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Conservative Voters Aren’t Monocausal

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Oregon Sawmill-304-S

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, there’s been way too many articles trying to explain conservative white voters in terms of one issue. Did white people vote for Trump because they were racist? Did they vote for him because they were misogynist? Did they vote for him because their jobs were shipped overseas and they have no real economic prospects? The answers are of course complex. The whole debate has been deeply problematic to begin with, for a number of reasons. First, most white people vote Republican anyway and so many of the stories about Trump voters ignore this and assume that such a vote was a one-time deal. Second, the debate about economic issues has been vastly overblown. Pinpointing that issue as a critical reason Clinton lost is a very different proposition than saying that’s why white people voted for Trump. The jobs issue matters a lot in understanding why specific blue collar counties with long histories of voting for Democrats shifted by up to 10% toward Trump and thus throwing some states to him. It does not describe necessarily why working-class whites as a whole voted for Trump. And yet that complexity has been ignored by people who don’t want to admit that economics is part of it. Moreover, the discussion of racism and misogyny has been misguided in the sense that people seem to believe that one is a racist or misogynist or isn’t a racist or misogynist, when in fact we all exist along a sliding scale of prejudice. There’s a lot of people wanting to call Trump voters racist but will defend to the death their decision to move to the all-white suburbs for the schools. Sorry, it’s not that simple as you’re racist because you voted for Trump and I’m not because I voted for Clinton.

The complexity of these issues gets a lot more dense when you deep dive into the particular region. That brings me to southwestern Oregon. This story is about how right-wing white voters in these old timber towns are so anti-tax that they aren’t even voting to fund their own police and libraries. An excerpt:

“We pay enough taxes,” said Zach Holly, an auto repair worker in a shop a few blocks from the library who said his vote against the tax was not about libraries at all, but government waste. “I vote against taxes, across the board,” he said.

An instinctive reaction against higher taxes has been stitched into the fabric of America in recent decades, starting with the property tax revolts of the 1970s through the anti-tax orthodoxy expressed by many conservative members of Congress today. But few places in the nation are seeing the tangled implications of what that means — in real time — more vividly than in southwest Oregon, where a handful of rural counties are showing what happens when citizens push the logic of shrinking government to its extremes.

“The trust is gone from people who are paying the bills,” said Court Boice, a commissioner in Curry County, which borders Douglas. At least four property tax proposals aimed at keeping county services afloat, like the library rescue plan in Douglas, have failed in Curry County over the last decade.

Just east of Curry in Josephine County, the jail has been defunded after nine consecutive defeats of public safety tax levies — there will be another try next week in a special election — leading to a policy of catch-and-release for nonviolent criminals.

Demographic and economic changes in this swath of the Pacific Northwest, where thick forests brush down to the rocky Pacific Coast, have given the tax resistance movement its backbone. Retirees who came in recent years for the low housing costs or the conservative political culture have become a major voting bloc. And the tech jobs that are fueling growth in Portland, a three-hour drive north, are mostly just a dream.

But what is even more significant is that for many years, timber-harvesting operations on public lands here paid the bills, and people got used to it. A law passed by Congress in the 1930s specified that a vast swath of forest lands that had passed into corporate hands and back into federal control would be managed for county benefit. But then logging declined, starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as it did across many other parts of the West, and the flood of timber money slowed to a trickle, with only a stunted tax base to pick up the difference. The property tax rate in Curry County is less than a quarter of the statewide average. Douglas County residents pay about 60 percent less than most state residents.

President Trump’s plan to overhaul the nation’s corporate and personal income-tax systems adds another wrinkle. His proposal would not directly affect local property tax rates, but the ripple effects, several local officials said, could be profound and unpredictable. More money in voters’ wallets from tax cuts in Washington could reduce the sting in asking people to pay more at home, or it could just reinforce the idea that all taxes are meant to go down.

