Populists Should Target Thinking Conservatives

By Jim Van Der Pol

There is news of a move afoot to organize progressives either within or without the Democratic Party. The impetus for this flows from a complaint similar to that heard in black circles, that the Democrats pretty much take us for granted and that to graduate from that status we are going to have to make trouble. The organizers of this effort, urbanites all no doubt, wish to hear from some of us rural citizens. Perhaps they hope we will be willing to form up some sort of rural auxiliary.

Well, this news excites me considerably and not because I want to be part of an auxiliary. I am descended from the prairie populist movement which in farmer language was part of the breeding that went into the progressive movement. My understanding of populism has nothing at all to do with what Limbaugh or the rest of that bunch calls populism as they twist it into meaning a kind of gun toting soft headed right wing viciousness. My populist forbears were strong minded, clear headed, and possessed of an uncanny ability to figure out what they were not being told and to pick out which critical props to knock out from under the plutocratic structure whose foot was on their necks. They were masters of the idea of self education. Prairie populism, were it a factor today, would be working to get the uninsured to the point where they understood the health insurance industry and the medical industry better than anyone else outside of Wall Street, and knew to the dime how much each politician cost and what legislation had thereby been bought by the masters of the universe. Can you imagine how useful 50 million cheated people who were aware of what was being done to them and who was doing it would be in our political dialog right now?

Rural citizens with populist leanings have much to offer. I am not talking now about the liberal who has retreated to a rural setting to write his book. I mean real rural citizens who are busy farming, tending livestock, fixing cars and machines, teaching kids, pastoring hurting people and otherwise getting the work of the rural world done. These people are connected with the other political side in a way becoming unlikely in urban America. As a matter of fact, with the electronic trend toward sorting people by belief and attitude, connection with the other side is at risk in the rural areas as well. This does not bode well for democracy, for key to making a well reasoned and effective argument is having another person, who needs convincing, to listen and then to agree or reject your argument. This is how democracy is done. Let me illustrate how this is possible in the rural areas while it fades from view elsewhere.

Every year at our county fair where my children and now their children compete with each other to win blue ribbons, the county pork producer group puts on a pork chop barbecue. To do this, I suspect they get a pretty good boost from their state and national organizations to help buy the meat so they can sell it at a reasonable price. The smoke curls around a good part of the fairgrounds and the lines of people snake past the music stage and the swing set toward the 4-H food stand which is, not coincidentally, undergoing a slow night. The reason I do not know the financial particulars of the event is that I do not belong to the pork producer group even though I am a hog farmer. I gave up membership in the ’90s because I saw how the kind of collusion going on between the “producer” group and the industry it supplied with hogs led to the situation in 1998. The crisis in that year that cost the nation nearly all the independent hog producers remaining, as the hog population rose and the capacity of the industry to slaughter those hogs was deliberately concentrated and then mothballed by industry in order to drive the price down, driving most farmers out of business and me permanently out of the commodity group.

Now the farmers cooking the pork at the county fair, being neighbors and friends, know the score. When I show up in the line and exchange a few words with those doing the cooking and serving, I am talking to people with whom I have shared not only local hog farming practice and history, but all of rural life, from the Friday basketball games to weddings, graduations, funerals and disasters. I know that, in addition to this, they now work for the hog production company. They know that I (and my family) have gone another way, taking on the marketing of our own pork. If I tell them their pork chop is only barely fit to eat, and my grin makes it clear that I am razzing them about it, the interchange is just another one of those complex interactions rural people have created in which the need each has of the other is recognized, and where, ideally at least, the essential humanity of all the participants is safeguarded. The need is simply because for each of us, the other may be the one who sees a barn afire, calls the fire department, and goes to try to get the animals out. Or perhaps he is one of the first responders to a farm accident. Or I tell another that his son is driving recklessly or drinking to excess.

If I don’t grin and make this kind of joke about the commodity pork, that is, if I make my comment as if I expect it to be taken seriously, and as if I believe it (which I do) I risk damaging this complex web of understanding whose purpose is to enable us to live together while maintaining some of our individual differences in a people sparse rural area. It is with this kind of practice and understanding that a populist can live safely in the midst of a sea of Republicans and even a few right wingers. I don’t know if this kind of close community based on tacit practical understanding of our humanity happens in the urban area. From outside it looks much more as if people just sort themselves out into what might be called “attitude groups” simply because it is easier that way.

Now there is a durability to this. The 2004 presidential campaign was just as vile here in rural America as it was everywhere else. It was a full-blown culture war fueled by those with economic irons in the fire who were using the disgruntled, fearful and potentially violent working class to fight the war. A local Ford dealer with whom I had done business in the past festooned the approach to his dealership with every imaginable Republican and right wing campaign sign as well as several placards with vicious right wing slogans. This, of course, violates business ethics as well as common sense. He has a house to decorate and does not need to deliberately get in the way of any stray Democrat who might come into his dealership to talk about buying a Ford. I will not buy anything further there and what is left is to tell him so and why. When I do that, the telling will have more impact because of the rural setting. After all, he is not attracting suburban and urban buyers to his business; in fact, his potential customers are being lured away by those same dealers.

The various chain stores and big boxes know enough to keep their politics, which is usually pretty much right wing, separate from their business. This does not constitute a good reason to buy there, but they do make a good example for local businesses that a prairie populist might be trying to improve.

Similarly, the feed mill where my family buys feed has a disturbing tendency to allow the employees to play the radio in the warehouse tuned to a station which features several vicious right wing yakkers. As a customer, I have every right to object and can do so within the same framework that allows me to talk to neighbors who participate in the hog industry that would like to disallow the marketing of my own pork.

If I, as a rural Ford owner, let the dealer know that I will find another place to buy the next Ford, he is in a losing position that a suburban dealer trying to cope with a group of sign carrying protesters is not. The big suburban dealer can say just don’t block the way for my real customers. For the rural dealer, I represent not only someone he knows, but one of a dwindling number of people who will actually buy a car from a rural dealer. The same goes for the feed mill. There is not an endless supply of independent farmers streaming in the door and I know him and consider him to be a friend.

These conversations with rural businesses that are making inappropriate assumptions about their customers, friends and neighbors are very important. What is happening is that like the senders of the various degenerate and ignorant e-mail forwards, these people are indulging themselves in the illusion that “everybody” pretty much thinks as they do. Critical to a government and a society that functions is an understanding that differences are what make us human, not that some of us are less than human because we see things differently.

I wonder how far these kinds of connections among people that think differently would go toward improving our national political dialogue. The kind of “debate” on public health that has been so much in evidence lately which often features two angry people standing one foot apart screaming apparently at each other’s nose is pitiably useless. This comes about when each side has learned that the other side is not really human, that it is evil. This activity demonizes others, sheds no light on an issue and gets us nowhere. And it is dangerous. It comes in with the kind of economy and society that expects to profit by separating people from each other and then setting them against one another. This has been the ongoing M.O. of the masters of the American economy for several centuries and the results are plain to anyone who cares to look

Active intelligent populism is a wonderful antidote to frustration. It has something to teach to real conservatives. (No one can teach a right winger anything.) The possibility is there that conservatives, at least some of my more careful and thoughtful conservative rural friends and neighbors can teach populism something as well. So it does seem to me that there is a possibility of conversation between populism and real conservatism that could provide some healing and create some real power. There are connections in philosophy between the two that I cannot yet put well into words and I intend to explore this further.

So one condition that I would put on my involvement in any new progressive effort would be that rhetoric and hyperbole be directed at the national corporate Democrats who richly deserve it and not at my Republican and conservative neighbors. Some of them may be able to offer us the help we need.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2009


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