Whether it was President Obama’s State of the Union speech, or arguments being made by Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and New Gingrich, the pundits are all noting the slant toward more populist messages. In this regard, the cattle industry is way ahead of the game.
It’s not surprising that the populist appeals were being offered earlier in agriculture; after all, the industry was under economic siege during what was a boom time for the overall economy. Meanwhile, certain segments of agriculture enjoyed historically profitable times due to government intervention in the marketplace – think ethanol here.
Look up the dictionary definition of populism and it’s essentially described as a philosophy that champions ordinary people over the privileged elite. That explains why populist appeals tend to resonate much more strongly in times of economic turmoil. Today, however, populism has also become a pure political ploy – a way to advance an agenda, regardless of the facts, by constructing an enemy or evil that is supposed to be so insidious that anything can be tainted by it. Of course, Wall Street and packers have always been ripe targets of villainy.
Populism is a powerful message. After all, we’ve all seen the injustices of excessive power, and we all are susceptible to the lure of an argument that tells us that any lack of success is not our fault. In the past, politicians and leaders tended to reject populist arguments, relying instead on facts and data to identify and address true problems. But, today, populist arguments are formed to manipulate the masses.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, may not have worked as planned but it was largely created and spurred by those hoping to build the platform for populist messages. What’s interesting is that populism has been co-opted by the very elite it was meant to restrain, or by extremists whose agenda would never be accepted if not cloaked in the protective wrapping of populism. It’s become a way to advance ideas without having to look at those ideas in a critical way.
In our industry, populism has also been so refined or distorted that it, in many ways, reflects a paradigm of how we look at the industry. Are we merely cow-calf producers or beef producers? If we’re merely cow-calf producers, then we can ignore the competitive pressures and economic realities of our competitors and the marketplace.
If foreign countries, multinational packers, corporate feedyards, and even purveyors of our products such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, can be held up as our enemies and the causes of our problems, then we aren’t constrained by the demands of the marketplace. Sadly, though, it’s this narrow definition of our industry that constrains us in so many ways.
It’s like the railroad industry, which instead of seeing itself as part of the overall transportation business, only thought of itself as being in the business of transporting things on railcars. The result is it failed to adapt to the challenges of the marketplace.
Populism, as it is now being used, forces us to make decisions without having to deal with the facts.