The End of Reason: What Potatoes Say about the State of US Democracy

By Marc Hujer

The debate in the US Congress last winter over whether potatoes should be curbed in school lunches is emblematic of the modern-day crisis in US governance. Lobbyists and other powerful interest groups dominate the tenor of the debate. Unsurprisingly, most Americans have lost confidence in their leaders.

Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just -- in other words, prime examples of "good governance." But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil. Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice? This is part II in a four-part series looking at how the world is governed today. For part I on Brazil, click here. Check back for more on China and Denmark in the coming weeks.


He has climbed the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, he is in excellent physical condition, and he could easily serve as the face of a marketing campaign to promote healthy living. In his 14th year in the US Congress, Colorado Senator Mark Udall is standing in front of his seat in the Senate, in the second-to-last row on the Democratic side of the aisle, talking about pizza and French fries. "Let's be honest," says Udall. "Anything can be fried or drowned in any number of fats."

It's the core of his argument against the new guidelines that President Barack Obama wants to see enacted for school cafeterias. Obama had tried to separate healthy from unhealthy food in school cafeterias and have more vegetables served to students instead of just pizza and French fries. But Udall has gained the support of seven other senators in his bid to block Obama's guidelines. Instead, he has drafted Senate Amendment 804 to the 2012 spending bill for the Agriculture Department.

Every French fry and every Tater Tot, the 61-year-old politician argues, was once a potato, which makes it a vegetable, just like broccoli, green beans, spinach or carrots. Banning French fries, he says, is basically discriminating against potatoes just because they're sometimes dipped in oil. At issue, says Udall, is the equal treatment of vegetables, and the fact that even a potato has vitamins, as does pizza -- because of the tomato sauce.

On this October afternoon in the US Senate, politicians are seriously addressing the question of whether a distinction should be drawn between French fries and vegetables, and whether French fries and pizza don't also qualify as vegetables. Former President Ronald Reagan, pandering to the food industry, once tried to declare ketchup a vegetable. But Reagan's effort failed in Congress. That was 1981 -- a different time.

American democracy has always been proud of its balance of powers, the checks and balances of a complex political system that once served as a model for the balancing of political interests and a modicum of reason. It was a system that prevented fanaticism and kept the most feeble-minded efforts in check. And now this? Down with discrimination against the potato?

Powerless Politics

The current Congress, the 112th in US history, is the most unproductive since the end of World War II. It enacted only 80 laws in 2011, fewer than any Congress has done since 1947, despite the great need for reform and the ongoing budget crisis. The US Congress has failed to achieve a united position on the war in Libya, climate change, immigration, tax policy, reforming the country's social welfare systems and other important issues of the day. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed.

Politics has become powerless, or at least it seems that way in America. It no longer controls the country's fate, as it once did. Monetary, fiscal and even economic policy are fizzling out in a globalized world. Even Obama's $787 billion (€641 billion) economic stimulus package fell short of its desired effect.

Nowadays, Congress exemplifies the crisis in American democracy, the failure of checks and balances, an out-of-control culture of debate, reform gridlock, the increasing polarization of the parties and the loss of credibility of political institutions.

About 80 percent of Americans no longer have confidence in Congress. Its failure raises the question of whether the United States, the world's oldest democracy, has reached its limits -- and whether it can even be governed anymore when there is no longer any agreement or consensus.

Sacred Potatoes

The story of Senate Amendment 804 is a lesson on the state of American democracy. It shows why the reform debate has lost its direction, why the short-term profits of potato farmers are more important than the long-term goal of public health, and why politics is shaped more by special interests than by the well-being of society. It is a story of representatives of the people giving into the pressure of lobbying groups.

"The potato is a religious commodity in America," says Dr. Walter Willett. As professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, he has studied the consequences of poor eating habits and written the definitive work on the subject.

