The deeply problematic “Greater Idaho” movement, which seeks to cleave off the majority of Oregon’s territory and a tenth of Oregon’s population to join the state of Idaho, has received another white-washing treatment by major media, this time by The Washington Post. As I’ve discussed before, and as experts on Western U.S. politics and right-wing extremism have pointed out, the movement is shadowed by the white supremacist motivations of prior secessionist movements in the Pacific Northwest. Beyond this, its proponents have sought to soften its image with the rhetoric of irreconcilable “rural” or “cultural” differences with the rest of the state, when even a quick look at the movement’s website reveals a bevy of MAGA-adjacent positions like anti-immigrant animus and extremist views on abortion rights. As journalist Leah Sottile has written, “Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.”

Very few of these sordid and problematic aspects are highlighted in the Post’s contribution to the Greater Idaho coverage, which takes more or less at face value the stated motivations of the movement’s organizers and sympathizers. It notes that, “The push to change the border is rooted in policy differences and a sense that, in Oregon, there will be no way for conservatives to influence the laws and regulations made by the elected representatives of the far more numerous Democratic voters who live on the western side of the Cascades.” It notes differences over gun control regulations, abortion rights, and electric vehicle regulations as concrete examples of this. The piece also cites the vaguer notion of a cultural rural-versus-urban divide driving proponents to seek secession, with an Eastern Oregon University history professor noting “the idea of ‘rural’ as a stand-in for deep cultural touchstones.”

The article captures some of the vaguely anti-democratic strains in the movement that I’ve tried to highlight previously, but without offering dissenting perspectives on these alarming motivations. It quotes one Oregon state senator who represents an eastern Oregon district as saying that, “What we’re looking for is local control, not foreign control. And by foreign I mean Portland, Salem and the rest of those in the west who have decided they know better than we do how to run our lives.” Putting aside the fact that Senator Dennis Linthicum is being provocative in his language choice, the idea that Portland and Salem are akin to foreign countries highlights a basic contradiction at the heart of the Greater Idaho movement. By referring to the rest of Oregon’s population not as fellow citizens but as a foreign power imposing its will on eastern Oregon, such rhetoric turns the basic premise of Oregon’s democracy on its head: majority rule is in fact tyranny when viewed from the perspective of those who don’t agree with its outcomes, and this tyranny should be obvious because such a majority consists not of fellow citizens so much as a hostile nation.

Not surprisingly, such language echoes that found on the Greater Idaho website, which quotes at length a statement by a Harlan County supporter who writes:

The Portland metro area is home to 47 percent of Oregon’s voters and covers a mere 3,776.41 square miles of Oregon’s 98,466 square miles, that’s less than 4 percent of its land mass, 3.83 percent to be exact. Five of Oregon’s 36 counties now control 100 percent of Oregon’s legislative activity. None are rural. None are east of the Cascades. None are outside the Willamette Valley.

The political diversity in this state is becoming unpalatable. Since 1988 Oregon’s urban dwellers have elected a group of individuals that represent nothing short of an aristocracy of political power, they have switched their role in democracy from servant to lord. These people have successfully disenfranchised and subjugated the people occupying everything not Portland or the Willamette Valley. They have enacted laws with little or no debate and no amendments.

Eastern Oregon residents are “subjugated” because majority rule prevails in Oregon: let that sink in for a moment. This is a breath-taking indictment of democracy, suggesting that laws promulgated by Oregon’s state government lack legitimacy because a minority disagrees with them.

But this is actually exactly how democracy works, the actual social contract of our nation. Underlying the passion of this complaint, though, is the implication that the majority is ruling in a way that violates the fundamental rights of eastern Oregonians. (We should also note the emphasis on the relative geographic smallness of Oregon’s population centers, repeating the right-wing trope that implies that it is land mass, not people, that counts when considering the truth of what really constitutes a majority).

But this is not the argument that the secessionists make. Instead, their cause consists of a litany of complaints about cultural differences resulting in policy differences that actually don’t add up to anything reasonably adding up to oppression or tyranny on the part of Oregon’s majority. There are complaints about gun control legislation, but no specific arguments about how these have adversely affected eastern Oregonians’ right to possess firearms.  There are complaints about “illegals” receiving driver’s licenses, but no arguments about how this harms eastern Oregonians.

