Do democratic principles demand a “Greater Idaho?”


Idaho is OK, you say. But it could be better.


What if we threw in Eastern Oregon with it?

That is precisely the “Greater Idaho” campaign’s aim. And it is doing well, if you consider that most of these state-rejiggering plans go nowhere, and it appears to be going — somewhere.

The idea is to allow rural conservatives to leave a state run by urban progressives.

It’s a great example of what we’re always talking about here – that your politics are determined by your place, and when American places fight each other, we call it “national politics.”

In this case the goal is to wrap a conservative place into the political domain of a conservative state with which it already shares a border.

There is some acknowledgement that this is about culture, not just political ideology, or party, which isn’t always the case.

Most compelling, however, is the fact the majority of counties that would be shifted to Idaho under this proposal have already voted in favor of doing so.

Eleven Eastern Oregon counties have approved ballot measures calling for exploration of the idea.

To be clear, this is a movement larger in square miles than in votes – by supporters’ own estimates, the proposal includes 62 percent of Oregon’s land, but only 9 percent of its population – say 380,000 people.

The Greater Idaho movement, as it is called, has already been labeled a “pipe dream.” Which could mean an opium pipe, or maybe a crack pipe, hard to say.

An Idaho Democrat – and yes, there are such people – called it the sort of thing that leads to “civil war.”

And, a former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives has spoken out in its favor. A legislative committee in Idaho already voted in favor of exploring it.

So, is it crazy – or about time?

In today’s episode, we are going to make a liberal’s moral argument for letting these counties choose which state they want to report to.

We’ll talk about … The rights of a minority in democracy

… The degree to which the current shape of Oregon meet the standards of fair political boundaries

… The West’s bipolar relationship with the federal government

.. The views of Idaho Democrats

And then we’re going to point out the obvious hole in Greater Idaho that folks on both sides don’t seem to talk about.

First, let’s talk about Democracy –

  • It is based in a belief in self-governance and inalienable rights that arise from our basic humanity.
  • Rights are indelible – a trump card against any governmental action.
  • Equality of persons is established through equal voting rights (and this has been a long-running debate in the US).
  • Constitutional Democracy means protections for minorities against the action of majorities.
    • No matter how many members of Congress are from Party X, they can’t violate the First Amendment. They would have to amend the constitution to say, ban criticizing Party X.
  • This is a big concept in the Voting Rights Act, intended to keep majorities from dividing minority communities and denying them the vote, thereby disempowering them.

Here’s the problem with nations, states, counties, cities and school districts – they have borders.

The first rule in drawing political borders – Incumbent and Party Protection: Like it or not, political parties always work to protect their own chances, starting with their incumbents, when they redraw districts.

If say, Democrats are in charge of redistricting, they will try to draw new districts that just happen to include the home addresses of two existing Republican officials, forcing  them into one ditrict, where they must run against each other in the political equivalent of a brother-vs-sister cage fight.

On the other hand, the rules for drawing fair borders are:

Contiguity in districts:  Contiguity requires all parts of a district to be physically connected to each other.  That means you can’t have part A on one side of town, part B on the other. Michigan is an obvious violation of this principle, because of the UP.

Minimal perimeter – related, your alarm should increase the less your district looks like a bottlecap on the sidewalk, and the more it resembles a bird dropping on the same sidewalk. Lots of jigs and jags on the border may be four a good cause – but that happens about as often as “constructive criticism” is constructive.

Don’t split political subdivisions: Don’t cut a single city into 12 pieces if you have other options. This especially applies in a time when urban and Democrat are often the same thing.

Texas Republicans, for example, can dilute the power of Democratic-leaning cities by splitting them among multiple legislative districts that extend outward into rural territory.

Preserving the cores of the previous district: Do not introduce radical changes to maps – if a congressional district was centered on downtown City A, moving it into a long, thin district that includes just part of the City isn’t helping that district.

Communities of interest: Keep like-minded communities within whole districts, don’t split them between districts. This is most obvious when you are talking about the Voting Rights Act, and you can see a White majority dividing Black or Hispanic communities, preventing them from being able to elect their own representatives. But “like minded” is a broader concept than just race.

States often fail the most important of these tests — especially in the West.

Pacific Northwest – the land stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the East, over the Cascades to the Pacific, from Canada to California.

Oregon, Washington, Idaho, all came from the Oregon Territory

Congress wanted states that looked the same – from space.

Oregon itself is abstract. The Nootka Convention established the southern border, in that it was the border between Spanish and English claims to the territory.

The Columbia River makes up most of the northern border.

And the 117th Meridian (and the part of the Snake River that follows it) is the eastern border, which is most problematic.

