A Populist Paradise?

Hanging together or hanging separately: secession and politics in the struggle for Ecotopia.

Thirty years ago in Ecotopia, author Ernest Callenbach imagined that the Pacific Northwest had seceded from the United States to become a kind of green North Korea—an isolated, politically correct state hidden behind its walls, mountains, and self-righteous ideology.

In some ways, this book is more relevant now than it was in 1975. Certainly, election 2004 left some Seattle liberals murmuring about secession. As part of the so-called blue urban archipelago, one hears Democrats sounding like neo-Confederates calling for states' rights. Liberals are grumbling about federal interference and spouting a new kind of domestic isolationism that holds that anything urban and blue is good and anything rural and red is bad. It's Seattle versus the Bible Belt, smoked salmon versus Jell-O salad.

Fault lines are everywhere. Some activists talk of a Cascadian Confederacy comprised of the Northwestern U.S. and British Columbia. In Olympia, a few GOP legislators have proposed cracking Washington in two at the Cascade divide, to separate wet from dry. Rural property-rights activists in Puget Sound are proposing to secede from urban counties like King, Snohomish, and Pierce. And it wasn't long ago that West Seattleites seriously pondered telling the city of Seattle to screw off. Indeed, as far back as the 1850s, West Coast settlers dreamed of leaving America to form a new "Pacific republic."

Ecotopia offered an updated, 1960s- inspired model for what this republic might look like. In Callenbach's book, the citizens of Ecotopia have mostly dumped the internal combustion engine and corporate capitalism for an environmental paradise that features alternative energy, a sustainable economy, and a neopagan communalism that the author, who is from Berkeley, Calif., must be well acquainted with. High-speed trains made by Boeing and superior picture phones impress a visitor, as do the pedestrian- friendly streets of San Francisco, where gurgling creeks once again course down the city's famous chase-scene hillsides. Dirty Harry's habitat has been transformed into a homeland for high-tech hobbits.

While Ecotopia in its fullest form hasn't come to pass here, it is still in our dreams and drives some policies. Seattle, for example, has been restoring streams and native plants and is looking at monorail and light rail to modernize our auto- dependent transportation system. We have adopted development schemes to promote so-called clean industries, like high-tech and biotech. Recycling is mandatory.

But like any ecosystem, our city-states are not detachable from the rest of the state, nation, bioregion, or planet— however much we might pat ourselves on the back for our eco-accomplishments. Indeed, as William Cronon showed us in his magnificent ecological history of Chicago, Nature's Metropolis, our cities are manifestations of the countryside that surrounds them. Town, suburb, and country are not places apart. Redrawing county, state, and national boundaries could make sense, but we need to think long and hard about cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world because of reflexive cultural and political differences.

We cannot afford to become so self- absorbed with our own urban consciousness that we neglect—or detach from—what is happening outside our city walls. From an ecological perspective, that makes little sense. However much urban liberals feel morally superior to red America, that is where the wilderness is. That is where the resources are. That is where our food, water, and power come from. That is where our recreational lands are. That is where there are rare habitats and species that need protecting. That is where farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, migrant workers, and much of the Wal-Mart working class lives. And that is where the heartland is, a heartland that must be reckoned with, if not won over.

Today's blue and green Ecotopians must work hard to remain connected with red towns, red counties, red industries, and red classes. We can't afford to sever political ties or common interests.

This is not to suggest that compromise is the only answer. You cannot preserve a wilderness by building housing developments in the middle of it. But there is much to lose by dismissing concerns of people like the East King County residents who are rebelling against the Critical Areas Ordinance. Liberal Seattle politicians who live in car-dependent neighborhoods paved with asphalt, on hills that were densely developed and shorn of all natural adornment, have little credibility in telling a rural county landowner that she can't put a gravel driveway on her property. And a city that prides itself on direct-from-the-farm produce and fresh fish—even bases one of its major tourist attractions on such bounty—cannot also be insensitive to the needs of real farmers or fishermen. The populist politician, former King County Council member Brian Derdowski—once a suburban Republican, now a Democrat, always a grassroots activist—was at one time successful in creating political alliances between conservative property-rights voters and suburban greens. We can't lose sight of the value of such connections that bridge the red/blue divide.

