Talk of secession, some not explicitly racial, has been heating up as America becomes more and more racially polarized.
Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement
In rural Oregon, voters fed up with their state’s leftward turn have embraced a simple and outlandish idea: What if we were just Idaho?
By Antonia Hitchens
December 23, 2021
In the summer of 2015, a chimney sweep in Elgin, Oregon, redrew the map of the American West. “Imagine for a moment Idaho’s western border stretching to the Pacific Ocean,” Grant Darrow wrote in a letter to the editor of his local paper. Rural Oregon, he insisted, should break its ties with the urbanites of Portland and liberals of Salem, and join Idaho. “The political diversity in this state is becoming unpalatable,” he argued. “Rural Oregonians in general and Eastern Oregonians in particular are growing increasingly dismayed by the manner in which Oregon’s Legislature and Oregon’s urban dwellers have marginalized their values, demonized their lifestyle, villainized their resource-based livelihoods, and classified them as second-class citizens at best.”
In the half decade or so since Darrow’s diatribe, a simple and outlandish idea, percolating in rural Oregon since the 1960s—what if we were just Idaho?—has grown into a grassroots secession movement. Last month, Harney County, in the high desert of eastern Oregon, became the state’s eighth to pass a nonbinding ballot measure supporting Darrow’s proposal. Move Oregon’s Border signs now dot the region’s empty highways, and Mike McCarter, a retired agricultural nurseryman and gun-club owner who runs a group pushing for the boundary reshuffle, travels the state in a bright-red trucker hat bearing the slogan. “We don’t care to move, because we’re tied to our land here,” he told me recently. “So why not just allow us to be governed by another state?” He mentioned a supporter so certain that her property will become part of Idaho that she already flies its state flag on her lawn. “We’re going to be Idaho,” she told him.
Scenes from Portland, where Black Lives Matter protesters have sparred with the Proud Boys in paintball brawls over the past year, and worries that liberal lawmakers in Salem will outlaw diesel fuel and artificial insemination of animals, have calcified many rural Oregonians’ sense of total alienation from the west side of the state. “This is not the Oregon I know,” Sandie Gilson, one of Move Oregon’s Border’s “county captains,” told me. “We were farmers and ranchers and loggers. None of those values are left.” Today, half of Oregon’s population lives in the Portland metropolitan area alone. In eastern Oregon, Gilson pays for two emergency helicopter-airlift insurance plans in case she has to go to a hospital hundreds of miles away in Bend or Boise. “That huge drift of country is pretty much nonexistent in the American imagination,” the author William Kittredge wrote about this part of the state in Hole in the Sky, his 1992 memoir of his family’s life on a ranch. “It is hard to exaggerate the vastness of that barren playa. The whole of it—Lake and Harney and Malheur counties in Oregon, each as large as some states in the East—is still populated by no more than a few thousand people.” The geographic point in the continental United States farthest from any interstate lies in Harney County, a contemporary frontier so remote that, in 1990, a pair of census takers went missing for four days in the sagebrush trying to find a person.
Read: The racist history of Portland, the whitest city in America
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of honoring the proposed borders of “Greater Idaho,” not least because it’s almost inconceivable that both Idaho’s and Oregon’s legislatures would sign off on the proposal and send it to Congress for the necessary approval. Many conversations about the subject focus on “freedom” and diesel fuel, breezily dismissing questions of staggering importance in the West—water rights, public lands, the rights of Indigenous people—as details that will be ironed out later. The Greater Idaho proposal would grant Idaho more than three-quarters of Oregon’s land, more than 870,000 of its residents, and access to the ocean; most specifics beyond this have yet to be envisioned. “Idaho fits with what I feel,” Mike Slinkard, a fifth-generation Oregonian who makes high-stealth hunting clothing, told me. “Oregon left us out in the cold. We don’t exist.”
