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


Part 2: Enemies of Ordinary People

Since the eruption of the financial crisis, paranoia has taken hold in American politics. Americans' faith in institutions has been shaken. The government has become the adversary of the citizens, and the elites the enemies of ordinary people. Rallying cries characterize both left-wing and right-wing protest movements, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. Those who do not shout these slogans, at least in part, find it difficult to be heard at all.

Politicians, such as former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, exploit the divisions. They invoke the US Constitution and America's long-outdated clichés, such as the values of small-town life and the days when a handshake was still considered a word of honor.

The world has become more complicated and complex, but the political debate in America has become more simplistic -- wilfully ignorant of climate change, inattentive to the new requirements of an immigrant society, wary of science and even unknowledgeable about the insights of food science.

Change versus idyll: That's the new dichotomy of the political discourse, which consists of only two incompatible categories: American and un-American. When Michelle Obama recommended that Americans eat more vegetables and fewer sweets, and perhaps occasionally skip dessert, Sarah Palin acted as if the First Lady had declared war on freedom. Now Michelle Obama was trying to deprive Americans of their desserts, Palin claimed, and her fellow citizens in many parts of the country agreed.

Twenty Potatoes a Day

And, now, is Obama trying to deprive Americans of their French fries?

"We've been eating potatoes for 200 years," says Roger Mix, a potato farmer from Alamosa, the most important potato-farming region in Udall's home state of Colorado, "and now, suddenly, there's supposed to be something wrong with them?" When asked whether he is he familiar with the studies by Professor Willett, of Harvard University, Mix responds with a wave of his hand: "Have you heard of Chris Voigt? Have you seen him on TV?"

Last year, Chris Voigt, the head of the Washington State Potato Commission, made himself the subject of his own experiment, in which he ate 20 potatoes a day for two months. On his website, he claims to have lost 21 pounds in the process. "He did more to educate people than that professor," says Mix. "The professor has been on an anti-potato campaign for years."

Mix is an influential fourth-generation potato farmer. He was president of the National Potato Council in Washington in 2010, the highest honorary office in the industry. His farm is in the San Luis Valley, a 20,000 square-kilometer (7,700-square mile) desert with elevations of up to 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level. Winter lasts more than half a year there. Sometimes, temperatures drop below freezing as late as July 4.

Potatoes are almost the only thing farmers can grow there because the potato is about the only plant with a sufficiently short growing season. Potato farmers control the valley, and they are the only ones who still have money in the economic crisis. Politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who hope to win elections here know not to tangle with potato farmers.

Pricey Politics

Politics has become more expensive. These days, a politician needs more and more money to be heard at all. A presidential candidate now has to raise more than $1 billion, a successful Senate campaign costs about $8.5 million, and even a seat in the House of Representatives can't be had for less than $1.4 million anymore. It's no accident that almost all presidential candidates today are millionaires.

Senators have large staffs compared with members of the House of the Representatives, who are restricted by law to employing no more than 18 full-time staff members. A senator can have as many employees as he or she pleases; the average senator's staff size is 34. Staff members can study individual issues and prepare them for their senator. Nevertheless, a senator's staff still isn't large enough to handle the growing flood of information. If a member of Congress hopes to be successful, he or she must rely on the quick help and detailed information supplied by interest groups. Experts euphemistically call this "lobbying as legislative subsidy."

Simon Tafoya, a member of Udall's staff, deals with agricultural issues, as well as trade, immigration and minority affairs. The potato farmers of the San Luis Valley remember that they invited him to pay them a visit in 2008. They showed him the valley and the farms, and they took him out to eat at a Mexican restaurant on Main Street in Alamosa -- an establishment that Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, says he frequents because no one has complained about the quality of its food yet.

Tafoya was grateful for the information that the Coloradans emailed him, and he was pleased about the arguments in favor of the potato, such as its potassium and protein content, which, in their assessment, makes it a good vegetable. They examined the studies, and they conducted surveys that underscored their demand that the quantity of potatoes served per week should not be reduced. They condensed the flood of information into a few catchy statements, which, of course, favored their position.

When Tafoya answered their emails, they knew that things weren't going so badly, says Mix, the potato farmer. Not surprisingly, they felt good about their prospects when they left for Washington last March. The delegation consisted of Potato Committee Director Ehrlich, Mix and 12 other potato farmers from the San Luis Valley.

Invading Washington

They flew from Denver to Washington, where they checked into the Madison Hotel downtown. For some, it was their first trip to the capital and, after visiting a few museums, they went to see the Department of Agriculture, their congressman and, finally, Senator Udall. Tafoya had made the appointment for them, and if there was anything that surprised them, it was the amount of influence staffers like him have.

They already knew that they could count on Tafoya's support, and the senator was basically on their side, as well. Udall's only concern was that the influence of the potato lobby would be too obvious, which meant that he had to find someone outside their circle who opposed Obama's guidelines, someone without economic interests.

It isn't clear who came up with the idea but, as the potato farmers recall, at some point Tafoya asked whether the representatives of school cafeterias supported the proposal. It was the key idea: Potatoes are cheap and versatile and, in some regions, schools get them for free. Wouldn't that be a way to convince the schools? To calculate for them what it would cost to do without inexpensive potato dishes, as Obama wants to require them to do? School cafeterias, like concerned mothers or well-meaning volunteers, make for good PR.

Previously, the farmers had had nothing to do with school cafeterias, but as soon as the delegation returned home from Washington, Potato Committee lobbyist Ehrlich contacted the Colorado School Nutrition Association to propose joining forces to fight the proposed guidelines. He drove to Denver to meet with a few of the association's board members. After 45 minutes, they had agreed that they would work together.


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