Oregon's Wallowa Mountains Credit: 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.
The large sign that welcomes visitors to Joseph in Wallowa County reads, “This little town is like heaven to us. Please don’t drive like hell through it.” That pretty well says it. Local pride and plain talk. The next sign on the way into town thanks deployed soldiers, by name, for “Preserving Our Freedom.”
Is the overwhelming vote in Wallowa County for Romney, and four years ago for McCain, about race? Maybe. But I tend to think it isn’t that simple, which is not to say there isn’t racism in Wallowa County. There is. But I don’t think folks there are voting race so much as on their experience and the values that go with it.
For the most part, they don’t have much experience of the a 98118 zip code diversity. They don’t have a lot of experience of a multi-cultural America. Their values have been shaped by worlds few of us in urban areas know or understand — ranching, logging, farming, and hunting.
For folks in Wallowa County government tends to be distant. When it does show up, it often is in the form of people from very different cultures and clashes ensue. A case-in-point is the effort to reintroduce wolves. Wallowa County is the epicenter of that project in Oregon.
Personally, I like the wolf re-introduction and live for the night when I hear a wolf howl while backpacking or camping in the Wallowa Mountains. But locals, ranchers in particular, don’t have a lot of love for the new and growing wolf packs. Some, hardly nut cases, argue that there should be permission to shoot at wolves on sight instead of only if and when wolves are seen in the act of bringing down and eating their livestock. Their point in arguing for shoot on sight is that without that, wolves won’t know to fear human beings and that could be a problem for both wolves and people. But we urban people tend to regard such a shoot-on-sight policy as barbaric and perverse.
America has been and is changing in huge and challenging ways. We’re all dealing with that in fits and starts, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. But as we change, I hope we don’t forget or stigmatize the people of small towns and rural areas. They are struggling as hard as anyone to make it in a changing nation.
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