When I was growing up, and first started gaining a political consciousness, the first political idea I latched onto was the Pacific Northwest independence movement Cascadia.
If you’re unfamiliar, Cascadia is based on the idea of dividing North America politically into bioregions. Cascadia is a proposed state of the Pacific Northwest bioregion. Its boundaries are ill-defined, but usually includes Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, part of Northern California, part of Idaho, and sometimes Southeast Alaska, .
I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, and my parents were relatively apolitical. I wasn’t exposed to defined, specific political ideologies as a kid. When I got to high school, I started doing Debate. At first, I was helped in debate by not being politically aware, because I had to debate both sides. However, as I went throughout high school, and flirted with a couple teenager ideologies (like libertarianism), I continued to explore more political options. I learned about Marx in intro to Philosophy, and then later that year, participated in Occupy, which would inform a lot of my political thought since then.
In high school though, I was also struggling with identity. For one, my ethnic heritage is mostly Irish, Scottish, and German. But it’s all a muddled mess of generic white American heritage. I didn’t feel any pride in this, and I didn’t feel pride in being generically white (thank God). I’m at least, three generations removed from that heritage, so I rightfully feel no connection to it. I’m simply a white American, and that’s not an identity worth embracing, unless you’re far-right.
At the same time, I had no American identity. I always thought the US sucked, before I was a leftist. When I was a kid, I was under the influence of American Imperialist propaganda, as all Americans are, but I never felt patriotic, or valued the US more than any other country.
That left me gaining a identity from my home state: Washington. I visited BC and Oregon (and later lived in Portland, OR for over five years), and learned about the idea of Cascadia while rather young. I recognized that I felt just as ‘at home’ in Oregon and even British Columbia. I felt like it was stupid that Washingtonians and British Columbians lived in a different country when they had the same culture. Washington and Oregon have more in common to BC than any other state, except Oregon.
So at this time, my political priority was Cascadia. Throughout college, I had a Cascadia flag patch on my backpack. One time I was riding the bus through SW Portland and a guy approached me and said he designed the Cascadian flag. His name is Alexander Baretich, and I later saw him at several protests with the Cascadian flag, and several other people.
I have also seen, when I still lived in Portland, people who appropriated the Cascadia flag, modifying it to have Hammer and Sickles, or other type of Communist imagery. So while it’s a political independence movement with little actual political backing – as in, no mainstream politician would campaign on it – it does carry clout in the Pacific Northwest.
The history, and arguments in favor, of Cascadia
I wanted to give my backstory with Cascadia to show that in my past, I was heavily committed to this idea. Even still, I’m not entirely opposed to the idea. And I’m encouraged by people using the Cascadia flag as a communist symbol. Considering that, I will explain a potential leftist argument for Cascadia, before I make my counter-argument. Cascadia is not a bad position. There are still some things I like about it.
First, there’s a historical precedent for making Cascadia its own country. Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jacob Astor, who founded Fort Astoria, that he supported a founding of a “Pacific Republic” and an “independent Empire”. John Quincy Adams also referred to the Pacific Northwest as “the empire of Astoria”. None of this is a value judgment, and what Thomas Jefferson thought shouldn’t matter. Indeed, I’m arguing against arbitrary geopolitical borders, but it does show there’s a precedent for the idea.
The idea of a Pacific Northwest state was mostly crushed by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. At that point, it was mostly a fantasy anyway. But the Oregon Treaty forced the British out of the land south of the 49th Parallel, and north of the Columbia River, the land that is now Western Washington. This split the Oregon Territory (aka American Columbia) from British Columbia (that’s where the name comes from!), which ruined any hope of forming Cascadia.
Again, this is to show there’s a historical precedent to the idea. But there are more practical arguments in favor as well. For example, if we have to stay committed to the idea of nation-states, then dividing them by bioregions is a more coherent way to do so than most existing, arbitrary boundaries. Bioregional state boundaries aren’t “material” in a Marxist sense, but they’re material because the borders are defined by geography (ie nature / material).