But for all the emphasis on the supposedly violated rights of the eastern Oregon minority, I have yet to read or hear of a Greater Idaho proponent taking their arguments to their logical conclusion and worrying about the oppression of any Oregonians who disagree with their policy choices or values being suctioned up into an expanded Idaho. Neither has such a concern been extended to the residents of Idaho, particularly in urban areas, who lean more progressive and according to the logic of the Greater Idaho movement are being oppressed by a hostile foreign power in the form of rural Idaho. Would it not make sense for residents of cities like Boise to seek to secede and join their liberal brethren in western Oregon, perhaps joined by a safe passage corridor like the one that allowed West Germans and others passage to and from a divided Berlin during the Cold War?

In fairness, the article provides a few hints of the darker forces at work in the movement. University professor Howard, talking about the term “rural,” notes that “there’s a dog whistle in the term [. . .] It is conservative versus liberal, but the issue of race is also baked into it. It gets to the idea of ‘rural’ as a stand-in for deep cultural touchstones [italics added].” How, exactly, is race “baked into it,” one can’t help but wonder? Similarly, the author notes that, “Idaho offers a much more comfortable political home for eastern Oregon’s conservatives, who live in many of the most racially homogenous counties in the state. In nearly every county that has voted to explore joining Idaho, White residents account for more than 80 percent of the population.”  Yet these observations are not pursued; indeed, the point about the whiteness of Oregon’s secessionist eastern counties is not even followed by the obvious data, about about how very white Idaho is as well (answer: whites make up around 82% of the population); and so this promising paragraph pops out as something of a non sequitur. Yet the idea that white Oregonians would have “a much more comfortable political home” in Idaho simply screams for more exploration.

I will go out on a limb and identify this as an example of the way obvious evidence of white supremacist factors so often repels and evades mainstream media coverage, as if it creates a sort of reality distortion field that induces in the reporter feelings of amnesia, disorientation, or perhaps simple blindness. What is more remarkable in the instance of the Washington Post piece is that elementary research about possible racial aspects of the Greater Idaho movement would have yielded at least Leah Sottile’s excellent piece on its white supremacist underpinnings. If a professor at Eastern Oregon University was interviewed for the report, why not others who have been tracking this movement and have a deep understanding of other such efforts in the Northwest?

I’ve previously talked about the clear white supremacist strains and echoes of the Greater Idaho movement, so will not try the reader’s patience too much here by repeating myself. But one point I haven’t highlighted before is the possible connection between the sense of “alienation” suffered by overwhelmingly white Oregon counties and the rapid rise of the state’s Latino population. A recent article in the Seattle Times gives a sense of the magnitude of the change:

[Oregon’s] Latino population grew by more than 30% over the last 10 years as Oregon added nearly 140,000 Latino residents, numbers from the 2020 census show. That growth came after Oregon’s Latino population jumped by 144% from 1990 to 2000 and grew by another 63% from 2000 to 2010.

Oregon’s Latino population now stands at 588,757 and has grown faster than the national rate in each of the last three decades. Latinos are now the largest minority group in the state, accounting for nearly 14% of the state’s population. Among Oregonians under 18, Latinos make up 23% of the population, according to Census redistricting data, a sign that their numbers will continue to climb in the coming years.

While the majority of the Latino population lives in the western Oregon, a look at the changing demographics of the city of Ontario, located near the Idaho border and featured centrally in the Post article, also offers some suggestive numbers. In 2000, Hispanics or Latinos of any race composed 32% of the population; in 2010, 41%; and in 2020, 43%, while the white percentage was 49%.  Remarkably, 2022 US Census Bureau estimates put Ontario’s Latino population at 48.5%, and the white population at 48%, suggesting that a plurality of city residents are now Latino. Even taking into account the nuances of mixed-race respondents and varying definitions of “Latino,” these statistics show a dramatic downward shift in the proportion of white residents. These are remarkable changes for any Oregon city, more so given Oregon’s dark beginnings as a state that enshrined white supremacism in its constitution and its many decades of existence as an extremely white state.

