So, why is there such a tension between people in rural Oregon and urban Oregon?
We saw this divide in action earlier in 2019, when Republicans in the state Senate walked out in protest of a climate change bill, supported by loggers driving their trucks in circles around the Capitol building, horns blaring.
Today a political scientist from Western Oregon University, Mark Henkels, offered up some explanations of what's going on here in the course of his presentation at a Salem City Club meeting, It's Complicated: The Politics of Oregon's Rural-Urban Divide.
Early on in his talk, Henkels defined "urban" and "rural" as applied to Oregon counties. He considers that our state has six urban counties: Benton, Clackamas, Lane, Marion, Multnomah, and Washington. The rest of the state is rural.
He said that because Salem is the second or third largest city in Oregon, that argues for Marion County being urban. Deschutes County includes Bend, so arguably it is semi-urban, but not enough to make his urban cut.
No big surprise: currently rural Oregon is more Republican than urban Oregon.
But back in 1988, that wasn't the case. Democrats even had a slight edge over Republicans in rural areas, 47% to 41%. (Henkels did mention that many of the Dems were Reagan voters who hadn't changed their registration.) And in urban areas Democrats and Republicans each had 44%.
Much had changed by 2018.
Rural Oregon was only 27% Democratic, a drop of twenty points, while Republican registration declined by only eight points to 33%, with non-affiliated voters jumping markedly from 13% to 33%. In urban areas, Democrats had come to vastly outnumber Republicans, 41% to 21%, with non-affiliated voters rising to 31% of the electorate.
Henkels considers that economic trends explain much of the political changes.
Rural Oregon still tilts toward agricultural and industrial sectors, while urban Oregon has become largely post-industrial. Meaning, services, high-tech, medical, and education sectors. Post-industrial workers are more diverse. They move around a lot. They go where the jobs are.
By contrast, traditionally a family farm often was worked by succeeding generations, and a child might follow a parent in working at the same industrial plant.
Agriculture and industry tend to foster social stability, traditional values, and a desire to preserve the existing economy. Henkels called this cluster "material" values, which doesn't really mean materialistic or non-spiritual. Rather, I took that term to mean a connection to what already exists, a conservative clinging to the things that have worked in the past.
Urban areas in Oregon tend to embrace post-materialist values.
Quality of life is as important, if not more so, than how much money someone makes. Protecting the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are valued goals. This slide shows how drastically rural Oregon and urban Oregon differ in this regard.
A whopping 59% of the Portland metro area holds post-materialist values, while all urban areas are at 46% and rural areas only 17%. Looking at political leaning rather than geography, 49% of liberals are post-materialist, while moderates are at 33% and conservatives at 18%.
While this is my take, not that of Henkels, it seems to me that it's totally wrong to say that rural conservatives are "values voters." Actually, urban liberals hold equally strong values, just different ones. It means as much to a Portland progressive that Oregon does more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as it means to an Eastern Oregon conservative that logging jobs be protected.
Along that line, this slide shows that more lumber is being produced with fewer mills, and hence fewer workers. Henkels said this mirrors trends in other American industries, with automation and production in foreign countries leading to industrial job losses in this country.
So Henkels noted there isn't an easy answer to the question, "What is it like to be a true Oregonian?" People with widely divergent values or political leanings can say with equal fervor, "I'm an Oregonian. This is the way it should be."
One reason the urban-rural divide has become so extreme is that political beliefs in general have become more extreme. The slide above shows the distribution of Democrats and Republicans on a scale of political values. The vertical lines show the median value on the scale, so the closer the two lines are, the more closely Democrats and Republicans agree.
The gap has widened markedly since 2004.
Exacerbating this tribalism, Henkels said that politics has become nationalized, with candidates in local elections taking on national party positions to a greater extent than before. And increasingly people get their news and opinions from different media outlets, Fox News vs. MSNBC being one example. He also noted that in many rural parts of Oregon, conservative talk radio from national sources is ubiquitous, whereas urban areas have more choices.
On the plus side, near the end of his talk Henkels said that Oregonians share a lot of values. We value good education and quality health care. We agree about environmental protections in some areas, such as preserving salmon runs. We value aging services, an area that Oregon has been a pioneer in.
The suburbs and growing cities like Bend could become the new middle ground. A more complex economy in rural areas likely would narrow the values gap between urban and rural Oregon.
In the Q&A period, Henkels talked some about Oregon's land use system. Rural people often blame urban growth boundaries and other aspects of our land use laws for the problems facing the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, he noted that the area outside Sacramento looks very different from the area outside Salem, even though both are state capitals.
Oregon has considerably more protections for agricultural land, which is why we have farmland so close to urban areas, rather than sprawling subdivisions. So farmers should be thankful for our land use system, though naturally there's room for improvement in it.