Today’s political polarization is found not only in the cities, but in farm country.
While polls consistently show farmers as a group that leans conservative, there are many viewpoints across the Corn Belt and beyond.
Benton, Illinois, farmer Kelly Robertson, a self-described fiscal and social conservative, is unabashedly on the Trump train.
“He literally says what he thinks. He’s not politically correct at all,” he said. “He just doesn’t care, which I think is a breath of fresh air. If he says something, I know that’s what he means.”
His support is strong despite the short-term pain farmers are feeling during the trade war with China.
“I do support it, mainly because up to this point we’ve never done anything about it,” he said. “Their tactic has always been do something and we roll over. It’s not just about soybeans and pork, it’s about intellectual property. Someone had to draw a line in the sand. It was our turn. I think in the long run we will be better off.”
Harwood Schaffer does not share Robertson’s views. The director of the Tennessee-based Agricultural Policy Analysis Center does not mince words when describing the current resident of the White House.
“The president isn’t friendly toward anything but Donald Trump. If it doesn’t benefit Donald Trump, he doesn’t (care),” Schaffer said. “He will favor stuff if it makes people love him. He’ll tell people whatever they want to hear, because he doesn’t have any principles.”
Schaffer has provided consulting work on ag policy for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.. So it is not surprising that he does not hold Trump in high regard. But he acknowledges the Republican Party has long had a grip on farmers.
“I don’t expect them to vote anything but Republican,” he said. “Free Soilers and those in rural areas wanted free land and free labor as opposed to slave labor. That was the Republican Party platform. Except for the Depression, most farmers haven’t left that.
“The only time we saw a shift is when the Republicans refused to do anything after the first World War and rural areas went to the Democratic Party and stayed with it through Truman. From Eisenhower on, they’ve been back in the Republican fold.”
Adam Nielsen, a lobbyist with Illinois Farm Bureau who focuses on national issues, does not officially promote one party over the other. But he has experienced a deep division in agriculture as well as everywhere else.
“I’d say that the temperature is hot all around,” Nielsen said. “Farmers are like anybody else. This is an unusual time. It seems like we’ve been in this for a while.”
Robertson knows other farmers with liberal views that clash with his. He believes the political discourse has become just plain coarse.
“Everything right now is Trump’s fault,” he said. “If it rains it’s Trump’s fault, if it didn’t rain it’s Trump’s fault. Anymore, you can’t have a discussion about anything political. It’s always an argument.”
Schaffer said he believes most political discussion regarding agriculture involves commodity prices and policies created to address the issue.
“Ninety percent of the discussion is on commodities. Rural electric, broadband and all that doesn’t garner the same attention as the programs affecting corn, beans, cotton and wheat,” he said.
Schaffer and other liberals favor government price support policies over income support policies.
“The problem with income support is that the support that they provide farmers is inadequate,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing the rising number of bankruptcies in rural areas. The payments that are counter-cyclical, when the price is below the cost of production, it means that they’re losing money, even with the payments. We see rising numbers of bankruptcies. From our policy shop’s point of view, the only thing that makes sense is price-support policies, and that involves a degree of farm management.”
Not all is lost. Nielsen points out the farm bill generally gets heavy bipartisan support, usually garnering more than 300 votes in the House of Representatives. He points out that his role with Farm Bureau is to court those holding all manner of political views.
“My philosophy is the more friends you have, the better. So we work with everybody,” Nielsen said. “Our policy book is red, blue and green.”