The reasoning comes across as amorphous and quixotic, but the Greater Idaho referendums have passed in eight out of ten counties where they’ve been proposed, making Move Oregon’s Border the most electorally successful secessionist movement in America today. Two more counties will vote on the measure next year, and this month, state Senator Lynn Findley begrudgingly said he’d consider introducing legislation related to the border move. Over the past decade, every state has flirted with a secessionist petition of some sort. Two-thirds of Republicans in the South are in favor of secession; elsewhere, Illinois counties are asking to be free of their directorate in Chicago, and West Virginia has just offered to take in three conservative-leaning, rural Maryland counties. Even this part of Oregon is nestled between areas that some people hope will become entirely new states: the State of Jefferson, in California, and the Liberty State, a libertarian utopia pushed by former Representative Matt Shea, in Washington. The Greater Idaho solution appeals in part because of its political pragmatism; moving a border is hard, but it’s easier than creating a new state.
McCarter, the main organizer behind the ballot measures, lives in a mobile home in La Pine, half an hour south of Bend, the eco-chic outdoor-destination town in central Oregon. When I visited last month, a sign outside his property advertised his concealed-carry-permit business, and an American flag flew above the door. Jason Mraz played on Sirius radio from a TV flanked by two paintings of McCarter’s black Labrador; a Bible and a box of Milk Duds sat on the end table. If the border reflected the lines as McCarter envisions them, Bend, with its cashew milk and Teslas and mandatory masking at craft breweries, would be in a different American state from his home. For McCarter, such a severing is commonsense, and the map of Greater Idaho, carefully carving out Bend, doesn’t look any more puzzling than a gerrymandered congressional district. The urban-rural divide is so intense that separating the two is the most sensible path forward, he told me.
Joining Idaho would keep rural Oregon the way America used to be, McCarter explained. In his narrative, Salem is the villain forcing eastern Oregon counties to comply with laws that seem irrelevant or offensive to their rural setting, rules that have no bearing on their lived reality. Recent redistricting only compounded the sense that representation would never skew in their favor; McCarter feels his supporters’ voices are drowned out by urban ones—the culture over the hill, across the Cascades. Portland is in the midst of its most violent year ever, including more than 1,000 shootings so far. Struggling economically and anticipating the full collapse of industries that used to sustain them, McCarter and his group clamor for popular sovereignty.
Move Oregon’s Border’s true purpose is threefold, McCarter told me: First, obviously, to move the border. Second, to send a message to the state legislature “that you’ve got some very unhappy people, and here are the reasons why.” But the third is more subtle: “It provides a vent for all this anger.” McCarter sees himself as a peaceful guy proximate to violent movements. When he retired from working in plant nurseries and started running a gun club, members of the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the Project Appleseed prepper group practiced at his shooting range. People’s Rights, the anti-government activist Ammon Bundy’s new far-right network, has asked him to speak at its events. “I know there’s some people that have talked about ‘If this continues on, people are going to pick up their guns,’” McCarter said. “Rural people—their values, the way they live, their faith, their freedom—are closely tied to what Idaho is, so why not adjust the border? Just let us go peacefully.”
That this part of the world would find secession and separatism so compelling makes sense, Richard Kreitner, a historian and the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union, told me. The idea of separation as a solution to intractable political disputes is part of the history of Oregon; even at its formation, some were certain that it would eventually fragment or join California. Perhaps we needn’t be so precious about redrawing borders, Kreitner told me. “State lines aren’t written in stone, and the Oregon proposal shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand,” he said. “The idea of secession is being normalized in an unwinding and degrading country … This is considered a peace proposal, or a way to avoid war.”
Read: When rich places want to secede
Greater Idaho supporters I met often articulated the movement’s aims in the same terms McCarter and Kreitner used. “This is actually very American, choosing our own government,” Gilson, the county captain, told me. “It was all about choosing our government when we left England in the Revolutionary War.” Some proponents of Greater Idaho swiftly offer another American revolution—or another civil war—as the backup plan if moving the border doesn’t work out. The aesthetic of armed politics is still ingrained in recent memory in eastern Oregon; just five years ago, in Harney County, Bundy led a 41-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that led to a standoff with the federal government. (The state police shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, a leader of the occupation, at a roadblock between the refuge and the nearby town of John Day; they claim he was reaching for a gun.) Eighty-five percent of people in Harney County carry a concealed weapon.
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