I think it’s fair to speculate (though reasonable minds may differ on this) that a white eastern Oregon resident unsettled by such demographic shifts — more and more people who don’t look like what they expect fellow Oregonians to look like, more and more people not even speaking English as their first language — might not be entirely comfortable sharing such discomfiture with a reporter working for a big-city news outlet. Remarkably, looking back on the other stories on the secession movement from CNN and the New York Times, neither the reporters nor anyone interviewed has noted these enormous demographic changes affecting the entire state.

It’s also worth noting that among the grievances listed on the Greater Idaho website are multiple complaints against undocumented immigrants, including Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state, and its issuance of driver’s licenses and provision of “free health care” to “illegals.” Oregon’s great distance from the southern border, coupled with rural areas’ dependence on “illegals” to harvest their crops and perform other agricultural labor, make these particular complaints worthy of a more critical eye when assessing the less advertised grievances of the secessionists.

While the Post and other pieces tie the Oregon secession movement to the “red-blue” divide found in other states and across American politics, neglected in mainstream coverage has been the fundamental role of demographic change in supercharging right-wing, MAGA politics and the very existence of the red-blue split nationwide. Much political science research and analysis has pointed to American’s shift into being a far more diverse country over the past decades as key to the rise of a right-wing politics — a politics that, not coincidentally, places at its center the primacy of white political power and the subversion of non-white groups’ political clout. This is such a basic fact about our national political dynamics — indeed, about a national political crisis in which an authoritarian GOP seeks to stymie and reverse the power of an increasingly diverse American majority — that to set it aside when looking at the politics of an individual state like Oregon is nearly incomprehensible. But as I said earlier, properly highlighting the white supremacist underpinnings of right-wing politics is an enduring blind spot of political reporting, a blind spot that has played no small part in the United States’ careening course over the past decade toward right-wing authoritarianism, most nauseatingly embodied by Donald Trump’s attempted coup in 2021 with the assistance of white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

Along these lines, we should also note the elements of menace that shadow the Greater Idaho movement — as one interviewee in the Post story says, “We’re not angry, and we do not want this to come to violence. We want to do this peacefully, but there is no doubt there is a lot of anger out there. This movement can be a release valve.” The threat of violence is hardly abstract. Right-wing extremists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon in 2016, and the insurrectionist Proud Boys rehearsed their violent tactics in the city of Portland during the Trump years.

The suggestion that violence is lurking beneath the surface of the Greater Idaho movement again points to the idea that an unspeakable and untenable oppression is being inflicted on eastern Oregon — an oppression that is not readily apparent in reality. The nature of this oppression in the secessionists’ minds, though, and of the existentially high stakes, begins to make more sense when you introduce the perspective of white supremacy and fears of demographic change, and take notice of the motivations and schemes of white nationalist organizations who have proposed the idea of an enlarged Idaho that closely echoes the designs of the Greater Idaho movement. If you place the highest importance on white Americans claiming primacy in the hierarchy of American society and power, then perhaps violence doesn’t seem out of the question to maintain this order of things. Certainly this is the conclusion that white nationalist groups have reached.

Finally, it is striking that coverage of the Greater Idaho movement — including the Washington Post’s recent foray — has consistently downplayed the loss of actual rights that thousands of Oregonians would suffer should the Idaho land grab succeed. I would highlight first and foremost the right to an abortion — a right that, subsequent to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, has been eviscerated in Idaho. Abortion is illegal after six weeks of pregnancy; as most women don’t know they are pregnant until around the five-week point, this is a de facto full ban on abortion (the Idaho law also contains exceptions for rape and incest).

Given the deprivation of bodily autonomy such laws inflict on women, it’s fair to say that Oregon women who became Idaho residents would also automatically become second-class citizens, considered unfit to exercise the same control over their bodies as Idaho’s more privileged menfolk. Consideration of such losses reminds us that, as much as secession proponents aim to frame their effort as a fight for democracy and self-determination, key elements of what they consider freedom would, objectively speaking, actually constitute true subjugation and oppression for thousands.