Rural America’s Decline Fueled Oregon’s Secession Movement

Twelve Eastern Oregon counties are considering leaving the state for Idaho, where they hope to secure Republican representation. The movement cites cultural differences, but the true divisions are rooted in rural America’s faltering agricultural economy.

People hold signs in favor of the Greater Idaho movement in Enterprise, Oregon, on May 12, 2023. (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

The state of Oregon often calls to mind pine tree sprawl, the smell of wet grass and dirt, and the vibes of Portlandia. It’s the state where large protests lasted the longest after the murder of George Floyd and the state that recently passed Ballot Measure 110 decriminalizing low-quantity drug possession. In the national imagination, Oregon is a land of hacky sacks and Priuses, independent booksellers and psychedelic mushroom foragers, craft breweries and ethical nonmonogamy.

But this image of the state is lopsided. The eastern part of the state is not covered in pine; instead, a vast expanse of yellow sagebrush blankets the horizon, with pockets of farmland marking scarce water reserves. The political differences are as stark as the geographical ones: in 2020, Joe Biden won 57 percent of the Oregon electorate, but not a single county in the eastern half of the state. Topographically, politically, and culturally, Baker City and Ontario appear worlds away from Portland and Eugene.

Settled in this high desert landscape, a secessionist group called the Greater Idaho movement has gained notoriety, calling for Eastern Oregon counties to secede from Oregon and join Idaho. “The Oregon/Idaho line was established 163 years ago and is now outdated,” says the movement’s website. “It makes no sense in its current location because it doesn’t match the location of the cultural divide in Oregon.” At the time of writing, twelve counties have voted to continue intercounty communication to push for this new state border proposal.

Supporters of the Greater Idaho movement argue that the liberals to the west are out of touch with the realities of rural life and indeed that their “traditional ways of life” are at stake. Since Oregon is solid blue thanks to urban density in the Portland area, the movement feels unrepresented and marginalized by a state legislature beholden to the interests of urban liberals. A point of recent contention was a proposed emissions tax that garnered wide criticism in rural Oregon because it would harm the profitability of agricultural production.

The movement hopes that redrawing the border will allow rural residents to be represented by Republicans in Idaho who supposedly understand their values and would listen to their concerns. There are cultural issues at stake, with movement adherents complaining about drug legalization, gun control, and abortion rights. A movement spokesman told High Country News that Idahoans would allow Eastern Oregonians to preserve “values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.”

The movement’s language also focuses on the rights of business and private property owners, currently besieged by a heavy-handed liberal government focused on environmental issues. While the movement is dedicated to playing by the rules to get their desired outcome, there’s ideological crossover with more radical right-wing currents, such as the group Citizens for Constitutional Freedom led by Ammon Bundy, who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 to protest federal land-use laws.

In March 2023, the New York Times ran an investigative piece on the Greater Idaho movement that pointed to growing political polarization in America as a key culprit for why this movement has been so successful in rallying rural voters and channeling their discontent. This is no doubt true, but it’s also a bit recursive, identifying the root cause of political polarization as . . . well, political polarization.

To really understand the nature of the conflict at hand, we need to examine how rural economies operate, and the contradictions this produces in a capitalist society organized around private property and profit. And for that purpose, there’s no better explanatory resource than the theory of Karl Marx.

Marx had quite a bit to say about the rural-urban divide. Per Marx, capitalism necessitates a division of labor between the city and countryside in order to grow industrial production that “collects the population together in great centres” and “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth.” Historically, this has meant that industrial production is concentrated in the city, while the countryside produces the necessary commodities — food, raw materials, etc. — to support it.

This aptly describes the development of Oregon in the late nineteenth century. Prior to European colonization, the Northern Paiute lived off the high desert land for centuries. But driven by competition to create markets for the increasingly developed cities in the West, white settlers transformed the land by forcing industrial agriculture onto the rough terrain.

The ecological destruction wrought by industrial agriculture and affiliated infrastructure made much of this land uninhabitable for the nomadic Northern Paiute. And in time, many white settlers found out the hard way that the terrain was not particularly suitable for their purposes. For the Paiute, the land was anything but arid and empty. But settlers, intent on using the land differently, found it unforgiving and barren. To grow things, one needs water and nutrient-rich soil, and much of Eastern Oregon has neither.

Technological development was thus necessary to wring the most out of the region, enhancing its ability to produce the commodities necessary for industrial production. Railroad tracks would allow metropolitan centers to receive beef shipments, and the Owyhee Dam in Malheur County would allow more land to become subsumed to agricultural production. Fertilizer would allow farmers to pack the dry soil with nutrients needed to grow intensive crops like onions and potatoes, which brought with it the contamination of the soil with nitrates.

At its height in the early to mid-twentieth century, Eastern Oregon became the city’s counterpart, encouraging ceaseless competition and production for the sake of exchange. It was as precisely as Marx described it: the countryside transformed into a resource for the industrial city, with nature itself and humans’ relationship to the land brutally deformed in the process.

With the more recent advent of the logistics revolution, the urban-rural divide went global. Portland doesn’t need Malheur County the way it once did. Industrial centers in the West can pass over regions like Eastern Oregon and get their food and materials on the cheap from distant outposts.

Producers in America’s countryside, having to compete on a global stage, now face intense competitive pressures to bring down the price of their commodities in order to maintain their share of the market. This process polarizes farmers between those who can compete successfully by turning a profit and those who must rely on federal subsidies to maintain their competitive positions. For the latter, their resentment grows alongside their reliance.

As Phil Neel writes in Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict, “It becomes clear that these populations are also unified by something else: the commonality that comes from being increasingly surplus to the economy.” The intensification of global competition, coupled with the astronomical increase in the value of arable land in the United States, drives farmers in Eastern Oregon to pursue profit at any expense if they hope to stay afloat.

Facing the reality of becoming proletarians themselves, farmers increase crop yield through nitrogen fertilizers, impoverish the lives of agricultural workers through wage suppression, and continue growing crops according to the whims of the market rather than human need; and this is all in a region never well-suited to industrial agriculture in the first place. Meanwhile, the average age of farmers in the United States is approaching sixty, raising the question of who is going to take their place in the decades to come.

The Greater Idaho movement is not explicitly a landowners’ movement, but the proliferation of language focused on the rights of agricultural business owners makes it clear that this group has hegemony. As one movement supporter put it in a county commissioner meeting, “We need a place that’s business friendly, that has advocates that are willing to represent us. . .  I believe our state just puts more and more challenges on us as a business and as an ag business, all the time.”

As the landowning classes of Eastern Oregon face their superfluity, what has emerged is political discontent and a secessionist movement that attempts to recover their position under the capitalist system. The “traditional” ways of life that Greater Idaho movement purportedly exists to defend reflect that of a social order that the land of Eastern Oregon has never been in a position to sustain. The movement’s bureaucratic and banal politics obscure a more profound nostalgia for an activity that was always unsustainable and a period of time that has already passed.

While rural Eastern Oregonians are certainly more socially conservative than their Western counterparts, the movement’s gesture to social issues ultimately ignores the deeper contradictions that secessionist proposals cannot resolve.