The theoretical State of Jefferson describes both a geographic area that straddles the Oregon-California border, but it can also be considered a state of mind. It’s a concept born from the desire to secede from both states and form a 51st, called the State of Jefferson. The advocates for this 51st state are what many describe as extremists. Some have weapons and say they are not afraid to use them for their cause, a part of what has become known as “armed politics” in the U.S. James Pogue is a writer and contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine. He’s been following the growing armed politics movement for many years, including the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. He recently moved to Shasta County, CA. That’s where a total rejection of COVID-19 restriction in the state led to the would-be citizens of the State of Jefferson to recall county commissioners who complied with health mandates. Pogue joins us to share his reporting on these recent events and discuss the possible future of this secessionist movement.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The backlash against Covid restrictions led to the election of anti-government leaders in Shasta County in northern California. It was just the latest chapter in the long saga of the secessionist dream to carve out a new state on the border of Oregon and California, the State of Jefferson. James Pogue is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. His most recent article for the magazine is called ‘Notes on the State of Jefferson’. James Pogue, welcome.
James Pogue: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Miller: It’s good to have you on. I thought we could start with a little bit of history. Can you remind us how this phrase, this idea, the State of Jefferson came to be?
Pogue: Sure. So, as a lot of your listeners probably know, California has long had divisions between north and south and there’s a kind of secret little division that a lot of people aren’t aware of, which is that, when you think of northern California, a lot of people think of Sacramento or the Bay, but a full third of the state is north of Sacramento and has a very different sort of set of life styles and residents would often argue that they have a very different set of values than the rest of the state. And so you have this sort of transborder kind of identity that grew up over the years that became officially known in 1941 is this quote, unquote, “State of Jefferson”, which was a kind of carnival fun idea to carve out a portion of southern Oregon and that northern third of California into their own rurally minded kind of agricultural and mining and logging state.
Miller: You note though, that part of what motivated folks on either side of the state line to try to band together was the sense that they were being ignored too much by leaders in Salem or Sacramento, for example, that they needed better roads, which to me is a fascinating piece here because it seems too simple to call this anti-government, wanting more public infrastructure is not truly anti-government. Just it’s anti a certain kind of government or, or more, I wish you would pay more attention to us and not ignore us. How do you reconcile this?
Pogue: So, I was actually, I’m glad you brought that up because I was actually gonna push back against your intro and say that what a lot of people in this country term anti-government is stuff that the people who are, you might say on the rural right, would regard as just different or better government, right? And I’m not trying to adjudicate that, but no one involved in this would accept the term anti-government, I don’t think. A kind of closer way of looking at it that I encourage people to look at sometimes is to think of it as something that’s almost sort of like, this region is an area that often regards itself as a sort of internal colony of California, especially on this side where you have these big, big urban centers that are tied into the global economy, tied into this sort of knowledge and finance and real estate sectors of the economy. And then you have this region that’s very much based on the production of real resources historically, and now that’s very much based on tourism and catering to vacationers and second home buyers from these more urbanized megalopolis, palatin regions, tough word to say on the radio. That, it’s sort of, so when you think about roads right, you have this sort of somewhat undeveloped area that the broader American and Californian economy was distracting resources from, but they weren’t necessarily according to this view, contributing a lot of infrastructure development back, and this really occasional feeling of alienation and anger amongst a lot of people.
Miller: So let’s Zoom way forward to a meeting of the Shasta County board of supervisors In the summer of 2020. A man named Carlos Zapata got up to complain about statewide Covid regulations, restrictions and his speech went viral. This is part of what he said:
“And if you don’t hear the seriousness of my voice, I hope you open your ears and you absolutely listen to what I’m saying because this is a warning for what’s coming. It’s not gonna be peaceful much longer. It’s not gonna be rah rahs. It’s not gonna be speeches. It’s not gonna be gathering outside saying the pledge of allegiance. It’s not gonna be waving flags. It’s gonna be real. When you’ve seen the things that I’ve seen, I went to war for this country, I’ve seen the ugliest, dirtiest part of humanity. I’ve been in combat and I never wanted to go back again. But I’m telling you that I will, to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen. And there’s a million people like me and you won’t stop us. Open the county, let our citizens do what they need to do. Let owners of businesses do what they need to do to feed their families, take the masks off, quit masking and muzzling your children. The psychological damage you’re doing to them is horrible. I’ve had six friends kill themselves since it’s happened. Veterans who lost their jobs. How do you feel about being complicit in perpetuating that, the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people and you’re part of it, by wearing your mask. In Shasta County, we’re supposed to be a red country up here, not a blue country, we’re a red country up here.”
Miller: How representative was Carlos Zapata’s point of view in Shasta County?
Pogue: That is a very complicated question. I would say that it’s more representative than a lot of people would like to admit, particularly in sort of the circles of Californian governance and traditional media and things like that. It’s very easy to say, oh, this is crazy wingnuts stuff, and as we’re probably going to talk about in a bit, that proved to be sort of measurably untrue based on the fact that Carlos was a part of a recall effort that led to allies of his gaining a majority control over the county board, which reflects measurable real support. I would say that, to touch on what he said at the very end there, this is red country, not blue country. I would encourage people to think about what’s going on here in the State of Jefferson, less in the context of Covid, because as much as he talks about masks, as much as he talks about shutdowns, that really didn’t happen here that much. I mean, there was never a time you had to wear a mask in Walmart, if you didn’t want to. Know that the cultural winds here just did not allow for that.