U.S. states are mostly defined for settler-colonial reasons. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, etc have borders determined by the coastal settlements, and the land claimed westward from that settlement. More western states are carved out from semi-arbitrary historical and geopolitical circumstances.
I can foresee that, even though the US is a settler-colonial state, breaking up the US and replacing it with states based on bioregions seems like it would mitigate the most brutal tendencies of the US.
More specifically, by ridding ourselves of elements of the US’s colonial history, I hope it would improve the quality of life of indigenous and oppressed groups. For example, I have more faith in a Cascadian handling of indigenous rights than the federal government. It opens the door for indigenous people to participate in politics in a way that the federal government doesn’t allow.
And finally, I think most people are motivated by the idea of Cascadia because of a shared cultural background. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good thing. When I was younger I did. But I think “culture” should be de-emphasized in state politics as much as possible, that only helps the right-wing.
The modern issues with, and arguments against, Cascadia
The immediate, obvious issue with the idea of Cascadia, is traditionally, secessionist movements in the U.S. tend to be racist. That’s not to say they have to be racist. But typically, how it works, is that oppressed groups either gain more rights, or push for them, which causes secessionists groups to form, so they don’t have to recognize those rights. This is probably why Cascadia hasn’t caught on as much as other, right-wing secessionist movements that have caught on.
If the Pacific Northwest became Cascadia, it would be about 80% white. If you lived in some parts, of Eastern Oregon or Washington, and never leave, it’s possible that you’ll never have to see a black person again.
Many white supremacists are drawn to the Pacific Northwest because of this, despite its reputation for being “far left.” These sects would certainly undermine, and potentially overthrow, the leftist Cascadian government.
In fact, white supremacists already have their own Pacific Northwest secessionist movement called the Northwest Territorial Imperative, although the borders of their version is different. They typically include, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and potentially more territory adjacent to this. This idea is heavily associated with the Aryan Nations, but some other neo-Nazi sects are into the idea as well.
There are radical racist skinhead groups throughout the eastern halves of Washington and Oregon, and Idaho, but it’s not as if the Pacific Northwest is a left-wing paradise with bizarre little marginalized sects.
Washington State Representative Matt Shea, for example, has had a lot of controversies. For example, last year, Shea’s far-right, Christian Identity manifesto called the “Biblical Basis for War” was publicly released.
The Daily Beast wrote:
A Washington state lawmaker has reportedly sparked an FBI investigation by distributing a manifesto calling on Christians to take up arms to end abortions and same-sex marriage and kill all non-Christian males if fundamentalist religious laws are not obeyed. Republican Rep. Matt Shea, who is running for re-election in the midterm elections, defended the four-page manifesto, titled “Biblical Basis for War,” this week, saying on Facebook Live it was meant to be a “summary of sermons on biblical war.” He also suggested those criticizing the document are members of a “counter-state” made up of “Marxists” and “Islamists.” Shea’s comments failed to ease concerns, however, and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich alerted the FBI to the manifesto, which he described as “a ‘how to’ manual consistent with the ideology and operating philosophy of the Christian Identity/Aryan Nations movement,” according to the Seattle Times.
If that’s not bad enough, Shea was in the news again in April 2019, for conspiring and colluding with violent far-right groups.
The Guardian writes:
The chats on the messaging app Signal took place in the days leading up to a supposed “Antifa revolt” on 4 November 2017.
The men proposed to confront leftists – whom they repeatedly refer to as “communists” and “Antifa” – with a suite of tactics, including violence. A Washington state Republican politician took part in private discussions with rightwing figures about carrying out surveillance, “psyops” and even violent attacks on perceived political enemies, according to chat records obtained by the Guardian.
Stories like Matt Shea show that white nationalism in the Pacific Northwest functions differently than most think. Most simplistically, people claim the Pacific Northwest is a liberal utopia, and in some ways it is. BC’s probably the most liberal part of Canada, and the PNW is one of the US’s most liberal regions – retaining the California ideology liberalism with less California ideology technocratic neoliberalism.
However, as I’ve highlighted, it’s more complicated than this. And it’s not only that there’s racism in both rural, and urban, Pacific Northwest. But rather, both of these types of racism are different, and complimentary to each other, as well as complimentary to the general leftism.
