Uniting, One County at a Time

We helped make rural Oregon a force for progressive change.

Mike Edera and Marcy Westerling

The Rural Organizing Project organized a 7-day, 70-mile march from Salem to Portland to protest the wars at home and abroad.(Photo by: Jerry Atkin)

The political influence of Sarah Palin continues to dismay and amaze. How could this loser Vice-Presidential candidate and failed Alaska governor reach into the current debate on healthcare reform and, by inventing Obama’s death panels – surely one of the most moronic, inane charges in U.S. political history – seem to tip the struggle for a public healthcare option in favor of the private insurance industry?

Ninety percent of success is showing up. And in many parts of America, progressives have failed to present themselves, allowing a demented style of politics to define rural culture.

Watching the re-incarnation of Palin and listening to the increasingly shrill tone of the healthcare debate,” many of us who are veterans of the 90s culture wars hear a familiar sound. The Palin phenomenon is a synthetic version of the grassroots right-wing social movements that emerged in the 80s and 90s. Those movements were political products designed in the hothouses of various then-obscure right-wing institutions. But they had an authentic gestation in rural America.

Before she was discovered by William Kristol and launched into the national limelight by the McCain campaign, Palin was mentored by wingnuts of the Alaska Independence Party, an offshoot of the U.S. Constitution Party. The movement of ideas and individuals from the right-wing fringe into mainstream politics – from grassroots to what might be termed the small-town, rural brand” – is the reason progressives must pay attention to the politics of rural America.

The Sarah Palin soap opera shows the political power of this brand, which uses made-up honest small-town values” to target a broad sector of the voting population, most of whom reside not in small towns but in the suburbs and exurbs that ring U.S. cities.

The politics of the small-town, rural brand includes the following:

Don’t be a smart-ass. Being knowledgeable about complicated policy matters just shows how elitist a politician is.
Dressing up like a farmer/​fisherman/​hunter/​rancher actually makes you one.
In order to defend your 2nd Amendment rights, you can violate the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Amendment rights of others.
America is a Christian nation. This means rooting for our side. The other team is made up of Muslim terrorists and other infidels.
Christianity is all about being heterosexual and anti-abortion.
Economic conservatism means that working people are too proud to accept a penny of government help and can keep their mouths shut as their rich and powerful betters help themselves to every public subsidy imaginable.

In the real world, people have very complex reasons for responding to a political initiative. The small-town, rural brand of politics has often prevailed because the opposition was barely present. Ninety percent of success is showing up, and in whole sections of rural and suburban America, a serious progressive politics has not existed for generations. The leaders and structures that did step forward were marginalized from funding and strategic backing because progressive urban-centered organizations that controlled the purse strings viewed these attempts as lost causes. You can’t beat something with nothing, and thus, for the last 40 years, an incoherent, demented style of politics has often won the day in small towns and rural communities. 

The politicians of the right run, almost exclusively, as stealth candidates,” – short on program specifics, long on the rural small-town brand. Voters support candidates that claim to be pro-family, against big government’ and taxes, and for self-help and local initiative. They never mention their support for de-funding public schools and libraries, building up fundamentalist Christian social institutions, allowing local corporations to run roughshod over workers and the very small towns they claim to love so much. 

Progressives do not understand the critical role that grassroots right-wing movements have played in advancing policies that close the door on democratic participation. These movements mobilize fear of family disintegration into a political weapon deployed against the rights of women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people, and racial and cultural minorities, all while working hand-in-hand with the economic right to advance policies that undermine the basis of economic fairness and a social safety net.

American politics in the 90s and the early years of this decade had its genesis in movements of resentment coming out of rural, small-town America. A politics that seeks to open society to participation for all people must have a base in these same rural communities.

The Rural Organizing Project

For the last 17 years, the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Oregon has had a front row seat to observe the historical arc of rural – based right-wing social movements and the opportunity to develop an alternative that has shown resilience and promise. ROP developed in the early 90s as a response to the rise of a grassroots right wing in Oregon.

During the late 80s, rural Oregon’s economic base imploded – the result of massive timber over-harvesting and new environmental regulations that sought to protect the last remaining stands of old-growth timber. Timber multinationals shifted operations to the southeastern United States, following an established game plan that treats whole regions of North America like a personal corn patch. Meanwhile, with the closing of sawmills and the shuttering of logging operations, small-town economies crashed throughout the Pacific Northwest. A dangerous vacuum in rural civil society opened up, and it was filled with the only viable non-governmental institution on the ground: socially conservative churches.

By the 90s, this socially conservative movement asserted itself politically. However, it did not make an economic argument in favor of resource extractive industries. Rather, it created a cultural critique of society that saw urban liberalism and the values it promulgated as a dangerous threat. Families that had been experiencing years of stress resulting from wrenching economic change were offered an explanation. The root of their problem was secular humanism, the gay agenda” and feminism – all targets that seemed different, strange and immoral.

Beginning in 1992, social conservatives in Oregon launched a series of statewide and local ballot measures designed to limit the constitutional rights of LGBT people. This inaugurated a decade of bruising culture war battles. While most of these initiatives failed, they led to the creation of a powerful conservative political infrastructure and leadership core.

