Portland is radicalizing, the rest of Oregon is not

The New York Times has a piece out, 100 Days of Protest: A Chasm Grows Between Portland and the Rest of Oregon. It is one of those articles where the reporter talks to individuals who present a gripping narrative in an ethnographic sense. Aside from Portland, there are names of towns that are probably unknown to most people. Gresham, Sandy, and Boring.

I’m an Oregonian. I grew up in Northeast Oregon, close to Idaho. I’ve spent time in a liberal college town in western Oregon, a liberal arts town in southern Oregon, and also a few years in Southeast Portland, south of the Hawthorne district. There are even a few readers of this weblog who will date to the period when I lived in Southeast Portland in the early 2000s, and would sometimes post about strange things I’d observe around the Powells on Hawthorne (e.g., the one time I walked past a Haredi Jewish guy who seemed to be speaking in ebonics inflected English, arguing with a pierced individual, on the issue of Israel).

The piece in a general stylized sense reflects a reality: Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest, is highly polarized between liberal urban islands in the midst of conservative rural hinterlands. Over my lifetime this has gotten more extreme. One of the reasons is that the decline of the unionized resource and manufacturing has meant that a Left faction similar to Northern European social democrats is not a major force anymore (towns like Ballard and Astoria have strong ethnic Nordic flavors). In its stead has been the rise of cultural liberalism, driven in large part by the migration of “Californians” into cities like Seattle and Portland, but also smaller cities and towns such as Eugene, Bend, and Ashland (some of the most anti-California people I’ve met turned out to be the children of people from California, of course). I put Californians in quotes because a lot of the Californians may not even be from California, but rather people who made a successful career in California after graduating college in the Northeast.

My major gripe with the piece in The New York Times is that it presents a false picture of reciprocal polarization. The data people at The Times actually have put out their precinct-level 2016 results that illustrate what I’m saying. For example, here is a sentence from the piece: “In the town of Gresham, 15 miles from the urban canyons of downtown Portland.” Gresham is contiguous with the eastern half of Portland. In 2002 on a clear weekend day with good weather I actually walked from my place in Southeast Portland to Gresham on surface streets. The main thing you’ll notice is that Gresham is noticeably more working class. The meth epidemic that hit Oregon hit Gresham particularly hard. But Gresham is not a deep-red suburb. As is clear from the map, Gresham narrowly voted for Hillary as opposed to Trump.

The precinct that I lived in Southeast gave 5% of its votes for Trump. In contrast, 40% of people in Gresham voted for Trump. Another town mentioned was Sandy. It is true Sandy is on the conservative side. I knew people from Sandy. But again, if you check on the map above you’ll see that 55% of people in Sandy voted for Trump. This is the majority, but this is not overwhelming. 35% seems to have voted for Hillary (large third party vote obviously).

If you’re an Oregonian you notice some other patterns. The very wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego only gave 25% of its vote to Donald Trump. This is very Trumpy compared to Portland, where most precincts are 5-10%. But, it shows the strong cultural trends in the broader zone around the city. Further to the east, where there are some more conservative suburbs, wealthy West Linn voted 30% for Trump, while poorer and more working-class Oregon City voted 40% for Trump.

What is the major takeaway? Looking at the map it is hard to find any populous region in “Red Oregon” which is as anti-Hillary as Portland is anti-Trump. The conservative town of Baker City gave 22% of its votes to Hillary. The conservative city of Medford in southern Oregon voted about 40-50% for Hillary (depending on the precinct).

There are places where very blue cities are surrounded by red-tinged suburbs. Look at Milwaukie. But that’s not the story here. Portland is basically a political culture where the right-wing is occupied by the liberals and the left-wing is occupied by the radicals. To some extent, it’s always been like this, but the dynamic has amplified over the past 40 years. In 1988 George H. W. Bush won 37% of the votes in Multnomah county, dominated by the city of Portland. In 2016 Trump won 17%. If you look at these two elections you see some evidence of polarization on both sides, but the counties which went noticeably more Red are very lightly populated (e.g., < 5,000 votes!). Suburban Portland has gone from a Red tilt to a Blue tilt (e.g., Washington county, which is the wealthier suburban Portland area was slightly leaning toward George H.W. Bush but now only gave Trump 30% of the vote). Jackson County, the most populous Red county has only become more marginally Red (9% margin in 2016 vs. 7% in 1988).

As an Oregonian articles like this just make me more skeptical of these narrative-driven pieces about American regions. Interesting. But true? Check the data journalism of The New York Times first!


12 thoughts on “Portland is radicalizing, the rest of Oregon is not

  1. I’m quite curious how Portland’s mayoral election will turnout this November. The current mayor, Ted Wheeler, has proved himself to be a completely feckless coward throughout this entire summer of nightly protests/riots, but to be honest it’s almost unfair to castigate him too much since I don’t think any other mayor in Portland would behave too differently if put in his situation. Seattle got relatively lucky, as once the CHOP/CHAZ zone disintegrated it seems like the animating spirit for constant protest/rioting mostly melted away with it. Portland obviously hasn’t been as lucky.

    Portlanders are in a quandry. Wheeler seems equally hated now by not only the regular folk (who by and large probably still consider themselves people of the left, pro-BLM, hate Trump, etc.) but even the hardcore anarchist Antifa-types who have been in the streets nightly this summer. But the other candidate for mayor is essentially an overt Antifa supporter herself. If you’re a regular, left-leaning Portland-voter, do you bite the bullet and vote for Wheeler in November, no matter how pathetic he’s been so far, for no other reason but to prevent an actual anarchist take-over of City Hall? Or will normies (Portland normies, anyway) be so demoralized with the options at hand and thus have lower than usual turn-out, allowing space for the more radical voters to push through their more left-wing/anarchist sympathizing alternative?