We have to find ways of remaking our politics, which are too dominated by the two major parties and the corporate interests that fund them. The left continues to propose solutions the people do not like or will not pay for; the right continues to rewrite laws to benefit the wealthy. I have long suspected that true political progress isn't found in the middle, where the big boys and girls make political sausage, but often lies on the shakier, brittle ground where the far edges of right and left agree. Thus, Derdowski's compelling accomplishment of allying the property-rights crowd with local greens.

Could other red/blue alliances be possible? Yes, but it's a struggle, because the major parties thrive by keeping the right and left, red and blue, at each others' throats, demonizing and marginalizing issues that fall outside the red/blue divide. Look at how modest education reforms such as charter schools have been stigmatized by the teachers unions as a right-wing conspiracy, or how conservatives routinely paint greens as being "anti-people."

In the meantime, both parties are happy to give away the store to corporate interests. Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi were both boosters of the state's multibillion-dollar benefits package for Boeing. Such giveaways should shame conservatives and liberals alike, the former for profligacy and the latter because the party that believes most in government should be the toughest on waste, fraud, and favoritism.

Yet I believe both liberals and conservatives could come together to form a government that is streamlined, is effective, taxes fairly, and is dedicated to fairness, private property, practical solutions, innovation, and sustainability.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. In 1896, Washingtonians elected our one and only third-party governor, John Rankin Rogers. Rogers represented the People's Party, a fusion of Populist, Democrat, Republican, and independent supporters who were tired of government that worked hand in hand with the haves. Before Boeing, it was the railroad robber barons. Rogers and the populists supported many of the reforms we now take for granted: equal public education for all, women's suffrage, direct election of senators, citizens' initiatives, referendums and recalls, progressive taxation, public transportation, and limited government run by people based on merit, not patronage. Rogers also refreshingly opposed some lousy ideas, like Prohibition.

Not all of these reforms happened during Rogers' lifetime (he died shortly into his second term, in 1901, after being re-elected as a Democrat), but most were enacted within 25 years of the populist movement he led. They might never have happened without the coalition of common interests and unlikely partners that came together outside the mainstream, propelled by Rogers' intelligent advocacy and leadership.

While the populist coalition quickly unraveled, it had a profound influence on our political landscape. It broke the Republican stranglehold on Olympia. Many populists, including Rogers, moved closer to the progressive mainstream and formed what we know today as "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party"; still others became more active in the labor and socialist movements. People left behind their parties and politics as usual and forged alliances among farmers, labor, social reformers, small landowners, and disaffected urban and rural residents. The populists' ideas weren't all noble—a strong anti-immigration stance was prevalent, especially among union members, and there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in their rhetoric about the bankers. But in this they were not unique in their time. All in all, John Rankin Rogers and the People's Party moved Washington forward rather than back.

There is a statue of Rogers in downtown Olympia that bears an inscription in his own words. It reads: "I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves."

Can you imagine a Washington governor— Dino Gregoire or Christine Rossi—saying that today, let alone walking that talk? Too few in Olympia or Seattle or Portland or Salem or Sacramento or San Francisco are taking that message—and the politics that flowed from it—to heart.

Which brings me back to Ecotopia, which is still a kind of blueprint for Western exceptionalism, the idea that here we have a unique opportunity to get it right, to avoid repeating the errors of the old world while building the new. That is the central—and somewhat egotistical—vision that drives our progressive political life. It is what fuels our growth, fires our innovative spirits, drives us to do better than the folks back East or the Californicators from down south. Even if we haven't fought a war of secession (yet), even if we haven't thrown up barbed wire and cut ourselves off from civilization like the Ecotopians of fiction did, we have enthusiastically taken up the burden of trying to be a better people.

The Ecotopian dream is one way we have to measure our progress.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

This article was adapted from a speech at the Washington Environmental Council's annual legislative workshop in Seattle on Jan. 8, 2005.

 
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