languages, races, religions, and cultures.

King County voters voted 70 percent for Obama.

The other county I know and love is Wallowa County in far northeastern Oregon. Its eastern border is in Hell’s Canyon where the Snake River divides Oregon and Idaho. The total population of Wallowa County, 7,000, is one-sixth of the 42,000 person population of the 98118 zip code in Seattle.

With a population of 7,000 and a territory that covers 7,000 square miles, the population density of Wallowa County is — it doesn’t take a math genius for this one — one person per square mile. Lots of open country.

Wallowa County's vote was just about the mirror image of King County's, close to 70 percent for Romney, 29 percent for Obama.

While King County is “diverse” in all the categories we have become accustomed to categorizing ourselves by — race, ethnicity, language, religion, sexual orientation, and family makeup — Wallowa County is, again, pretty much the other side of the coin. Overwhelmingly white. White and decidely un-affluent. Average household income is $39,700. That figure for King County is just over $70,000.

If the unofficial vehicle of King County is the Prius or Subaru, the vehicle of choice in Wallowa County is a Dodge Ram or Ford F150, pick-up trucks with a dog or two in the back.

So far, one of the conclusions coming out of the 2012 election is that Republicans aren’t making it with anyone but white people and in particular older, white people. Again, it doesn’t take a math genius to see this could be a problem. Republican consultant Michael Murphy commented, drily, after the election, “The difference in the Republican Party is not between conservatives and liberals. It is between those who can count and those who cannot.”

America is changing. Sometime around 2040 people of color will constitute a majority of the U.S. population, already a fact in California. Protestants are no longer the majority religious group. For the first time ever there was no white Protestant on the presidential and vice-presidential tickets in 2012.

It is time, really past time, as David Brooks said in commenting on the 2012 returns, for the Republican Party to join the 21st century — by which he meant embrace our nation’s growing diversity — racial, ethnic, relgious, cultural, and in sexual orientation.

King County and Seattle are certainly on board with all that, for which I am grateful.

And yet, I grieve a bit, and worry some, for the people in a place like Wallowa County.

When they look at America on television, it isn’t hard for them to feel forgotten, even alienated. Theirs is the life of farms, ranches, and small towns. They are mostly white, mostly Protestant, and struggling to keep their communities afloat in the face of all the trends that have undercut the downtowns and economies of small town and rural America.

This year in Wallowa County the school week is just four days. No one goes to school on Friday because there just isn’t money. Wallowa County has remarkable scenic beauty. But as locals are fond of saying, “You can’t eat the scenery.”

More than that, such small towns and rural areas represent a culture that was once the American mainstream but that is now often overlooked or misunderstood. It is a culture that does take pride in hard work and buys into the ethic of “rugged individualism,” but for a reason. These are folks who really do drive cattle, sometimes amid blizzards, from high country to lower, protected valleys for the winter. These are men and women who hunt in the fall for deer and elk, not just for the sport, but because its part of their culture and part of the way they feed their families. These are small towns that send, and lose, a disproportionate share of their citizens to America’s wars.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

This should be assigned reading in every high school history or civics or social studies class, at least in the Great Nearby and the Pacific Northwest. (Are there still civics classes somewhere?)

Charlton2

Posted Sat, Nov 10, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, this should be required reading in every school in the country, red and blue.

arizonan

Posted Sat, Nov 10, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

I lived in zip code 98118 ((Columbia City, Hillman City, Atlantic City, Rainier Valley) for 21 years, the epicenter of diversity. My children came of age there. I grew up way out back of beyond in Arizona, a two-hour drive from a gas station or grocery store. Our way of life defined by "make do with what is." I've looked at life from both sides now. It's cloud's illusions I recall. Yes, Tony, I wish the two America's could talk to each other.

arizonan

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

I would imagine that the net flow of cash is from hipster, left wing Portland taxpayers direct to Wallowa County conservatives.
Just as in Washington State, where the liberal big cities subsidize the governments, roads, schools, and economies of eastern WA., the same thing happens in Oregon.
And, of course, the same thing happens nationally- Washington gets back less than .75 for every dollar it sends to the Feds, while Idaho votes for self sufficiency while sucking up a buck and a quarter for every buck it sends in.