Miller: Meaning even though it was a mandate, it was never enforced.
Pogue: It was never enforced. And I would go further to say it would have been unenforceable. Carlos, Carlos Zapata, the gentleman talking, he has a bar in a town called Red Bluff, and he had inspectors come, he had the state come and nothing happened. He didn’t pay his fines and they did not even really try so far as I know to make him do that because they knew that in this region there was a lot of resistance to that stuff, and…
Miller: Although that does bring up the question of why whine, there’s no need to succeed if you’ve already achieved in practice, part of what you’re railing against.
Pogue:Well, so this is what’s very interesting, right, is that the Covid mandates became here a kind of symbolic question of whether or not the county government was respecting and reflecting the values that people like Carlos Zapata associated with this rural region, right? And so this became a much bigger kind of like conflict of worldviews where, I’ve talked to Carlos Zapata many, many times in great depth and he talks often about stuff that you don’t hear on the news. He sort of believes that we’re headed towards this world where we’re all going to live in little condos and be watching Netflix and smoking pot and he wants this other world of like where you can work on the land and have ranches and where religion is still very much a part of human life and these things that many urban Californians, I would argue, tend to think of as sort of nostalgic or even backwards. He thinks it’s something that’s worth bleeding for frankly. And that’s kind of the subtext to this whole worldview conflict. It’s not really about masks, it’s about whether or not the county board was reflecting this other deeper vision of what some people here thought rural life should be and that they worry is going away.
Miller: Although I have to say even that, perhaps simplified version of his worldview, even that’s complicated because obviously there are plenty of people in cities who maybe even as they’re watching Netflix and frankly, I think everybody everywhere or many people, watch TV but many of those urban people he’s talking about also have similar agrarian dreams about some notion of the purity of nature and the importance of being out there, even tied to spirituality. So I guess all this, like I guess when we start talking about conflicting values gets very muddy and very complicated. But to keep pushing the question of what’s actually been happening in Shasta County, so you do point out that the recall effort was successful and between that and a previous election, the anti-Covid restrictions people, who were actually also connected to a what you call a politically influential militia, based close to Redding, they achieved a majority on the county council, which is, it’s called the Board of Supervisors. What has that meant in practice?
Pogue: Well, so I think it’s a very fair point that you made earlier and I think it’s one of the interesting and difficult things about what that election has meant here is that we have here in Shasta County, a kind of artificial solidifying of worldviews that once upon a time you could have, people could have sat down and talked and thought that their neighbor might agree with them on some things and disagree with them on other things. What has happened here is that unfortunately, there are a lot of death threats against supervisors in this county and the supervisors who were not on the side of the sort of anti-Covid restriction, people as, as we mentioned them earlier, they became targets of incredible vitriol from the kind of more right wing side, and it created a very, very polarized environment during which a lot of liberals were very, very scared, and people on both sides described this election as something like a war for the soul of the county, which I don’t really think is overstating it, at least in terms of how people who participated in it felt. And so now that things have sort of calmed down and we’re reaching a new stage of this with three people who are vaguely aligned with Carlos Zapata, with the militia, with some of the more radical county board supervisors who now represent a three person majority. I don’t want to say they’re all part of the same team, I don’t want to say they’re all beholden to one side of this or another, but they are loosely grouped on one side here in the county and more than anything, I think it’s a symbolic victory for their side. I think it’s a symbolic victory where they can say, all this time, you’ve colored us as extremists and radicals and fringe, fringe minority and actually we have a democratic majority on this board. So you have to deal with us. You have to acknowledge that our worldview now holds a majority view in this county.
Miller: This article is called, ‘Notes on the State of Jefferson’. And it’s obviously focused on this, this one corner of the country, a particular focus on northern California. But the State of Jefferson theoretically would include southern Oregon as well. But I’m wondering if you think there is something truly unique about this region or if what you’re reporting on here, which includes our increasingly divided and nationalized politics, if it’s made it so essentially what you reported could have been reported in plenty of places all across the country?
Pogue: So there is something unique in that the State of Jefferson, if it were to exist and it does exist in the minds of everyone here, everyone who grew up here knows about the State of Jefferson and thinks about the State of Jefferson is where they are from, to some degree and it is to my mind the only like large region of America that has an identity explicitly built on the fact that it is a resource producing, living on the land region, not even Montana and Idaho are polities organized around that specific thing. That said, rural politics have very much become nationalized, and if you want to go into the deep history of that, a lot of that has to do with sort of southern ideologies moving west and now though, Carlos launched this recall effort with a very explicit plan to have it be something that could be replicated in rural counties across America, where they would get people who had felt disaffected, felt perhaps too radical even to get involved in electoral politics, to start taking over their county boards, start organizing, start using their militias as vehicles for electoral politics. And I think, I’ve covered rural politics, militia politics in the west for many years. This is the first time I’ve seen what you might call a kind of like broadly anti-globalist ideology move into American rural politics. It used to be very...
Miller: James Pogue, thanks very much for joining us. I’m sorry, we’re out of time, but we will talk again. That’s James Pogue, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks very much for tuning in.
Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliva, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Ray and Marilyn Johnson and the Susan Hammer Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
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