In a 1992 study on women's health, Dr. Willett found that excessive consumption of potatoes could lead to diabetes. It was only a suspicion at the time, but the more Dr. Willett studied the issue, the more convinced he became. "The venerable baked potato increases levels of blood sugar and insulin more quickly and to higher levels than an equal amount of calories from pure table sugar," he says. That makes people hungry, says Dr. Willett. This wasn't a problem in the past, when people were not as sedentary, he says. But, today, it leads to obesity and illnesses , such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

The average American consumes 53 kilograms (117 lbs) of potatoes a year. There is hardly an American meal that makes do without Tater Tots, mashed potatoes or French fries. Children are especially prone to overdoing it; they consume 30 percent more starchy vegetables, such a corn and potatoes, than adults. Eating too many potatoes, as Willett demonstrated, is one cause of obesity.

'A National Disgrace'

The government subsidizes this poor nutrition. It distributes food stamps for poor people that are often used to buy pizza and French fries. It pays for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). And, this year, it will spend $10.8 billion on the School Lunch Program, which provides children from low-income families a free daily school lunch.

The School Lunch Program was at issue when Udall became involved. The program has a particularly miserable reputation, given that high-starch dishes, such as pizza and French fries, make up such a large share of the food served. It is the most important of all programs because the food that children are served at school five days a week strongly shapes the new generation's eating habits.

Hardly a day goes by in an American school when a dish containing potatoes isn't on the menu. A quarter of all schools get their food directly from fast-food chains, such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut, but even the food prepared in schools is out of step with contemporary ideas about nutrition.

When the School Lunch Program was launched, in 1946, many children were still undernourished. They needed calories, not diets. Potatoes were cheap and nutritious, and they were filling, as their advocates still argue today. But, now, even military generals are sounding the alarm, warning that many children nowadays are too fat to be able to defend the country when they grow up. Nutrition experts call it a "national disgrace" that so little has changed in school cafeterias. Skim milk has replaced whole milk and the size of soft drink containers has been reduced, but no one has tackled the quantity of potato-based dishes.

On Jan. 13, 2011, the Food and Nutrition Service at the Department of Agriculture issued new guidelines for the School Lunch Program. This happened at about the same time that Dr. Willett published a new study that declared that high-starch foods, along with sweets and soft drinks, were the biggest causes of poor nutrition.

The new guidelines were based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, which in turn cited the results of Dr. Willett's research. They recommended that school cafeterias serve only a cup, or about 235 millilitres, of starchy food a week. This would have meant that either one serving of pizza or one serving of fries could be on the menu only once a week, and that items such as Tater Tots, potato pancakes and potato chips would have to be eliminated altogether. It would have been a necessary contribution to public health, a real intervention in the America way of life, but its opponents already began organizing on that January day.

Symbol of America

French fries are as much a part of American life as big cars and shopping malls and office buildings kept at refrigerator-like temperatures in the summer. The potato, Larry Zuckerman notes in his book "Potato," is the food of the masses, America's "democratic table," celebrated by John Adams, who would later become the second US president, when he wrote to his wife Abigail in 1774: "Let us eat potatoes and drink water."

Even then, the potato stood for the revolt against the European aristocracy, with its elaborate dishes and table manners. America wanted to distance itself from the motherland, England, where King George III refused to even touch potatoes during the bread crisis of 1795. The potato is a symbol of good ol' America.

Clinging to this good old America has become a reflex in a country whose citizens now fear that they could lose everything: their homes, their jobs and their status as a superpower. During the last few decades, it has been a country in which the rich have become richer and the poor poorer, and in which the middle class seems to be disappearing and, with it, the sense that everyone shares in rising prosperity.

America's democracy worked well as long as there was sufficient growth. The social welfare state -- which has significantly expanded since World War II, both in America and elsewhere -- had enough money. Compromises were possible because there was enough for everyone. But does democracy still work when that is no longer the case? America was always a land of extremes, but these extremes are increasingly irreconcilable, even in politics.

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