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Elizabeth Warren brings class warfare back to the prairie

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waves as she arrives at Belkin Family Lookout Farm before a town hall event, Sunday, July 8, 2018, in Natick, Mass. Warren is hosting the town hall and cookout following an Independence Day trip to visit U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
AP Photo/Steven Senne
Warren arrives at a farm in Massachusetts ahead of a town hall in 2018.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign lacked a compelling message for rural communities. Elizabeth Warren won’t make the same mistake.

The Massachusetts senator took her presidential effort on the road to Iowa, unveiling a new package of policies designed to appeal to farm communities—and pit them against multinational corporations who buy their products and supply them with seed, farm machines, and pesticides.

The ideas tie into Warren’s broader message that the Democratic party is on the side of working people who see the economy as something of a rigged game. And whether it’s the consolidation of chicken processors driving down the price farmers receive, or intellectual property rules that prevent farmers from fixing their own tractors, she’s got a real case to make.

The American midwest, today a sea of conservative elected officials, wasn’t always this way.  Left-wing populism mattered from the late 19th century, when William Jennings Bryan crusaded against eastern financiers on behalf of humble farmers, into the late nineties and early 2000s, when “prairie populist” senators like South Dakota’s Tom Daschle and Iowa’s Tom Harkin were Democratic stalwarts.

Over time, the midwest’s political animus has changed. In the words of long-serving Iowa Republican senator Chuck Grassley, “in the 1890s it may have been people expecting the government to take on the economic kingpin… now I would describe prairie populism [as] people who have distrust of government.”

Democrats think the national mood is trending back in an 1890s direction, making frequent comparisons between today’s politics and that of the American Gilded Age on issues ranging from corporate concentration and economic inequality to corruption and control of public goods.

“Like Bryan, I will fight for farmers —’for this broader class of businessman,'” Warren wrote Wednesday (Mar. 27) in a Medium post. “I want Washington to work for family farmers again, not just for the agribusiness executives pocketing multi-million dollar bonuses or the Wall Street traders sitting at their desks speculating on the price of commodities.”

Warren’s plans include breaking up the $66 billion combination of Monsanto and Bayer, a deal concluded last year that united the world’s two largest manufacturers of seeds, pesticides and herbicides. She also wants farmers to have more flexibility to opt-out of government-industry marketing partnerships, like those that produce the “Got Milk?” campaign, and a national “right to repair” law that will let them fix their own machines rather than having to rely on suppliers or their authorized service centers.

All this adds heft to Warren’s campaigning in Iowa, a key state for the Democratic primary process, especially coming from a woman born and raised in Oklahoma. But though 90% of Iowa is farmland, only about half is owned by individuals, and 60% of Iowa farm-owners don’t actually farm their land.

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