Historians love to quote William Faulkner about how the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Southerners know this in their bones. Northwesterners have yet to learn it.
The ghosts of the past haunt this region in many ways, but they are particularly germane come election season. Most voters seem bewildered by people who favor different candidates, but of our two political tribes, it is urbanites who seem most flummoxed and least capable of explaining opponents. Nobody, however, has fully reckoned with how much the present owes to the 1980s.
Although natural resource industries constantly evolved to meet changing ecological and market conditions, they entered particularly wrenching times at the end of the 1970s. Interest rates spiked above 20%. Housing markets cratered. Oregon lost nearly half its timber jobs before the spotted owl crisis hit in 1990. Environmental regulations and industrial reorganization forced most dairies and mills to close. Similar trials plagued miners and ranchers. Fishermen entered an extremely drawn out period of ecological disruption and industrial change.
Meanwhile, urbanites consumed huge amounts of beef, cheese, fish, fruit, grains, ice cream, lamb, milk, minerals and hydroelectricity, but they gave nary a thought to rural struggles with unemployment and underemployment, depression, methamphetamine and opiate addiction, obesity and what economists now call the “deaths of despair.”
This is where the past still matters.
State governments, which increasingly reflected urban voting power, expended little energy or resources on rural problems. Efforts to retrain timber workers led to few good jobs. Century farms found no backstop when state and industry rules escalated costs. Fishermen were idled for much of the 1980s, and they have qualified for disaster relief in most years since the mid-1990s.
For all, hard work produced cruel outcomes of falling living standards, poorer health care and no chance for home ownership or retirement. The state simply reclassified many workers as permanently disabled. Rural communities either faltered or embraced gentrification. Residents without capital had no appealing future.
The only time urbanites seemed to care about any of this was after Republican candidates won elections, and then mostly only to ask, “What is wrong with these people?”
For anyone who approaches this question as something more than a rhetorical device, the past helps explain this hyperpartisan present. Rural and urban Oregonians once voted similarly. Everywhere was pretty bipartisan, regularly switching between the parties. This too changed in the 1980s. Statewide divides are well recognized, but even in the seemingly homogenous spaces of rural communities, places such as the Nestucca Valley, resource workers began to tilt ever more reliably for GOP candidates, while retirees, merchants and telecommuters voted even more consistently for Democrats.
Each side regarded their votes as virtue signaling. Opponents were just selfish, uncaring bigots. Both sides had merit. Urban liberals did caricature rural resource workers to greedy environmental rapists, and they refused to admit that environmental regulations and recreational gentrification crushed smallholders. Conversely, rural conservatives rarely acknowledged their contradictory distrust of education and plural societies, nor would they admit their long history of racism and oppression toward indigenous peoples, African Americans and Asians.
Northwesterners of all stripes remained mainly focused on narrow needs and wants. Few recognized how their patterns of consumption and political choices linked them to others.
Their combined pasts continue to shape everyone’s present and future. Ruralites have not forgotten the 1980s. They live it every day, and they have not lost sight of the forces, most of which stemmed from urban settings and assumptions, that made their lives hell. Urban residents remain oblivious. They live in spaces that are simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. Almost nothing they consume is produced locally, and they usually know more about national and global issues than about what happened in the next county.
Urbanites effectively enter foreign lands the moment they leave the city. They are witless about how past actions disrupted so many places and people. Rural residents have a clearer sense of how much they depend on urban consumers, but they too are rather clueless about how their nihilistic desire to wreck everything boomerangs against them with a vengeance.
History, the stories we tell about the past, and empathy, the ability to understand the world through other people’s eyes, can help resolve these impasses. The question is whether anyone cares enough to learn, modify their narratives and find common paths forward.