Is Supporting Family Farmers Still Too “Hot” for the Democratic Party?

“If we Democrats don’t stand unequivocally for family farmers, why do we think they should stand with us?”

Jim Hightower October 9, 2023

Last month, Barn Raiser published the text of Jim Hightower’s speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which rural political strategist Matt L. Barron had referenced in his essay “To Reach Rural Voters, Democrats Need a Place-Driven Strategy.”

Hightower subsequently republished the text of his speech on Jim Hightower’s Lowdown, which led readers to ask why people in rural areas–particularly farmers– vote for Republicans not Democrats.  Hightower responded to readers in a Lowdown column that Barn Raiser republishes here with the author’s permission.

I certainly share the frustration with groups that vote Republican, seemingly against their own interests. But have groups like farmers abandoned Democrats, or has Democratic Party policy abandoned them?

As Lyndon Johnson used to say, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.” Yet that’s exactly what our party started trying to do on farm policy in the 1970s.

While Democratic leaders praised family farm values, they were busily empowering the bankers, global grain traders, big meatpackers, seed monopolists, and other agribusiness giants to grow bigger and squeeze the economic life out of family farms. The American Ag Movement’s huge tractorcade rebellion in the ’70s and early ’80s (see this issue of the Lowdown from May 2019) went after Earl “Get Big or Get Out” Butz, but it was especially outraged that the Democratic Party of Carter-Mondale used fiscal policy (high interest rates) and global trade hokum to impose Butz’ plutocratic dictum on them.

The hard truth is that Washington’s Democratic leadership intentionally chose in the 1970s to abandon the Farm-Labor coalition of the New Deal in pursuit of corporate campaign cash from agribusiness. As Texas Agriculture Commissioner, I was part of these tractorcade protests, and both publicly and privately, I kept trying to convince Democratic congressional leaders to get back to our family farm roots. Are we going to push a bold, grassroots farm program, I asked the House Ag chairman, or just tinker around the edges of the corporate status quo? “Oh,” he said, with a condescending smile, “I imagine we’ll just tinker around the edges.” They did.

American Agriculture Movement’s tractorcade on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (Richard Hofmeister, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Around 1980, a U.S. senator, who was my friend and ally, suggested to Vice President Mondale that they “ought to bring in Hightower on the farm issue.” He told me that Mondale responded: “Isn’t he a little hot?”

So there’s the problem. Farmers are not fooled that Republican ag policies are any good, but they do see that the once proud-and-true farmer party sold them out, abandoning the rural electorate to GOP charlatans who at least show up to campaign for the farm and rural vote.

I supported Mondale in his 1984 run to prevent another four years of the God Awful Reagan regime. Talking with Mondale late that year, he knew he was losing and was frustrated by it, and he snapped accusingly at me: “Your farmers are voting for Reagan.” First, they weren’t “my” farmers. Second, he didn’t seem to realize that his corporatized farm platform was the same ol’ status quo all over again.

If we Democrats don’t stand unequivocally for family farmers, why do we think they should stand with us? We have to get hot, or we’ll never win them back.

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the Texas Consumer Association, Texas Agriculture Commissioner, national radio commentator, columnist, and bestselling author. He currently publishes Jim Hightower's Lowdown  on Substack. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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