How Republicans Lost the Farm

The Tea Party has pulled the GOP away from the interests of rural Americans—some of the party's most loyal constituents.
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Reuters

On a recent Monday in San Antonio, Texas, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, got up to speak to an auditorium full of farmers. Vilsack, a doughy, wavy-haired former governor of Iowa, wore a grim expression as he gripped the lectern.

"My mom used to caution me to have patience. She'd say, 'Patience, Tommy, patience,'" Vilsack said. "My mother never met the 2013 Congress."

The group Vilsack was addressing, the American Farm Bureau Federation, is the nation's largest farmers' organization, with more than 6 million member families from all 50 states. It is perhaps the most influential player in the American agriculture lobby, which spends more than $100 million each year to influence Congress. Through its state chapters and their political-action committees, the bureau also wields influence in state capitols and elections up and down the ballot. In San Antonio, 7,000 members had gathered for their annual meeting to hear from Vilsack and discuss what they wanted out of Washington.

The members of the Farm Bureau—an overwhelmingly conservative, strongly Republican group—have traditionally gotten what they wanted, between all that lobbying and politicians' never-ending appetite for paeans to the nobility of rural life. But these days, thanks to the Tea Party civil war that has stoppered the House of Representatives, that is not the case.

Vilsack laid out the contemporary American farmer's lament. For more than a year, the agricultural legislation, known as the farm bill, whose implementation is his agency's major task—the complicated scheme of price supports, crop subsidies, insurance provisions, and food-stamp assistance that undergirds American farming, from feed corn to dairy cows to sugar, peanuts, fruits, and vegetables—has been stalled, the victim (though Vilsack did not put it in these terms) of Republican infighting in the House of Representatives. As a result, a growing season marked by drought, snowstorms, and record cold temperatures had passed without the disaster relief on which farmers have traditionally relied. The Department of Agriculture was unable to fight a trade dispute with the Brazilian government that could threaten farming patents. And while temporary extensions had kept the farm bill from expiring altogether, those, too, would run out on January 31, potentially sending milk prices skyrocketing to as much as $8 per gallon. House Republicans also have blocked farmers' other major priority, immigration reform, resulting in labor shortages, unpicked crops, and even farms abandoned when there weren't enough workers to reap their harvest.

"You all understand this," Vilsack told the farmers. (A Farm Bureau member in good standing—he brandished his card from the podium—Vilsack owns, and receives farm subsidies for, a 592-acre farm in southern Iowa.) But, he continued, "It may be necessary for us to have a wider audience of folks who understand and appreciate what this farm bill does, not just for producers but for all of us in this country."

Because of the tremendous productivity of American farming—and the support provided it by the federal government—Americans need not fear famine, Vilsack said. Our farmers and ranchers produce all the food we need and then some, he noted, and we buy it more cheaply than citizens of any other nation. "Every American should be concerned about the fact that we don't have a farm bill," Vilsack said. Whether in urban, suburban, or rural areas, he urged, people ought to be calling their congressmen and senators and urging them to get it done.

The failure of the farmers' agenda is a familiar tale of Washington gridlock, with familiar players: the small group of conservative obstructionists who seemingly control the House, and the policy consequences of a Republican Party at war with itself. But in this case, the people Republicans have antagonized are among their most loyal constituents. Rural America is the party's base. Mitt Romney overwhelmingly won its support in 2012, taking 61 percent of rural voters, according to exit polls. (Romney won 58 percent of small-town voters, 50 percent of suburban voters, and just 36 percent of residents of cities with more than 50,000 occupants.) Now the GOP, hamstrung by its right wing's anti-government zeal, risks breaking faith with its rural stronghold.

Republicans may already have paid a political price for the Tea Party's derailment of policies important to rural voters. In the summer of 2012, when the House refused to consider the Senate-passed farm bill, the issue became a point of attack for Democrats who won several red-state Senate races—a subplot of the elections that flew beneath the radar of most Washington observers. And that was before the House spent 2013 delaying farm policy further, leaving agricultural interests intensely frustrated. In 2014, that frustration could hurt Republicans in dozens of House and Senate races.

The farmers' disenchantment with Washington is about more than just a special interest angry that its traditional government assistance is threatened. It's about the deepening divide between rural and urban America. Isolated, shrinking in number, and cast out of the cultural mainstream, rural America now finds itself politically abandoned as well, as the party that once represented its interests is increasingly dominated by a more urban, libertarian, ideological strain.

In the three days I spent talking to dozens of farmers and their representatives at the Farm Bureau convention, a sense of grievance and resentment was a steady undercurrent. Vilsack, who was preceded onstage by an acoustic duo from Tennessee called Pork and Beans who played a song called "Farm Strong," echoed the theme of disconnection in his speech. "My guess is if I took a survey of the folks here today, you might feel that agriculture is not as appreciated as you believe it ought to be," Vilsack said. "I would share that feeling. The reality is, so many Americans are so far removed from where their food comes from. They may be three or four generations removed."

It is only because a small minority of Americans—less than 1 percent—continue to toil at farm work that the rest of the population has the freedom to pursue its dreams elsewhere, Vilsack said. "And folks, that ought to be celebrated," he said, punching the air with an index finger. "The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated, and thanked."

Vilsack was followed onstage by Alan Robertson, a member of the cast of the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty. Robertson, a preacher, had previously been distinguished from the rest of the cast by his lack of facial hair, but he had grown a short salt-and-pepper beard for the show's upcoming fifth season. He wore black pants and an untucked blue shirt with a pen in the chest pocket. "You realize that we have generations now that don't understand the concept of home, or family, or faith," he complained. "We got people growing up in huge neighborhoods in metropolitan areas that have no idea what you know, what I know."

Robertson's father, Phil, the show's star, had recently ignited a national debate over the political and cultural divisions between red and blue America with derogatory comments about gays and blacks in GQ. Robertson seemed to be alluding to the controversy when he said, by way of conclusion: "A lot of people are unsure what to do. Watch the show. That supports us." The crowd rose to its feet, applauding, as Robertson walked offstage with his arm raised.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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