For example, Oregon didn’t allow black people to move there from 1844 to 1926. Sometimes, Oregonians downplay this by saying Oregon became a state during the Civil War, so Oregon’s galaxy-brained scheme to not pick sides is not allow slavery… by just not even allowing black people into the state!
The law does say Oregon was, first and foremost, “banning slavery”, but then sneak in the “…because black people in general are banned” part later. One could argue that both Portland’s white liberalism and rural Oregon’s white nationalism developed because of this exclusion. As someone who lived in Portland for over five years, Oregon still relies on this sense of black exclusion for even it’s liberal political orientation.
And then, perhaps most prolifically, the Oregon State Senate has been in the news recently.
Eleven Oregon Republican lawmakers are on the run from the law, having fled the state Senate in Salem on Thursday to deny quorum for a vote on a major climate change bill. On Friday, state lawmakers announced they were shutting down the state capitol on Saturday after receiving credible threats from militia groups who support the Republicans in hiding.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown authorized state police to find the fleeing Republican lawmakers and bring them back. The senators, who have now been on the run for four days, are each being fined $500 for every day there aren’t enough senators for a vote in a legislative session. Oregon State Police said they are also coordinating with law enforcement agencies in nearby states to find the Republicans.
Here’s more evidence that right-wing Pacific Northwest politics operate in a different way than most of the country – or rather, at least the east coast and south. Something similar like this could happen in, say Texas, Nevada, or Wyoming – but it wouldn’t happen in Pennsylvania or Mississippi.
The Hill follows up on this story:
A Republican Oregon state senator is facing a formal complaint after he threatened state police following GOP lawmakers’ decision to boycott a vote on a climate change bill.
State Sen. Brian Boquist (R) was hit with the complaint Saturday for suggesting earlier this month that he would shoot state troopers sent by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) to round up lawmakers who had skipped out on the vote.
Western, including Pacific Northwestern, right-wingers are much more prone to hating the government in a specific way that involves Dukes of Hazard style vigilantism and cowboy town shootouts. Whereas, the right-wing in the east and south more works in tandem with the right-wing and capitalist power structures established by the government, and state apparatus.
Another example of this difference is the well-documented 2016 Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by right-wing anti-government militias. This occupation was led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, who led the standoff in 2014 against police in Nevada. The Bundy Standoff in Nevada was because Cliven Bundy didn’t want to pay the grazing fees for letting his livestock graze on government land, and the occupation of the Wildlife Refuge was an extension of that, with the Bundys claiming the federal government has no constitutional right to own public lands.
I live in Pennsylvania now, and it’s hard to imagine a right-wing militia staging standoffs against the government here. It’s even harder to imagine the right-wing state government would go fugitive to refuse a vote. Part of that is Pennsylvania State politics are dominated by the pseudo-Southern conservatives that occupy the middle, rural part of the state, so they have no reason to go fugitive.
In a place like Pennsylvania, even if it’s traditionally been a “blue” presidential state until 2016, within state politics, the right-wing has more political leverage and control. In a place like Oregon, the right-wing is just as present, but has much less political leverage and control.
This leads to the Pacific Northwest having a more radical right-wing, because they, or their forebears, fled somewhere with more black people, to somewhere with few black people. They’ve already made part of their personal leap towards a white ethnostate. There are only two things stopping their ethnonationalist utopia: the local, liberal democrats – who outnumber them, but as we’ve seen from the fugitive Republican reps, can’t handle the far-right provocation well. The other thing stopping them is the federal government.
What this says is that many regions of the country we associate as being racist, or at least, having more institutionalized, policy-influenced racism, are actually less at risk of a right-wing takeover. If Alabama became its own country, there would be no need for a right-wing takeover: the right-wing already has taken over.
The right-wing in the Pacific Northwest is smaller, and less visible, but more radical and anti-government. If the Pacific Northwest became Cascadia, it would be founded as a liberal utopia. And yet, few parts of North America have the specter of a far-right ethno-nationalist takeover looming, in the way Cascadia potentially does.