Does this logic mean Oregon meets the standards of a fair political district?

Not really.

It protects the incumbents – Yankees in Portland

Preserves the core of the previous district – the US section of the “Oregon Country” was centered for a while on the Willamette Valley/Portland.

And it is compact and contiguous – basically a rectangle.


They did split the previous political subdivision, the Oregon Territory, into three states. While the territory was enormous, it was very specifically divided for political advantage.

Most importantly, the shape of Oregon had nothing to do with communities of like interest, other than they were “out there in the West” to people in DC.

The border between Idaho and Oregon is at the 117th Meridian – an imaginary line on the globe.

Why there? Because it makes both WA and OR seven degrees of longitude wide.

Go look at a map of the states – ever notice that OR, WA are the same width as WY, CO and both Dakotas?

That is because Congress, in its wisdom, wanted the states to be equal when viewed from the International Space Station, which they could clearly see coming.

On the ground it’s a different view.

As former Oregon Speaker of the House Mark Simmons put it, eastern Oregon’s interests are sufficiently different than the Portland area’s interests as to amount to different cultures.

“This is why we believe that the state line could really be relocated to match the location of the region’s cultural divides,” he wrote. “Idaho would have the satisfaction of freeing rural, conservative communities from progressive blue-state law.”

And, as always, regional cultural differences show up as partisan difference in politics.

We all know Oregon as a Blue state. It hasn’t had a Republican governor in 40 years, and Portland became a fixation for FoxNews due to its nearly two-years of chaotic anti-police protests and activity during the pandemic.

Geographically, that is a small share of a large state. But the Yankee-founded area of Portland in Northwest Oregon has four-fifths of the state population.

This kind of imbalance was built into every state in the Northwest – each of them has a section that is in permanent political servitude to the center of state power.

Eastern Washington and Oregon can never compete with Western Washington and Oregon, politically.

Northern Idaho can never compete with Southern Idaho politically.

This is by design.

Yankees controlled all three in the late 19th Century, and in Oregon and Washington, Yankee-founded cities remain in control.

But all of Idaho is in the  Far West – like the dry sides of WA and OR. This cultural region is distinct because of the huge role the federal government played in settling it, and owning it to the present.

That is why Simmons is able to say:

“Since only 51 percent of the area is public land, adding this area would actually reduce the total percentage of public land in Idaho.”

Put another way, more than half of Eastern Oregon is government land, but in Idaho, it’s close to two-thirds government land.

What the places included in “Greater Idaho”really have in common is a colonized system of politics, to use modern terms.

Their politics are defined by support for or opposition to the all-powerful mother government far away, in this case, DC.

And that is why the Greater Idaho sales pitch to Idahoans is “We are just like you.”

Again, Simmons:

“These counties would help maintain rural values in the Idaho Legislature, values of faith, family and self-reliance. All of eastern Oregon voted against marijuana legalization and the decriminalization of hard drugs.”

Mark Simmons

Again, as a liberal and a Democrat, I feel like I should be sympathetic to this self-determination argument. A responsible democracy should not be content to leave political minorities split between districts, thereby permanently disempowering them.

I’m not a fan of their politics. I like legalized marijuana, thanks.

But if the people who live in the vast, 62-percent-share of Oregon that is “Greater Idaho” clearly said no, don’t they get a say?

The very principles of democracy demand that communities have a real say in how they are governed.

And I don’t mean interest groups, like the “World of WarCraft Community” – but actual places on planet earth were people live next to each other.

Does this carry water with Republicans in Idaho? A bit.

In addition to getting official interest from the Republican majority in the Legislature, Idaho Gov. Brad Little has spoken favorably of the county votes to leave Oregon.

Does this principle resonate with Democrats in Idaho?

Not at all.

Idaho House Minority Leader, Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel said:

“We should not be self-segregating by ideology like this. I think we’re on a path to civil war if we keep going down this path.

“We have got to learn to get along better and work together better. The answer cannot be to carve up the country and redraw lines that have been in place for a century or more, just so we can only be surrounded by people that perfectly agree with us.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel

Just so we are clear – this is exactly the opposite goal than is enshrined in the Voting Rights Act or generally accepted in district-drawing.

It’s saying it’s morally questionable to want to be in the same political district as other people like you.

The Idaho Statesman joined in through an opinion piece:

“Greater Idaho is an embodiment of the pipe dream that we can all retire to our corners, where everyone agrees with us and nobody proposes anything we don’t like. It’s a kid of political childishness. It’s the idea we don’t need to build bridges across political divisions; all you need is a new map.”