    Razib, if you still have any friends in the Portland area, what are their thoughts on Wheeler and the upcoming mayoral election?

  2. Former Portlander here, went to Westview High School…Razib knows who I am.

    My parents and family friends are all scared.

    My Portland friends are all left-of-center (and were virulent Berniebros in the elections), which is par for the course in Portland. Reactions to the ongoing unrest range from mild annoyance to praise and support. Nobody has expressed strident opposition to any degree.

  3. @ M.T.

    Do your parents and family friends live in Portland now? Why are they afraid but your other friends are mostly nonplussed?

  4. I strongly suspect that another factor in Portland’s radicalization and one that won’t show up in maps is that the city is very white. Non-white democrats are much more moderate than white ones.

  5. FWIW a couple of months ago, i asked my sister if she was bothered by the riots and she seemed like she barely was paying attention to it. i think it’s a pretty small area of Portland that’s effected and she doesn’t live there. might have changed her mind by now but she never mentions it. she is far Left-wing and has a young daughter so there are more important things to attend to, i’d guess.

  6. @Mick: My family and their circle are old and (1st-gen) brown. They don’t like rampant disorder. The younger crowd, regardless of race, are wholly assimilated into the “successor ideology,” as Yang calls it.

    @Samuel: Correct. Nobody is critical. There is no Silent Majority…if anything the silent majority approves of rioting. The closest thing to opposition I have heard is “oh, there’s some unrest there, let’s go get beers somewhere else.”

  7. The NYT map really is a thing of beauty!

    Why the asymmetry?

    A few theories for why there is an asymmetry in Oregon.

    Clinton was more moderate than Trump

    One way to read the relative intensity of Trump opposition v. Hillary Clinton opposition in geographic areas is that Trump was a lot further to the right than Hillary Clinton was to the left (in viewed either in the entire political landscape of the U.S. or within their respective political parties). It is easier for a center-right individual to support Hillary Clinton, than for a center-left individual to support Trump.

    Rural Oregon is very white

    Also “racial block voting” is very much a thing in the Deep South (where rural areas are not more white than urban ones), where only 5%-10% of white born in the region (or less) were voting for Hillary Clinton, while Northern whites, historically, have split their votes between the major political parties (and only have large minority populations in major urban areas).

    Portland, Oregon, of course, has a very racist history and the State of Oregon, outside of a handful of cities, is extremely white.

    If you think strong race based animus is rooted in ignorance, you’d expect this to be one of the most racists region in the country. But if you think (as the evidence suggests) that strong race based animus is rooted in fear that your race will lose political power and that this fear is an important driving factor of Trump support, then again, it makes a certain amount of sense that Trump support is a bit softer among whites in rural Oregon than among whites in Mississippi or Alabama.

    Portland is much more dense in population than normal

    There is a hypothesis in political science, which I am coming around to, that the association of liberalism with population density is no historical accident and instead is causal. The reality of living in a place of high v. low population density on a day to day basis influences how you evaluate political issues. Indeed, if you move to someplace with higher population density that you become more liberal, while if you move to someplace with lower population density, you become more conservative.

    Now, this has to be evaluated at a very fine scale. For example, the resort dominated counties of Colorado have quite low population density evaluated at a county level, but the people who live there overwhelming live in resort towns with population densities comparable to central city areas of big U.S. cities surrounded by lots of uninhabited land (with grades too high to build or farm on, and lots of national parks and forests that are barred from development). And, they vote blue.

    Rural Oregon is rural to a similar extent to a lot of rural areas outside New England. Portland, by design, through one of the most extreme land use policies in existence, an urban growth boundary has been in place for a long period of time (I don’t know how much this is ironclad today, but it has left a distinct mark on the city’s urban geography). So, this is a city with far more population density than its geography and overall city size requires, and with far more population density than a city under the land use policies of almost any other comparable sized city in the U.S. would have. (There are places in Colorado that are similar, but due to topography and limited water supplies, not ideology.) Given that Portland is more extreme in population density for its conditions, than rural Oregon, it makes a certain amount of sense that it would be more politically extreme to the left than rural Oregon is to the right.

    Urban Portlanders can be conservative locally and liberal globally

    Another factor going on is the disconnect between state and federal level politics on one hand, and local politics on the other, in the U.S.

    In Europe, political parties are typically tightly integrated from the local level up to the E.U. level and local governments are overwhelmingly partisan.

    In the U.S., most sub-county government (i.e. municipal, school district, town, special district), especially outside the largest cities, is non-partisan, while state and federal politics is partisan. This facilitates a situation where a lot of local governments adopt policies on issues like land use (in the case of liberal areas) and governmental provision of public services (in the case of conservative areas) that are at odds with their state and national political inclinations. This, in turn, makes it easier for affluent urban people to be relatively liberal politically in partisan state and federal contests.

  8. Trump was a lot further to the right than Hillary Clinton was to the left”

    I suppose a lot depends on how you define right and left. If right means “small government, fiscally responsible”, Trump is as left as any Democrat. If right means “socially conservative, uncomfortable with gays”, Trump is left. If left means being skeptical of wars and willing to criticize DoD contractors, Trump may even be to the left of Hillary.

    It is a great irony that Trump is perhaps the most Democratic Republican president we have had.

  9. And yesterday Trump expanded an offshore drilling moratorium to include areas off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

    (Of course, this could be a Nixonian “steal the other guy’s issues.”)

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