So what’s going on here? The article gets at some of it. These southwestern Oregon counties went hard for Trump. They are genuinely right wing. For all Oregon is known as a liberal state, the reality is that it’s politics are probably as divided as any state in the country. It’s Democrats are on the far left of the nation. It’s Republicans belong in Idaho or Utah. This is why unlike Washington, where Republicans run credible statewide campaigns, Democrats blow out Republicans over and over again. Yes, the retirees are an issue, but the locals are just as right-wing. These are State of Jefferson people, as the area is festooned with signs for splitting from Oregon (and California counties like Del Norte and Siskiyou) and starting their own, properly white and conservative state with lots of guns and no taxes.

So what is it? Are these people racist? Yeah, no doubt. But that’s not why they are voting against their own libraries and not the only reason why they are voting for Trump. Sure, call them idiots if you want to. I’m not even going to disagree. But it’s more than that. First, they have tremendous cultural resentment toward Eugene and Portland. Those urban liberals are an obsession in these areas. Moreover, Oregon has changed dramatically in the last 50 years (this is the book I am researching on my sabbatical starting this fall). In 1960, this was a relatively poor but homogeneous state that valued white working class cultures based in natural resource economics. In the 1970s, that started to change, as tech and tourism became to replace logging and fishing as economic drivers. That continued to grow and as higher end companies such as Nike and Microsoft developed, the natural resources of the Northwest meant more for the economy standing and preserved than developed. Thus the spotted owl protests and the preservation of the last old-growth stands. Globalization and free trade agreements played a big role here. While NAFTA has been terrible for Michigan and Ohio, it’s been really good for the West Coast. But its benefits are highly divided. Cities like Portland and Seattle have exploded. But the old logging towns are left with nothing. And that’s what these places in southwest Oregon are. Sure, you get California retirees out there, but most of these towns are as desolate as anything you would find in western Pennsylvania. There’s nothing in tech, a little in tourism along the Rogue River and with mountain biking, but by and large, that old white working class economy is dead. This varies quite a bit by country. The article focuses on Curry, Douglas, and Josephine Counties, but not Jackson. There’s a good reason for that, which is that Jackson County has become the urban core, such as it is, of southern Oregon. With Medford (working-class town but reasonably big), Ashland (college town, Shakespearean Festival, brewery center, outdoor paradise) and Jacksonville (small town but historic and a tourist destination), Jackson County has responded to the challenges of the new economy more effectively and thus the anti-tax sentiment is lower. It still went Trump 51-42, but compared to Josephine at 62-31, Curry at 58-35, and Douglas at 66-27, it’s downright liberal.

Add to this a tradition of low taxes. The linked article discusses this to some extent, but let me expand upon it, as I get into this some in Empire of Timber (now available at a not horrible price!). The majority of taxes in these counties came from the Oregon and California Land Grant lands for many decades. The O&C was a failed railroad grant through the most valuable timber lands in Oregon that was reacquired by the government and leased to timber companies. Douglas County became the nation’s timber capital based on these lands. The deal was that the timber companies would pay taxes on the timber they cut and a big chunk of that went into the county larder. That meant that schools and roads and police were paid for with little to no money from the citizenry, creating a no-tax culture. So in the 1980s, when the timber industry declined (for many reasons, not just owl protection), not only did unemployment rise, but so did the need to tax the populace for this first time. This all added significantly to the overall atmosphere of resentment.

All of this is to say that the core of white conservatism, especially white working class conservatism, is really, really complex, much more so than is allowed to exist in liberal debates on it. Race and misogyny no doubt played a role in the voting of these people, but they also have very real “economic anxiety” and economic resentment in a rapidly changing state and economic reality. Add to this their unique history and you have a brew of right-wing extremism that hurts only themselves, and of course anyone unfortunate to live under their rule.

At the very least, I hope this discussion pushes back effectively against the simplistic discussion of the white working class and the 2016 election. Because I don’t think there’s anything about Douglas County, Oregon that suggests a monocausal reason for its conservatism. It’s conservative for a lot of reasons, some of them addressable perhaps by Democrats and some perhaps not.

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