Because of the rural tilt of legislative districting in Oregon (and around the country), this infrastructure was used first to purge the Oregon Republican party of its traditional moderates, then to win a 12-year working majority in the Oregon legislature. In this period, while virtually none of the movement’s social goals to restrict rights for gay people or overturn abortion laws were realized, a host of right-wing economic initiatives were achieved. The tax system was heavily weighted in favor of upper-income people and big property owners. Funding for public education and the social safety net was slashed. Oregon’s pioneering effort to extend healthcare coverage was eviscerated. All these economic reforms” fell hardest on the very people who formed the political base of the conservative movement, because rural Oregon counties remain the poorest parts of the state.

Mapping the rural left

Within rural Oregon communities, many residents were concerned and frightened by the emerging social conservatism. In 1992 Marcy Westerling (co-author of this article), with Suzanne Pharr and Scot Nakagawa, recruited volunteer teams with the support of many national and regional civil rights organizers. The Rural Organizing Project was founded through this solidarity organizing, although it would not name itself and create a formal organizational structure until 1993

We worked initially through each county’s domestic violence program to recruit a range of community members to attend consciousness-raising sessions in small towns across the state. Our methods were based on the practice of the feminist movement, using small-group living room discussions and the sharing of personal stories and experiences, but this time seeking to engage the entire community in a discussion about democratic values. 

The format allowed extended time for each person to explain why they were there, followed by a 15-minute connect – the-dots overview of the national right-wing movement – its funding, larger goals and how local ballot measures fit in to its long-term plans. The agenda then moved into facilitated discussion on how folks were observing this dynamic play out in their community. In the concluding 20 minutes, participants were asked to decide whether they wanted to create their own self-governed, community-based Human Dignity Group to anticipate and defuse the noise on the right. A next-day breakfast meeting often followed, allowing each new group to get down to the nuts and bolts.

Across the state, ROP created a network of Human Dignity Groups to give voice to progressives in conservative communities. We were able to do this through a process that is now known as mapping” – listing, locating and contacting every civic organization we thought would share names of people who might be open to discussing inclusive democracy in their community. We began with the statewide network of women’s anti-violence resource centers located in each county. We worked with local faith communities or with local chambers of commerce. Sometimes we were able to access the lists of small-town residents who supported urban-based progressive organizations. In every case, our success in pulling together Human Dignity Groups was based on a careful process of mapping out local civil society.

The Human Dignity Group model provided moral support and broke the isolation of individuals of conscience in communities visibly dominated by the Christian right. A menu of activities, from group letter-writing to public events, allowed groups to calibrate their level of activism. This work was done in the spirit of civil-rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer’s motto: If everybody does something, no one will have to do everything.”

Advancing citizen democracy

Today, ROP works with 60 all-volunteer Human Dignity Groups in every Oregon county. ROP staffers help local groups to understand the basics of maintaining a political organization – how to run meetings, build a database and analyze issues.

ROP frames its work as pro-democracy organizing. It defines democracy as including the following points:

Majority rules.
Minority rights.
An adequate standard of living to allow all to participate.
Free and open exchange of information.

This model has proven effective in giving voice to progressives in communities that have not traditionally been open to dissent. It became a vehicle through which issues of gender justice, racial justice and economic justice could be expressed in the heart of the conservative political base.

By creating a model that facilitated the development of progressive political infrastructure in rural Oregon, we helped reverse the political gains of social conservatism. In 2007, the Oregon legislature tipped back into a moderate-progressive majority, after 12 years of conservative domination.

We are now living in a period of retrenchment for the social movements of the right. The Bush years, with the administration’s abuse of power and illegal wars, did great damage to the cause. The economic crash has temporarily discredited the free-market fundamentalism that was so effectively blended with religious fundamentalism to dominate politics for a generation. Yet, an immovable 25 percent of American voters still adheres to the small-town, rural brand of right-wing politics. Talking with these supporters, you hear that the Iraq war is a victory, Barack Obama is a Muslim socialist, the solution to economic meltdown is slashing government programs and, of course, that healthcare reform is a Stalinist project designed to unleash death panels” on elderly America.

Combine this radically variant view of the facts with the timidity of the Democratic Party and its inability to confront a single entrenched interest – be it the financial establishment, the medical industry or the military-industrial-contractor-complex – and a resurgent right-wing is still a potent threat. Forestalling that development will require the creation of a genuine populist rural politics to replace a movement of social resentment with a movement for economic and social justice. 

Rural Organizing Project
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Mike Edera and Marcy Westerling, a longtime couple in politics and life, live in Scappoosee, Ore. They wrote the first chapter of the 2008 book Lessons from the Field: Organizing in Rural Communities. Edera is a landscaper by day, 12-month-a-year food producer, a gun enthusiast and a community organizer in his remaining hours.Westerling founded the Rural Organizing Project in 1992. Currently a fellow at the Open Society Institute, she is mapping rural progressive infrastructure in four states as a first step for identifying allies for social-change organizing.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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