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West of Spokane. Photo by Dominic Black.

West of Spokane. Photo by Dominic Black.


What Is The Cascade Curtain?

Dominic Black

The divisions in Washington state can appear as mighty and unarguable as the Cascade Mountains themselves. The reality is more complex than might first appear.


Millions of years ago two massive tectonic plates collided on the American continent in what's now Washington state. As the mountains formed by that gigantic clash were thrust upwards, all the Democrats who were around at that time rolled down the western slopes to the sea and all the Republicans rolled eastward into the desert. And that's why we have the state we have today.

In this new four–part series, I'll be exploring other such fascinating facts and fictions about what's on either side of the Cascade Curtain. That's such an irresistible phrase. It seems to capture something fundamental about Washington state — that it's split.

There's a coastal side and an inland side; a wet side and a dry side; a blue side and a red side; a tree–hugging, Prius–driving, salmon–loving, granola–eating side and a gun–toting, deer–hunting, Jesus–loving, redneck side. And from a distance, that split can seem like an eternal truth about Washington state. But when you stop and look for a minute, you realize that it's all much more complex and conditional than that.

About as far east from here as you can go and not be in Idaho is the city of Pullman. Professor Jeff Sanders teaches environmental history there at Washington State University. Every year, he has a bunch of new students from all across the state, and usually at least half of them come from the suburbs and towns in Snohomish and King counties.

So every year he gets all these students — the Easties and the Westies — on their first day and he gives them a test: Draw a map of Washington state.

Sanders: "I have a few of them here, but what you'll see in the people that come from the west side and those suburbs is this kind of clear line of the Cascades cutting in half their idea of the region, always."

Dominic Black: "This is hilarious. This is a map of Washington state, and on the left hand side there's an approximation of the Space Needle, 'birth home,' conifer trees. Then, there's the mountains, what I take there to be I–90 and, in the middle, a huge circle that says 'nothing.' Wow, this is amazing."

Sanders: "So you see this type of thing in almost all of the westsider maps. So then, the maps that the people from the east side usually make — first of all, they're more diverse. And they often show more detail, and more specific detail to a particular part of Eastern Washington."

Look at two sample maps on our website and you'll see what Jeff's talking about. The eastside students draw specific fields, roads, place names. And this is a pattern, not just a one–off example. And often in those maps the Cascades aren't there, which makes sense when you think about it because the mountains can be half a day's drive away if you live in the east.

Black: "This person hasn't marked Seattle at all. That's a true eastsider."

For Jeff, these maps suggest the limits of knowledge that either side of Washington state has about the other. But he also points out that ultimately, the Cascade Curtain is a construct. We make it up to help us figure out where we belong and to know our place in the landscape, and it's a landscape that to the earliest white settlers wasn't divided. It was just the Oregon Territory — this huge, amorphous, empty space waiting to be colonized and civilized.

As the railroads flooded the territory with people from all over the world, towns boomed and busted. Some survived and bloomed, like Seattle and Walla Walla to name but two, but many others didn't. And wherever settlers went, they colored the political fabric of the place they landed; sometimes in ways that seem to run counter to what we see today. Dick Morrill is professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington.

Morrill: "The idea that Eastern Washington is Republican and Western Washington is Democratic is too simple, and it's fairly recent. So if we look back before 1980, Eastern Washington had a very healthy Democratic registrations and party presence, including the speaker of the house. That's a heritage of the logging industry, the Columbia Basin project, the building of Grand Coulee and the other dams. Those folks were historically Democrat. They wouldn't be liberal in the metropolitan sense, but they were historically Democrat."

In other words, organized labor helped make Democratic power in the east a force to be reckoned with. Over time, though, industries changed, the economy shifted and the Democrats lost traction at the same time as moderate Republicans began losing ground in Seattle.

As social issues became the fulcrum for electoral politics in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the Washington state we see today began to emerge. Once things like abortion and gun rights started to have more influence on how people voted, the main urban areas in Washington started to become more Democratic, the rural areas more Republican.

So, it's tempting to see the division here as rural and urban rather than east and west. Seattle, or the I–5 corridor, versus the rest of the state. And yet even that's not quite right. For example, take San Juan Island: It's very rural, but also very Democratic.

So, the picture's complex and it's always changing, and there's something else to consider as well. Journalist Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort" details how two–thirds of communities in the US are becoming either more Democratic or more Republican. We're segregating ourselves, and it's happening because people choose where to live because of the lifestyle. Being able to get stuff you like: bookstores, Wal–mart, coffee shops, music venues, cute folks to date who're on the same wavelength as you. All these lifestyle choices correspond exactly with how people vote. Here's Bill Bishop speaking to Steve Scher in 2009:

Bishop: "As the old markers of politics begin to decline — class and work and section (where you lived generally in the country) a new kind of politics arose and that was to do with culture and way of life and what you wanted out of life. And it made it easier in that sense for people to cluster around people who are like themselves."

And I get that; it's natural to want to be around folks as enlightened and smart as we are. But Bishop argues that, ultimately, it makes the barriers between us more and more difficult to cross. It's easier never to leave your own little community and never to end up talking to people who don't feel the same way as you do about Barack Obama. It seems to me it also makes it harder to actually know what's going on where those other folks live over there. And because we don't know, we fill in the blanks with assumptions and labels, and sometimes, not very educated guesswork.

So, when I was driving to meet Jeff Sanders out in Pullman — and you notice I say "out" when I talk about going east — I was doing what I'm sure a lot of folks from Seattle do. I was stopping to take photos of rolling fields planted with things I didn't know the names of, falling down barns and rusting grain silos. I felt like the further east I traveled, the closer I was to the Eastern Washington of pioneer days.

Sanders: "One of the things that I've been trying to do with my students is to disabuse people of that kind of notion. Because the reality is it's an industrial landscape. It's a landscape of large farming operations that rely on the same technologies of any other kinds of modern contemporary industry. It's a complex place, but there's a tendency when you drive down Route 26 or even I–90 to project these fantasies upon the place."

Fantasies that you're driving into the past somehow, that fills the huge tract of "nothing" we saw on the map earlier. And that's what can happen when there's a divide like we have in Washington state. A divide that's both real and imagined.

The same things that can happen anywhere else: People sheltering behind assumptions, half–truths and maybe even prejudice. I know, I know — prejudice in Seattle? Surely not.

For KUOW, I'm Dominic Black.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW