Populism

Grassroots on the Farm

DESPITE DECLINING populations, rural America still has plenty of opinions. They’re out there, plentiful and ripe as new potatoes—all it takes is some digging.

In the old days, agrarians held the pot and populists stirred. Rural populations made up the nation’s majority. But we’ve lost ground: Today’s grassroots minority are seen by corporations as one cook too many, spoiling the company stew.

Farm subsidies encompass five major crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. In the 1930s, populist farmers supported subsidies in FDR’s New Deal because they kept farmers on the farm. It was the easiest fix. But farm bills of old were aimed at average farmers: a husband and wife raising a family on the land. It was about average incomes, average acreages. Average farmers grew both crops and livestock. When grains were cheap, average farmers converted them to meat, milk, and eggs. If prices for those dropped, family farmers cut back.

Everything was about supply and demand—life and survival. Nothing was about making a killing on food.

All that began to change as corporate agriculture promoted grain exports, and companies such as Continental Grain began to raise their own livestock—a precursor to packer-owned livestock, contract production, and packer-controlled livestock markets.

In the 1970s, populists farmers came to be viewed as radicals when they protested anti-family-farm policy by driving tractors to Washington, D.C. They lost the public opinion battle as tractors rutted the National Mall when the government blocked them in with garbage trucks and buses. Some farmers camped there all winter. News coverage failed to note that, come spring, the farmers smoothed and reseeded the Mall before they left.

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News: Quick Links

Romney's Mormonism To Be A Bigger Issue In The General Election, Say Evangelicals (includes comments from Jim Wallis; Oakland Braces For A 'General Strike'; Military Blew $1 Trillion On Weapons Since 9/11; American Voters Like Obama Better This Week, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Cain And Gingrich Up As Romney Stalls And Perry Fades; Obama: I'll Make The Call On Keystone XL Project; Democrats Embrace Populism; Huntsman Takes On Big Oil

New And Noteworthy

A New Season

Hitting midlife can bring angst, lots of it. Dale Hanson Bourke’s Second Calling: Finding Passion and Purpose for the Rest of Your Life will speak to women who are entering the second half of life and aren’t too happy about it. Hanson Bourke records her personal journey from feeling “washed up” to energized and ready to embrace God’s calling for the next phase. The best may be yet to come. Integrity Publishers.

Civic Resistance

Two must-have publications from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict: How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy and People Power Primed. Both look at the impact of “people power”—how civilian-based nonviolent resistance is more effective in securing democracy than violence or terrorism. The former provides fascinating stats on countries’ transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. www.nonviolent-conflict.org.

Places of Belonging

In Befriending the Stranger, beloved l’Arche founder Jean Vanier takes up the topic of community—how can we create spaces of sharing, peace, and compassion? The book’s six chapters were originally presentations Vanier made to a group of l’Arche assistants from communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the words and themes apply to any community. As he writes, the renewal of the church and the unity of Christians will come as we serve and befriend those who appear to us as strange, lonely, or unwanted. Eerdmans.

Walking Through Minefields

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Sojourners Magazine June 2006
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The Democratic Dance

In the early 1950s, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips was supposed to have said, "If I can find me a white singer who has the Negro sound and the Negro feel, we'll make a million dollars." He found Elvis.

In 1988, with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow presidential campaign, the moguls of the Democratic Party glimpsed the horrible possibility of a true, multiracial populist uprising against the age of the shrinking wage. It's not hard to imagine them muttering to themselves, "If we can find a 'mainstream' man with that populist feel, we'll get back in the White House."

Bill Clinton, it must be acknowledged, has a little bit of Elvis in him. And it's not just the diet. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton played a "mainstreamed" version of the Rainbow music, and a happy nation danced. But like Elvis, after that first flash of brilliance, he began to disappoint. Elvis left Sam Phillips and went to Hollywood. Clinton stopped listening to his populist musical director, James Carville, and went to Wall Street.

Clinton's new friends told him, "If you try that populist stuff on us, we'll crash the bond market and let you preside over a four-year recession." Soon NAFTA was passed, without the labor provisions candidate Clinton had promised, and those "investments" Labor secretary Robert Reich kept talking about—in worker-training, education, and infrastructure—well, they were put off to an ever-receding tomorrow.

That's the Democrats' dilemma. They climb the charts when they play that fanfare for the common person. But to exercise power (from the top) in this country you've got to harmonize with the global corporations. They have to sound like the party of working families. But they have to do it without challenging the free trade regime that has kept wages down since "Burning Love" was in the Top 10.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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