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

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.

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.

Going It Alone

Shelly Allen, the director of the association, remembers all the emails she suddenly started getting from potato farmers. They asked for her support, and they reminded her that some schools were getting potatoes for free, that it was a patriotic duty to support local farmers, and that school lunches were funded in part with the taxes paid by the potato farmers.

She says that she would have preferred to see children eating fewer potatoes, but she supported her state, even though her group's national umbrella organization, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), warned her against going it alone in support of French fries. The SNA had already decided that it was taking a neutral position on the issue, and it hoped that Allen would do the same. "I know that it would really be better if children didn't eat as many French fries in school," she says. "But we were also talking about Colorado, our own state, where we're fortunate enough to be able to buy vegetables locally. We want to promote that."

Anyone was allowed to be part of the discussion over the guidelines that Obama wanted to issue. Anyone could submit comments, criticism or support. The Agriculture Department received 133,286 letters. In the end, however, it didn't come down to those letters but, rather, to the voices of a few influential lobbyists who sifted through a large amount of information to come up with just the right slogan, the key selling point.

America's political system is both one of the most transparent and most professional in the world. One of the purposes of Washington's think tanks is to maintain experts within the political spectrum, even if their use is limited outside of policymaking.

The flipside of this highly professionalized democracy, however, is that it is controlled by people who have always been there, are well-connected and, in some cases, may have worked on both sides of an issue or the political aisle.

Lobbying Work Pays Off

After he had assembled his coalition, Senator Udall, in his campaign to rescue French fries, wrote letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Senate Agriculture Committee and his fellow senators. In the letters, he used the arguments he had been fed by Mix and Ehrlich in Colorado. He quoted the Colorado School Nutrition Association, which claimed that it would no longer be able to serve school lunches if potatoes were eliminated from the menu. He quoted his sources in a key speech to the Senate, but he neglected to mention Professor Willett's study.

The United States is one of the richest industrialized nations in the world, with a median household income of $49,445 (€40,416). Despite all income disparities, Americans are spoiled. They use roads, bridges and a public healthcare system, and yet they don't want to pay taxes if they can help it. Government services are taken for granted instead of being seen as an achievement, as they were in 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower had the interstate highway system built. Unlike people in up-and-coming economies, Americans are no longer filled with pride over the things their government provides. Instead, a sense of entitlement has taken hold, and politicians lack the courage to tell their voters that the only way to get what they want is to pay higher taxes.

In the end, costs would be the key argument used to rescue French fries and to continue serving food that fills children with unnecessarily large numbers of calories. If Obama's guidelines went into effect as they are written, costs would go up by 14 cents a meal, a seemingly negligible amount when one considers that the health of future generations is at stake.

But it won't happen. When the politicians in Washington voted on Mark Udall's Senate Amendment 804, it became clear that the senator's work paid off. If the vote on that afternoon had been about common sense, no one would have supported the amendment. But the number of votes in favor of the amendment practically skyrocketed, first clearing the 50-percent hurdle and then reaching a two-thirds majority.

By the time all the votes had been cast, there were 70 yes votes and 30 no votes. It was an overwhelming, historic vote for French fries in a Congress that only recently couldn't agree on anything. Senator Udall, the man who rescued French fries in America's school cafeterias, then thanked his colleagues for their "healthy common sense."

It's About Politics

It's the spring of 2012. Udall's amendment in favor of French fries is now in effect. Obama signed the bill as though the debate over the amendment had never happened. He acted as if the new guidelines were still a success, which is partially true, given that more fruit will be served and the amount of sugar in foods will be reduced in school cafeterias. But he is no longer mentioning the big political fight he lost, the dispute over French fries. He has to be satisfied with what was left of the legislation.

Professor Willett has a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington. He is there to prepare a small group of experts, physicians and nutritionists for the third edition of his book "Nutritional Epidemiology," which is the bible in the industry. It's an important event, and the new edition is so important, in fact, that it justifies an entire event devoted to it at the most important biomedical research agency in the world.

There have been many new findings, says Willett, and the third edition will be much more comprehensive than the second one, although he was unable to fit all the new information into the book. But the structure and the chapters haven't changed, he says. There is one change, however: He's added a chapter, Chapter 16.

"Unfortunately, it was necessary," he says.

Chapter 16 isn't about nutrition. It's about politics.

Read SPIEGEL's introduction to this series on good governance here  and the first installment on Brazil here . Check back for more on China and Denmark in the coming weeks.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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