Historically, agriculture doesn’t play a big role in election politics. The obvious reason is that we lack two very important factors to be a significant player – money and votes. But, perhaps more importantly, agriculture’s issues have tended not to be overtly partisan.
Agriculture has had great supporters wearing both a “D” or an “R “behind their name. Sadly, things have changed in the Washington Beltway over time, and within the industry as well. The farming community has always been somewhat divided along ideological lines, with the Farm Bureau and the Farmer’s Union tending to line up on different ends of the spectrum.
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And the cattle industry used to have its debates internally and speak with one voice in public. But a couple of issues caused some irreconcilable differences and now we have the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and R-CALF formed up against each other along ideological lines. The differences, however, truly are not that significant. While the groups involved would be loath to admit it, they agree on probably 95% of the issues, and probably even higher on issues truly important to the bottom lines of producers in the long term.
It should be simple to support those who support agriculture and keep absolutely everyone in the camp regardless of political affiliation; after all, agricultural interests are always going to be severely outnumbered. The problem is that while we don’t necessarily divide along party lines, the level of partisanship in Washington and even at the state level has become so deeply entrenched that it dominates everything that occurs in D.C. And we are dealing with far more issues and regulatory oversight than those that are controlled by USDA.
There is very little compromise or statesmanship anymore. The party in control controls the agenda and the minority party is essentially irrelevant, except to obstruct or position itself for the next election. This means that policy is no longer set by individual representatives and senators as much as by political parties.
The good news is that neither political party has strong views on agricultural issues; that serves to keep agriculture somewhat out of partisan squabbles. But there is no more moderation in today’s political arena; it’s just extremes and party politics that tend to be dictated by the relative power of large special interest groups, whether they be environmental, animal welfare, food safety or nutrition.
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So, in essence, agriculture is being forced to abandon its non-partisan and long-standing positions, to adapt to the reality of a deeply divided partisan world. It’s sad, but policy and even regulatory environments are now described most accurately by which party is in the majority, instead of what is best for agriculture.
How one exerts influence or control in this environment becomes less about finding good solutions with a broad consensus, and more about who can deliver more partisan political victories since it’s the majority that dictates the agenda. That means you’re either effectively eliminated from the process half the time, or you have very little influence all the time.
The result is that agricultural interests will likely have to align themselves with larger interests in order to be part of a viable coalition. Either that or continue to see our influence erode. I doubt this is what our founding fathers envisioned from the two-party system.