Skip to body

History

The Triumph of Conservatism

Kittitas County Politics:  The Triumph of Conservatism. President William Howard Taft and others seated on stage at event, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909.


Randall Ward, Kittitas County Politics: The Triumph of Conservatism
Interviewed by Anthony D´Amico, 2010


With financial support from CWU´s Farrell Scholarship, Randall Ward, a History undergraduate, examined the history of presidential elections in Kittitas County. His paper is titled Kittitas County Politics: The Triumph of Conservatism. I had the opportunity to ask him about his paper, what got him interested in the topic, and what he enjoyed about it the most.  "I got the idea from Dr. Herman" a history professor on campus, said Randall "I brought up how it was almost crazy how different the political allegiances were.He mentioned how there was a period where it wasn´t like that and from there I just started on the paper."

Ward thoroughly enjoyed the research, recalling that he "felt like an actual historian. I was going from the archives and seeing not just statistics, but trying to understand why this meant that, and then saying ok, well if this means that then ok it all makes sense and so on. It was so cool to know I was doing real research." His paper revolves around the Great Depression and how it changed the political landscape in the region. What his research showed is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt carried Kittitas County in several elections during the Great Depression, but that the county moved steadily toward the right thereafter. Repeatedly the county voted for Republican presidential candidates in later elections.

To write the paper, Ward delved into the county´s voting patterns and political leanings. Today, notes Ward, there are two very different political worlds in the state of Washington. Along the Puget Sound, highlighted by Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett and the capital, Olympia, there is much more support for the Democratic Party, which tends to lean liberal. As one drives east across Snoqualmie Pass, however, one enters both a different geological and political landscape. From Kittitas to Yakima and eastward to Spokane, conservatism and the Republican Party are strong. The population east of the Cascade Mountain range consists of a number of rural areas, small towns and farm communities. Western Washington, on the other hand, not only has a number of urban areas and big cities but also has a wetter climate. Western Washington includes a rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula and its primary city, Seattle, is known as "The Rainy City." The other side of the state is mostly a desert.

When he began his research, Ward had recently moved to Seattle from Pennsylvania. Immediately, he noticed the conservative political climate of Eastern Washington. "I was blown away, I saw a sign that said don´t let the Democrats steal the elections again just 60 miles from Seattle." The two regions–Eastern and Western Washington–are close geographically yet far away politically; however it wasn´t always like that. The Great Depression significantly changed the political landscape in the state of Washington, even if it was only for a short period of time

The citizens of Kittitas County had a long history of voting for small government and had consistently voted conservative for years. This was about to change as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his new deal came to the forefront of the political scene throughout America. Ellensburg and Kittitas County in general had long been agricultural hubs in the state of Washington. As huge proponents of small government and no wasteful spending (which for many residents of Kittitas County at the time meant no government spending at all) the local government had little money to inject into the economy when the Depression hit.

The Depression hit Kittitas County hard. Although very few parts of the country were able to avoid the tough times, Kittitas suffered acutely. The economic suffering, writes Ward, divided conservatives into three different groups. There were the "phony conservatives" and politicians who supported federal money in Kittitas County but opposed it just about everywhere else. There were also the staunch conservatives, who despite understanding the country and county´s issues, still concurred with President Herbert Hoover, who argued that the depression was a glitch and that prosperity was around the corner. Then there were the conservatives whom Randall identifies as those who understood the situation. They remained conservative at heart but understood that Kittitas County and America could use some help.

President Roosevelt´s response to the Depression–he called it the "New Deal"–met with an enormous amount of local support. How did the Democrats get all of these new votes? "The Democrats both federally and locally were then offering the voters something they needed," insists Ward, "be it a job or an improvement in their community. Things were bad and the people needed help, the money had to come from somewhere so they looked to the government." Still, many Republicans were not so quick to adapt to these new social programs and protested mightily, claiming that the New Deal would lead to socialism. One of the reasons that residents remained wary of government programs was the tendency of public works programs to be implemented without any utilitarian purpose, or, on occasion, to go unfinished despite government funds. Seeing tax dollars wasted–or seemingly wasted–caused voters to stick to their traditional conservative train of thought.

Most voters, however, though they continued to support local Republicans, supported the New Deal. This helps proves Randall´s point that, in terms of Kittitas County political behavior, the New Deal was an anomaly. It was such an anomaly that, after Roosevelt´s tenure was over, the residents of Kittitas County went on to support the Republican candidate for President in 1948, Thomas Dewey. The political differences between Eastern Washington and Western Washington were, once again, just as strong as the geographical differences.

Ward is currently double-majoring in both History and Philosophy at CWU with the hope of someday obtaining his Ph.D. in Philosophy. Ward had these closing thoughts when discussing his career path: "History is the study of how we get from point A to B. Ideas are just as much a part of that process as are wars and politics, even if they remain behind the scenes. Like history, philosophy, as a historical study, traces the way in which we understand our world over time."