Brandon Letsinger, director of CascadiaNow, a nonprofit supporting community activism in the Northwest, thought his November 8 election night barbecue would be a relaxed affair. “We didn’t even have a radio on,” Letsinger says. “We had a staff meeting the day before and barely discussed the election. We assumed [the results would be] the status quo.”
Around 6pm, Letsinger noticed a bunch of orders being placed for the blue, green, and white Douglas fir flags his organization sells. A couple hours later, the pace of orders quickened. By midnight, when it became clear that electoral democracy would yield a reality-show executive branch, more than 100,000 people had visited CascadiaNow’s website. The flag stock, which Letsinger expected to last deep into 2017, sold out. “It took us 20 days to catch up with all the orders.”
CascadiaNow promotes bioregionalism, the view that what defines life in any given place is its collective ecology. But it’s safe to assume CascadiaNow didn’t receive a surge in traffic because of a sudden interest in mutual watersheds. For nearly a half century, the West Coast has been framed as eco-friendly, equality minded, and socially progressive. After the election, a surge of Cascadians were looking for assurance that they don’t live in that America, the one that put Donald Trump into office.
West Coasters have long pictured themselves, at least ideologically, living in a separate republic. Is there anything to it?
The contemporary notion of a northerly West Coast as a separate political and cultural entity began with Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, which imagines northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceding from the U.S. and forming a progressive utopia built on thoughtful forestry, urban density, and a deep disdain of plastic.
Then-journalist Joel Garreau co-opted the Ecotopia moniker in his 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America, but his Ecotopia was a skinnier version than Callenbach’s, limited to the westernmost, wet areas of the West Coast states and British Columbia.
“What particularly surprises me is how the borders haven’t moved,” Garreau, now a consultant and Arizona State University professor, told me recently. “You look at county-by-county maps of presidential elections, and the borders still pop out.”
Recent political actions seem to bolster the notion we live in a unique realm of the country. Post–November 8, particularly zealous citizens in Oregon and California started collecting signatures to get secession initiatives on ballots. West Coast attorneys general teamed up when, in January, Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. Governors and prominent mayors, including Washington state’s Jay Inslee and Seattle’s Ed Murray, issued a joint statement supporting the Clean Power Plan. Cities along the West Coast proclaimed themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.
One must consider who elected these officials, though. “Both urban northwesterners and rural northwesterners see themselves as fundamentally different, but in different ways,” says Steven Beda, a labor and environmental historian at the University of Oregon.
Indeed, Cascadians from Seattle and Cascadians from Roseburg, Oregon—billed the Timber Capital of the Nation—probably disagree on whether we should protect the spotted owl or ramp up timber production. Clearly all of Cascadia can’t agree on Cascadian ideals. Perhaps that’s why California’s much-publicized Calexit secession movement recently faltered. Oregon’s bid for nationhood was much shorter lived: Hatched by Portlanders, it yielded death threats and lasted just one day.
“What I’d attribute a lot of this to,” Beda says, “is this historical amnesia that allows people, particularly in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, to see themselves as different from everybody else.”
But Brandon Letsinger doesn’t see the post-Trump spike in Cascadia interest as foolhardy. The community activism his CascadiaNow advocates “can give hope to people,” he says. “If you create a new regional identity, that shifts away from being American or Canadian...it’s an identity rooted in a love of place.”