Parties and Politics in Oregon History

By Johnston, Robert D. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Parties and Politics in Oregon History


Johnston, Robert D., Oregon Historical Quarterly


One of the distinguishing themes in Oregon's history is citizens' relative lack of partisan attachments. To be sure, there have been plenty of demonstrably Democratic or rambunctiously Republican citizens. Compared to New York, or Illinois, or Mississippi, however, the history of Oregon's politics speaks most powerfully of disaffection with political parties, crusades for virtuous anti-partisanship, and mobilization of the masses in independent social movements. Moreover, Oregonians self-consciously forged the most distinctive institutions of state politics--the initiative and referendum--to help them escape from what the system's architects perceived as the tyrannical yoke of corrupt party machines.

That said, plenty of momentous Oregon history has happened because of, and by means of, political parties. The two articles in this second installment of the Oregon Historical Quarterly's statehood sesquicentennial series are fine reflections on this countertradition in the state's past. Barbara Mahoney reveals the vigorous partisan landscape in pre-Civil War Oregon, where parties served as the primary vehicle for the state's ideological and economic conflicts. Jeff LaLande narrates a weaker, but still quite important, partisan landscape a century later, when Oregon's Republican Party was at the beginning of arguably the most significant transition in its history.

What was at stake in the fights between Whigs and Democrats, and later between Republicans and Democrats, Mahoney and LaLande show, was not just the occupancy of this or that political office. Rather, some of the most important issues in the state's history were decided in the course of these struggles. In the nineteenth century, party activists played a major role in deciding what kind of political structures and civic life Oregon would have--and how inclusive they would be, particularly in matters relating to race. During the twentieth century, proud partisans decisively shaped the state's economy, particularly in relation to the way the federal government protected, or did not protect, public lands and natural resources. In both cases, matters of civil rights and civil liberties were central to political discussions, and in both cases, the fate of all these issues in Oregon would reverberate well beyond the state's borders.

Far too much of the history of American political parties is, to be frank, rather boring. Much of it is written by political scientists, who generally concentrate more on pulling meaning from crunched numbers than creating compelling narratives of human interest. Even when historians tackle this subject, they get bogged down in matters relating to conflict between ethnic groups, the distribution of patronage, and the mobilization of voters that--while crucially important--rarely appeal to a broad public audience. (1)

Fortunately, both Mahoney and LaLande center their lively stories on, well, lives. Both historians narrate the political careers of individuals who were not only significant in their times but who also left an intriguing paper trail. Asahel Bush, the Democratic leader who is the protagonist of Mahoney's article, is better-known, at least in scholarly circles, than LaLande's subject. Definitely one of Oregon's Founding Fathers, Bush in many ways created party politics in the Beaver State. His vociferous advocacy for the Democratic Party forged a bold method of political rhetoric (the so-called "Oregon Style") and a bold brand of racial discrimination. In contrast, part of the premise of LaLande's article is the need to bring to Guy Cordon, an almost complete unknown, into the annals of the state's history. LaLande definitively shows that Cordon's obscurity is not deserved, since "the state's last conservative U.S. senator" played a noteworthy role in many important national decisions during the 1940s and 1950s. And his defeat was even more momentous: during the supposedly complacent and conservative 1950s--The Age of Ike--Oregonians sent Cordon packing from his post in Washington, D.

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