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|Sadler's Sense: Can Dissatisfaction Become a Wave for Political Sanity?
Pragmatic problem-solving characterized Oregon’s political culture until in the 1980s, when the country was struck by the greatest recession since the Great Depression.
By Russell Sadler
Posted on May 27, 2005
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This Memorial Day weekend marks the 40th anniversary of my personal trip west on the Oregon Trail from my hometown of Cleveland. The train took three nights and four days to travel the distance it took wagon trains three or four months to travel in the 1840s. The train was certainly more comfortable than the wagons of those earlier intrepid travelers, but the motivation to go west was similar -- a new start in a land of promise.
Forty years later, an indifferent and ungrateful generation of Oregon legislators is trashing Oregon’s public patrimony, the state is suffering a demonstrable brain drain of its brightest young people. There is a question whether Oregon remains a Land of Promise in the eyes of the nation.
My father’s generation moved west after World War II with an aggressiveness that 1842 wagon train leaders Jesse and Lindsay Applegate would have appreciated. (See painting per Applegate Trail.)
Instead of the lure of “free land” in the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act, what lured my father and his sons were glowing descriptions of a “Land of Promise” in national magazines by journalist and later U.S. Senator Richard Neuberger. Books like “Far Corner” by Stewart Holbrook dazzled us with dramatic images of Oregon.
Like a majority of post-World War II emigrants to Oregon, we liked what we found and embraced the dominant political culture that made it that way. Oregonians were neither dogmatically liberal nor conservative. It was an independent, maverick political culture. Oregonians prided themselves in saying, “I vote for the candidate, not the party.” Many of us simply registered as independents.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats dominated the government. Lawmakers had to reach a consensus on the most pressing public problems caused by the post-World War II boom -- rapidly growing population, urban sprawl, polluted air, rivers and streams, overcrowded schools, lack of access to higher education, inadequate transportation and an economic base limited to agriculture and resource extraction.
This pragmatic problem-solving characterized Oregon’s political culture until in the 1980s, when the country was struck by the greatest recession since the Great Depression.
Oregon’s population actually declined slightly during the mid-1980s and then recovered. It is not generally understood that almost 200,000 Oregonians left the state in that decade and were replaced by about 200,000 newcomers. Demographically, those who came were not at all like those who left.
Newcomers like Lon Mabon, who founded the Oregon Citizens Alliance, were fundamentalist Christians who concluded Oregon’s libertarian-conservative “live-and-let-live” tolerance was really liberal permissiveness and introduced gay bashing into Oregon politics as a sure way to raise funds. By the late 1990s, the suffocating conformity of Bible Belt conservatism became part of the Oregon political landscape.
Young politicians like Bill Sizemore deliberately distorted Oregon tax data to create a false sense that Oregon’s were being “taxed to death.” This opened the way for abusive initiatives that disenfranchised thousands of voters by requiring “supermajorities” to approve taxes and levies and shifted the tax burden from the well-heeled corporate backers of the tax “limitation” initiatives to wage earners. “Tax relief” turned out to be a shift, not a gift, for most Oregonians.
The Oregon Republican Party had been hijacked by an unholy alliance of Christian Republicans and anti-government conservatives. Now confined to the Oregon House, these “leaders” deliberately keep the state’s public schools in a perpetual state of financial crisis. Parent dissatisfaction with this practice of holding students hostage to some distant hope of crushing the teachers union is straining the fragile unity of House Republicans.
And that’s the way it is in May 2005. Or so I thought until I spent a day last week in Salem at Gathering One -- a group of civic-minded people gathered by the politically benign Oregon Heritage Commission to begin planning the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood taking place in 2009.
A sesquicentennial planning session was the last place I expected to see the seeds of a political backlash -- but there they were.
In session after session, I listened to bewildered voices seething with dissatisfaction over the direction Oregon is going and the inability to elect legislators who might change direction This was not a group of Republicans or Democrats. The largely gray-haired participants were a remnant of Oregon’s pragmatic, problem-solving traditional political culture.
Here is a group of disenfranchised people just waiting for some leader like the late Gov. Tom McCall to come along and urge them to return to the political system and change Oregon’s direction. I suspect those similarly disaffected may be as large as half the adult age population, including those who do not register and no longer vote -- not out of apathy, but out of frustration with the state’s contrived partisan political paralysis.
If someone successfully organizes this group and turns them into voters, they will be unforgiving of the Legislature’s indifferent stewardship.
Copyright © 2005 by Russell Sadler
Russell Sadler is a journalist and a lecturer at Southern Oregon University. You may write him c/o publisher at westbynorthwest.org. Visit Sadler's Sense column's at West By Northwest.org:
Sadler's Sense: Oregon's Public Lands Patrimony in Danger Once Again
Sadler's Sense: Driving a Road to State Religion?
Sadler's Sense: Remembering Roy Lieuallen and his Legacy
Sadler's Sense: The Big Sky Game: Manufacturers, Airlines and Competing Visions
Sadler's Sense: On Death: Our Challenged Autonomy
Sadler's Sense: Who Is in Charge of the State's Purse?
Sadler's Sense: The Risks of Shifting Higher Ed.'s Costs and Who Pays
Sadler's Sense: The Good Ship School Finance Is Sinking
Sadler's Sense: Infrastructure Renewal Needed
Sadler's Sense: The Unlikely Poster Child for Measure 37
Sadler's Sense: Of Myths, Money and Machines, Why We Blame the Owl
Sadler's Sense: Not Window Dressing
Sadler's Sense: From Constantine to George, God's Will and Secular Power
Sadler's Sense: Credibility or State of Our State
Sadler's Sense: Look in the Mirror, Oregon
Sadler's Sense: Why We Must Pay the Piper Now
Sadler's Sense: A Short History of Measure 30
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