New Populism in the Northwest

A rural protest in eastern Washington, reminiscent of the old Populists, threatens the GOP status quo.

By Randy Stapilus

A century and more ago, farmers and the other people of rural communities were in an almost riotous protest. They were being abused by powerful interests and social forces. These things could be addressed by politics, and they knew it, and they acted accordingly. They formed political parties, they did battle within political parties and they got leaders of major political parties (William Jennings Bryan, for one) to pay attention and take up their cause. They got radical and they got uppity. And partly as a result, their lot gradually improved in the early 20th century.

Much of rural America is in a condition no less dire today, and a good many of the reasons are external and attributable to decisions made by politicians and leaders of various powerful interests. And where is the protest today in rural America?

You could argue that much of rural America is depopulating; compared to a century and more ago, there is simply a lot less electoral clout there. But that's not equally true everywhere. In some parts of the country, farm towns still have a lot of impact. One of the best places to consider this and the impact a rural revolt could prospectively have is in Washington's 5th Congressional District.

Washington's 5th includes a large city, Spokane, and its surrounding area. Spokane County accounts for almost two-thirds of the district's population. Spokane's Republican-ness isn't what makes the 5th as a whole so strongly Republican, though. It is the only part of Washington state east of the Cascades with enough of a Democratic base to routinely send Democrats to the legislature in one district, and challenge more than just credibly in another. It did give 55% of its votes to George W. Bush in 2004, but that's a lot less than in the 5th overall; and in the Senate race, homeboy Republican George Nethercutt managed only 51% against Democrat Patty Murray. Spokane County is a clear Republican lean but not a Republican lock; that comes from the rural counties.

These rural counties -- Adams, Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Lincoln, Spokane, Whitman, Walla Walla -- are as a whole much more Republican than Spokane city. A Democratic win in the 5th usually has been predicated on the idea of winning strongly enough in Spokane to overcome the rest. But if -- if --a populist revolt were to start out in the farm country and turn to a Democratic voting pattern, as has happened well back in our history, that calculus could be upended.

That is the proposition posed in a recent Inlander, Spokane's alternative weekly, in "Amber Waves of Pain," by Kevin Taylor, about the candidacy of Democrat Peter Goldmark, who is challenging first-term Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris.

Conventional measures will suggest this is not a close-call contest, and probably it isn't. All recent records -- every election since 1992, when the 5th last elected a Democrat in the person of Tom Foley -- has shown a steady conservative Republican tendency. Nethercutt's reelections from 1996 on were in the comfortable range here. Spokane aside, there's no large Democratic base anywhere else in the area (though a few nascent groups are forming). There's not much Democratic infrastructure to help a candidate, and the Republican infrastructure is strong. In this race, McMorris is reasonably well known and not disliked, while Goldmark is only marginally known. He didn't get into serious campaigning until this spring. He is overmatched in the usual money and organizational measures. He's out and about campaigning, and seems to have made a good impression, but he's still not terribly well known. Most local news media have had little to say about the race; the *Inlander*'s article may be the most substantial piece on it yet, and that lack of buzz tends to help incumbents.

The wild card could be what the Inlander article suggests: a rural revolt.

Nationally, this looks like a year of revolt, but most of that activism seems centered in cities and suburbs rather than rural places. But rural places have been hit hard by a sequence of events not of especially recent making but certainly of recent exacerbation. In the Inlander:

"Scarily real, agrees Read Smith, a Whitman County wheat farmer near St. John.

"'We're in a desperate cost/price squeeze right now. The fertilizers we use are petroleum-based, and the fuel we need to run everything is up and we're being squeezed bad. The price we get for almost everything we produce is flat and has been for 30 years,' Smith says.

"'So we're living off equity, and Main Street is suffering. In Endicott there's no café, no tavern, no drug store. There's a food center and a bank and a post office and that's it,' Smith says. 'Go to many small communities in the 5th District and Main Street is empty. People are gone, the shops are closed, the schools are shrinking and the churches are suffering -- and there doesn't seem to be a real grasp that this is happening.'"

So far, they've mostly been sitting there and taking it. But not entirely. The Inlander noted that last fall, "Democratic Sen. Patty Murray swung by the Harvester Restaurant in Spangle and found a standing-room-only crowd packing the place to discuss troubles in farm country. A couple of weeks later, Murray flew a half-dozen ag leaders to her office for a face-to-face sit-down meeting with a couple of senior officials from the Department of Agriculture." Only after that did McMorris, who (as is noted) is not on the House agriculture committee, hold a rural assist event of her own. (McMorris actually comes from one of the small towns in the district, Colville, which should give her some useful insight into the problem.)

Goldmark is hoping to jump on top of that unrest. As a farmer and a credible figure within that world, he would seem to be a reasonable enough figure for some of those farmers to hold on to if they decide they want to roll up the barricades.

But do they? Actual evidence that this generation of rural people, in contrast to those of a century-plus ago, are willing to do more than complain isn't yet very apparent. But there is a national revolt underway, and if some of that spirit jumps to some of the rural communities in places like the 5th, who knows what kind of explosion that spark might bring about?

Randy Stapilus, a former reporter for daily newspapers in Boise, Pocatello, Nampa, Lewiston and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is author of Paradox Politics [Ridenbaugh Press, 1988] and It Happened in Idaho [Globe-Pequot Press, 2002]. He is editor and publisher of the Ridenbaugh Press publications. This originally appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2006

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