Nearly four in 10 Oregon residents agree with statements aligned with white extremists’ views, according to a poll commissioned by a major progressive group released Thursday.
A majority of state residents support the ideals of a multi-cultural democracy, according to the survey conducted by DHM Research.
The poll was commissioned by the Western States Center, a Portland-based non-profit that says its mission is to monitor extremism in the region and work to “strengthen inclusive democracy.”
The poll showed a “disturbingly” sizable population in Oregon from which extremists can gather followers and sympathizers, said Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center.
“They are social movements spreading bigotry to attain political power,” Schubiner said.
About 40% of respondents said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage.”
About 39% of respondents agreed with the statement “White people in America face discrimination and unfair treatment on the basis of their race.”
The poll was conducted in January with the release of data today under agreement between the Western States Center and DHM Research.
The poll was done as “a community service by DHM Research in partnership with the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center,” a statement with the poll said. Both said they are independent and non-partisan.
The poll asked 603 Oregon adults for their views on white nationalism, right-wing extremism and the strength of democracy in the state and nation. The estimated margin of error is 4%, DHM said.
The groups were weighted to reflect the gender, age, race, economic status and geographical location of the respondent.
The statistics were also divided into subgroups. The main geographical distribution covered three portions of the state: The tri-county region of Portland, the rest of the Willamette Valley, and the remainder of Oregon.
Just under half of those polled were satisfied with how democracy was working in Oregon. But the 49% rating was higher than the 47% who said democracy was working in the entire nation.
Four of 10 respondents believed “bad actors” across the political spectrum were responsible for violence in Portland and the rest of Oregon.
Far left activists were chiefly responsible, according to 14%, while 13% blamed far right agitators.
Another 8% blamed police and 4% pointed the finger at elected officials.
The remaining 22% said they didn’t know who was ultimately responsible.
The areas around Portland and the Willamette Valley skewed higher in percentage of those blaming the far right and police, while the third group that included all areas of the state outside of Portland and the Willamette Valley, was somewhat more likely to blame left-wing groups.
Overall, right-wing militia groups and white extremists were seen as bad for business and the state’s image.
They hurt the economy, according to 74% of those polled. The armed groups created a dangerous situation, 69% said, and 68% said laws were needed to prevent people from bringing firearms to public rallies.
The pollsters said more than seven out of 10 respondents “were not buying” arguments by militia groups that their presence was to support law enforcement or protect the public.
Mild to strong support for militia groups was highest — 24% — among those who identified as “rural” Oregonians.
Schubiner said the key to limiting the damage of white extremist groups was to see it as a political and social issue, not just a police issue. The broadest and most vocal coalition of political, business and other leaders must speak out against militias and their ideology, she said.
“It’s incredibly troubling to see the spike in numbers” of public officeholders who openly sympathize with parts of the paramilitary, white nationalist movement, she said.
Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Western States Center and a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the poll was a wake-up call to Oregonians that there is a resurgence of racist, sometimes violent attitudes with a deep history in Oregon.
Ward said Oregon’s early years were built on “exclusion by design,” with a narrative of a white agricultural and small town society in a land devoid of indigenous Americans and Black people.
Slavery had been barred from new states by the time Oregon joined the union in 1859. But its original constitution did not allow free Black people the right to live in the state, with those who did not leave within a relatively short time were subject to public lashings.
As civil rights spread in the United States after World War II, Ward said, reactionaries embraced the idea of the “Pacific Northwest Territorial Imperative” — a white ethno-state — which became part of the philosophy of groups from the KKK to skinhead Neo-Nazis and “patriot” militia groups.
When white extremism was pushed underground, its believers became “early adopters” of internet technology as a way to spread their message widely but less openly.
With more open support from some political leaders, Ward said white separatist ideas are resurgent. He included the “Greater Idaho” movement that would cleave most of Oregon east of the Cascades and fold it into what they believe is an ideologically more compatible government in conservative Idaho.
Ward said the movement is just the latest attempt to give political cover by presenting a white ethno-state dream rehashed as a strictly geographic division.
“Our rugged rural culture east of the Cascades is somehow incompatible with West Coast progressivism,” Ward said.
Ward pointed to the presence of groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys at rallies in Oregon, some of whom later took part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 during the certification of the Electoral College vote.
Ward noted that extremists targeted immigrants and indigenous people of Oregon. They had defaced the Holocaust Memorial in Portland. Fliers with images of the mass murder of Jews during World War II were distributed by anti-Semitic activists in the district of Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-Tualatin.
Prusak believes she was targeted for supporting gun control legislation whose opponents include some extremists.
The bill passed the Legislature and was recently signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown. A group of conservative Republican current and former state lawmakers has submitted a proposed referendum that would put the gun law on hold until a statewide vote in November 2022.
Ward pointed to the actions of one of the referendum’s sponsors, Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence. The lawmaker is facing criminal charges and expulsion from the House for allegedly allowing violent protesters into the state capitol while the Legislature was in special session last December. It’s action that has historical resonance, Ward underlined.
“The willingness of a state elected official to open the door to those who espouse racial violence,” Ward said.