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Guest columnist

Parting the Cascade curtain: Rethinking the state's cultural fault line

Special to The Times

Conventional wisdom in Washington politics holds that our state divides between east and west along the "Cascade curtain." As it turns out, this east-west stereotype is both real and illusory.

Thanks to the generosity of Stuart Elway, the director of The Elway Poll, we can look more closely at the contours of our state's cultural divide.

In October 2005, Elway asked 514 registered Washington state voters a series of questions developed by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. The Pew questions asked state residents how they thought society and government should function.

I used 16 of these items as measures of two cultural dimensions. My approach, adapted from the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, distinguishes cultural groups along the two dimensions, the poles of which have apt labels.

First, a hierarchical viewpoint claims that society works best with strong, traditional authority and clear social distinctions, whereas the egalitarian view favors reducing virtually all socioeconomic differences.

Second, the individualist believes individuals should fend for themselves free of social or governmental control, whereas communitarians value strong social ties and collective action to protect shared resources and the least fortunate members of society.

This conception of culture has worked well in a variety of countries and across long stretches of history. In our nation, the central cultural conflict occurs between two orientations — the hierarchical individualism that blossomed fully in the Reagan era, versus the communal egalitarianism that traces back to the New Left of the 1960s, if not as far as FDR's New Deal.

Does the "Cascade curtain" hang over this same cultural fault line? I compared average scores on both cultural dimensions for the six geographic areas conventionally used in The Elway Poll: Seattle, King County (excluding Seattle), Pierce and Kitsap counties, North Sound (Snohomish County to Whatcom County), Western Washington (the other western counties as far east as Lewis, Cowlitz, and Clark), and Eastern Washington (all remaining counties). The accompanying graph plots each of these geographic areas in terms of its standardized deviation from the statewide average score on both cultural dimensions.

The results show not a broader east-west divide but, rather, a stark contrast between only Eastern Washington and Seattle. Statistically speaking, these two areas differ significantly on both cultural dimensions, but there is no significant difference among the remaining areas, all of which cluster around the center of the graph.

To get a sense of the size of this difference, consider two sample items. Seattle's egalitarianism comes out clearly with 72 percent of the city's respondents believing "Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society." By contrast, only 47 percent of Eastern Washington respondents agreed with the same statement.

On the individualist-communitarian dimension, 46 percent of those east of the Cascades believe that "Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy." Only 20 percent of Seattleites surveyed shared that view.

Does this mean Seattle and Eastern Washington have irreconcilable worldviews? Hardly. After all, the gap between them sometimes falls on the same side of an attitude scale, such as when 69 percent of Eastern Washingtonians — along with 59 percent of Seattleites — agree with the individualist conviction that "Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they're willing to work hard." Similarly, 71 percent of Seattleites held the egalitarian view that "It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values," and 50 percent of those east of the Cascades agreed.

Regardless, the rest of the state's residents do not fall squarely on either side of the cultural curtain. In fact, after removing Seattleites, King County appears significantly different from both poles. It is more individualist than Seattle, and egalitarian relative to Eastern Washington. King County residents dwelling outside the Emerald City seek the kind of social equality that emerges spontaneously from a liberal society with limited social control. King County shares Eastern Washington's distaste for government interference but eschews the larger region's embrace of traditional mores and social stratification.

The North Sound counties diverge from Eastern Washington on both cultural dimensions but are not as extreme as Seattle. Pierce/Kitsap is more hierarchical than Seattle, but both it and Western Washington represent the political center in terms of individualism.

Some might object to this cultural portrait by arguing that the split between the GOP and Democrats is more important than the cultural divide. According to national data I have collected with colleagues, however, people do not respond principally to party elites. Instead, they more readily pick up on cultural cues sent by cultural peers and leaders, whether they be the culturally like-minded neighbor next door, reverend in the pulpit, or actor in their favorite drama.

The fit between cultural and partisan differences depends on the rhetoric and strategies of the major parties. As it turns out, Democrats and Republicans wage their partisan battle primarily in terms of the hierarchical-egalitarian dimension.

This leaves many people without a secure partisan home. In particular, individualists, such as those in King County, find comfort neither in the GOP's willingness to subvert civil liberties nor in the Democrats' confidence in strong government regulations and social programs. Communitarians who favor maintaining strong community ties over pursuing full equality — perhaps including many in the North Sound — similarly find neither party quite to their liking.

Meanwhile, Western Washingtonians outside Seattle likely find themselves stuck in the middle of what feels like a pitched cultural battle, within which they have difficulty brokering any compromise.

Yet, it remains a mistake to view our state as the site of a "culture war." After all, culture orients people — it does not usually motivate them. Most of us vote for public officials and ballot measures that honor our cultural language, symbols and worldview because we hope they will serve our more basic needs and goals, not because they will remake the world in our cultural self-image.

To avoid slipping into an unnecessary cultural war, we need to find ways to work with our cultural differences.

Working around culture requires supplanting ubiquitous cultural signals with alternative influences. We shouldn't try to eliminate cultural signals, but we can aim to reduce people's need for them by promoting public deliberation as a means of working through differences.

Consider this example. To spur its citizens to deliberate about election reform, the British Columbia legislature assembled a representative random sample of 160 citizens to study the issue together before arriving at a final judgment. The 2004 B.C. Citizens Assembly deliberated for a dozen weekends before arriving at a final vote of 146 yea and 7 nay. Had they been polled at the outset, assembly members would have turned to cultural signals for guidance. When given the chance to deliberate, however, they moved past sharp cultural differences to arrive at a near-consensus.

A similar process was presented to the Washington state Legislature this May. The Citizens Initiative Review proposal would create an independent panel of randomly selected citizens for each initiative and referendum appearing on the ballot. Each panel would hear pro and con testimony on a ballot measure, then deliberate and write up a summary statement that would appear in the official voters guide. These deliberative citizen assessments could supplant the relatively simplistic cultural-cueing campaigns that currently dominate initiative elections. This novel idea has gained support from many quarters, including the Washington City/County Management Association and the Association of Washington Cities.

Washington policymakers can take another approach that affirms divergent cultural orientations, then seek a policy that has multiple potential meanings.

Consider public policy regarding guns. When the choice is simply between "gun rights" and "gun control," there is precious little middle ground. Legislators could instead devise a policy package that emphasized both personal responsibility in gun ownership and the generic right to own guns. They could endorse the default principle of gun ownership rights while also denying firearm access to those who fail to demonstrate sufficient self-discipline through misuse, abuse, felony convictions, etc.

To succeed, this approach requires respected leaders from opposite cultural orientations claiming the policy as their own, explicitly drawing out the meanings that resonate with their respective cultural groups. We have seen relatively few bipartisan solutions to culturally contentious issues in our state, but the Legislature has made moves in this direction on transportation issues that extend beyond Puget Sound.

The fact that the bulk of the state occupies the middle of the cultural spectrum helps promote efforts to reach across the cultural divide. It is true enough that Seattle and Eastern Washington stand apart from one another, but their cultural differences are not night and day, but rather midmorning versus dusk. Moreover, this divide encompasses just a third of the state's population.

Even within the polarized regions, the overwhelming majority of Washingtonians are not cultural zealots. They are people of goodwill who want the same things — economic comfort and physical security, with liberty and justice for all — but who follow cultural signals that point to different leaders and symbols.

With structured deliberation and culturally sophisticated policy framing, our cultural differences will not prevent us from governing ourselves effectively as a diverse but united state.

John Gastil is an associate professor in the University of Washington Department of Communication and the co-editor of "The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century" (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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