This does resonate with me. It is true that by everyone retreating to their own bases, we forgo the opportunity for understanding and compromise.

But I’ll just go back to the very real fact that the state lines that opponents of Greater Idaho are defending are not very defensible on any principle, except perhaps similar square mileage and what was politically expedient in the 19th Century.

Insisting everyone state in the states as drawn is also a form of “political childishness,” in my opinion, because it refuses to acknowledge the partisan goals embodied in our state shapes.

You would think – and the Statesman points this out – that Idaho Democrats would commiserate with Oregon Republicans.

They are both forever underdogs. Forever the loyal opposition.

Shouldn’t Idaho Democrats commiserate with the goals of Greater Idaho?

Heck no!

Because that would take them from being 30-40 percent of the population in Idaho to being a lot less than that in “Greater Idaho.”

Again, like 75 percent of the new residents you are adding are Republicans.

Liberals would become – if such a thing can be contemplated – the “Even Lesser Democrats of Greater Idaho.”

Democratic opposition to this plan can be seen as simply being about political power, wanting to preserve as much of it as possible. And while that does disappoint me a little bit to my friends and Idaho, it also gives me the opening to say I am not totally sold on this proposal.

It’s not that it’s totally impossible because I think we should have greater political imagination than we do.

It’s not that it’s bad you want to keep cultural groups together inside of districts.

It’s that proponents of greater Idaho are doing all the things that you shouldn’t do when drawing the map.

Be fair, they didn’t say that they were doing it to be fair.

They are really clear that they just want to go join their republican friends in the neighboring state.

My major problem with their proposal can be summed up three words: “Bend, city of.”

Go check their maps go read the editorial in favor of greater Idaho and you will see an odd little notch going right around the Eastern Oregon city of bend.

It is clearly on the dry side of the Cascades. it is in a county in Eastern Oregon.

And yet they’re very clear this is not part of their plan. There will be no Bend in Greater Idaho.

Bend, OR, in my opinion is the second coolest city in the entire Pacific Northwest and also one of the most repulsive.

It’s cool because has everything that’s great about the northwest in a very small area. I am a native of the northwest, and when I am in bend my head is swiveling and swimming from all the neat stuff that’s happening, from Argentinian sausage restaurants to white water kayaking in the middle of downtown.

I may be one of the only people in the universe who was walking around with a Stetson and the Beastie Boys shirt. But both my Stetson and my Beastie Boys shirt were stolen in separate incidents in bend. Because it is a city where people appreciate both western hats and old school hip hop.

That’s why it’s repulsive. Like every other alternative, hipster, hidden, experimental, doing-its-own-thing part of the Northwest, it got discovered by the mainstream elite. And now it’s a little sterilized, a little cleaned up, and a lot more expensive.

And while I don’t see a whole lot of information on the greater Idaho website explaining why bend isn’t part of the plan, I think I can guess.

Also notable – Neither Hood River nor The Dalles would be part of Greater Idaho – even though they are along the Columbia east of the Cascades.

Why not these cities?

Because including those parts of that cultural region throws everything off. It means acknowledging that even in Eastern Oregon there are art loving, government friendly, well-paid, Democrats.

I find it tough to swallow an argument built around “letting my people go” when there’s an asterisk marked, “leave those people behind.”

Bend’s population alone is equal to 25 percent of the whole Greater Idaho proposal – 100,000 people.

Maybe the people of Bend would vote against joining Idaho and they’re totally fine staying in Oregon.

But it still seems unprincipled to me.

What happens if Mitchell, Oregon, which is really cool but only has like 200 people, someday has 100,000 people?

I don’t think that would be good for the Mitchell area, but that’s what happens when people find a place they want to be. Would they have to boot Mitchell back into Oregon?

The principles of the Greater Idaho movement are not to let everybody in their area participate.

The principle is not to include everyone from a distinct culture in a new district.

It’s to jettison the wrong kind of politics in hope of becoming more attractive to Idaho Republicans.

I get you when you say you don’t want to be lumped in with a coastal culture so different than your own.

I don’t get you when you say my next-door neighbors or the whole city just down the road is thinking wrong.

There are a few other examples of that in the greater Idaho proposal. And if we have more time or maybe I’ll come back and talk about them because they are interest.

Bottom line is the greater Idaho movement has at least the moral weight of like-minded communities voting for a change in their political destiny, and that deserves consideration by everyone who accepts self-determination as one of the guiding principles of democratic government.

But I call this the Compass of Power because politics is ultimately about power not principle not policy.

And the Greater Idaho movement – as its supporters say quite frankly – is more about politics than anything else.

I am very interested to see where this goes.

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