We SHOULD keep subsidizing wild country, unspoiled mountains and rivers and forests. But the people who live there should realize that the reason they get to live such untrammeled lives of beauty is because the residents of Cities are paying to make it possible.

Ries

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 5:59 p.m. Inappropriate

@ Ries, you sound quite selfish. Where did your parents, grandparents and greatgrandparents live? In cities or in rural areas that got more than they gave? Except frankly, since the young leave the rural areas for better jobs in cities, for decades, not just recently, it seems to me that rural areas more than pay their own way.

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The only way for the 2 Americas to hear each other is for the loudest (King County in our case) to quietly listen to the quiet, much more conservatives.

To call King County liberal is an understatement in the eyes of the Wallowa County folks, yet the liberal movement considers their ideas the only correct ideas, and basically ignores or drowns out the other side.

The Wallowa County folks are our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and also represent the foundation of our immigrant based country. No one coming here for better opportunities expected a handout - simply a chance to show they could, and would, work hard, be honest, and become American.

How did the Wallowas of this country become the anti-favored?

All things swing back in time.

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Personally, I live in a liberal rural area, where we grow food to feed cities. But I am aware that King County kicks in the tax dollars that allow me to live here.

Again, I dont think there is anything wrong with cities paying for the countryside- in fact, thats the way its always been. The people of Montana didnt pay for the railroad that allowed them to ship wheat to market- the big cities of Chicago and New York did.
Most of the american west was only settled because Cities subsidized the infrastructure- be it dams, roads, bridges, schools, or all the other things that you cant afford with a tax base of 7000.

What irks me is when people in the country pull that "we built this" line, when they obviously didnt.

Ries

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 10:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Now if all that concrete could just produce enough food and clothing to feed and clad the self-rightous liberals then their smugness might be justified. Unfortunately they can't, so they turn to the rubes and hicks in the sticks and overseas.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 6:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Food, sure us rural denizens grow that.
But Clothing?

Sorry, but sweatshops that produce clothing have always been in cities- never heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire?
Wallowa County doesnt make workshirts or jeans- Filson, in Seattle, makes the really good slickers that you need to be outdoors.
Pendleton, in Pendleton, is an outlier in this respect, making high end shirts and jackets, but making clothes has always been an urban thing. Levi Strauss was founded in San Francisco.

Also, I am curious as to why you think ALL of us "rubes and hicks" are conservative- certainly some are, but my area, the Skagit Valley, has been home to socialists, poets, gays, artists, and democrats for over a century- all of whom had day jobs picking, planting, and processing food crops.
One of the biggest farmers I know is just left of democratic socialist in his political leanings- and you probably eat his berries if you shop at any farmers market in Western Wa.

Ries

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 11:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry to burst your bubble but farmers in Western Washington can't grow enough food to feed much more then their immediate families. If you spent any time at all working on one you'd understand that. Given that some of the best farm land on this side of the state was paved a long time ago and the percentage of viable farm land unpaved is itsy bitsy teeny weeny, say less then 10%. Small wonder west siders have been parasites for decades when it comes to food. And it will continue that way. Remember you need farmers a lot more then they need you.

Now lets address those reading comprehension skills of yours. They suck. I didn't say that rubes and hicks were conservative or liberal. You did. Get it. You did. Plus it would help if you knew exactly what a rube or hick was, but that's just another to do item on your self-improvement list.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Um, you obviously havent been to my farm- I lease my big field, which is 20 acres, to a large local potato grower, and it produces about 60,000lbs per acre. I dont know about you, but thats more than my immediate family eats.
I grow enough pears, apples, berries, and misc stuff in my home garden that I have ongoing trades with area bakeries I supply, and give away quite a bit- and I am not a professional farmer by trade, I am a metalworker.
You are truly clueless about actual farm production in Western Washington. I own a farm. I know the volume my tiny section of the state produces. We are among the top producing counties for seed, flowers, and berries in the country. We grow those things because they are profitable, but we also can, and have, produced prodigious amounts of dairy, grains, vegetables (the Jolly Green Giant actually sourced over fifty percent of its peas from Skagit at one time) and many other things, if the market will buy it.

You live in an apartment or something?

Ries

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