Are Iowa Farmers Better Than the Rest of Us?

With the midterm elections just over seven months away, it's kind of remarkable that we've gotten this far without being sucked down into the land of endless ridiculousness that is the Republic of Gaffes, where no expression of outrage is too insincere to be dismissed and no faux controversy is too silly not to occupy the press' attention for a few days. Do I speak of the horror of Mitch McConnell and the microsecond of Duke, in which a montage of all-American stock footage in an ad showed, to the particularly eagle-eyed, a flash of the hated Blue Devils? Or the betrayal of his opponent's NCAA bracket, which had Wichita State beating Kentucky? Indeed—obviously, neither of these two care at all for their home state or are fit to lead. But they stand a much better chance of moving past their controversies than Iowa Representative Bruce Braley, who, we now know, hates farmers.

Braley, you see, got taped at a fundraiser with a bunch of lawyers, telling them that if Republicans took over the Senate, we'll "have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee." That would be Iowa's own Chuck Grassley. As it happens, there have always been a few people on the Judiciary Committee without law degrees, and though there are lots of reasons you wouldn't want Grassley to have any measure of real power, the lack of an "Esq." after his name is pretty far down the list.

But it's the implication that Grassley's agricultural past marks him as something lesser is what has the outrage machine spinning. Obviously, Braley was just pandering to his audience; I'm sure that, like members of any profession, lawyers don't think anyone who isn't one of them can understand their arena, much less wield authority over it, and Braley was telling them the kind of thing he thought they'd want to hear.

The savvy politico will bring all his experience and insight to bear to tell you, don't mess with farmers if you're in Iowa! Because so many of the state's residents are farmers, right? Well actually, they aren't, as our old colleague Patrick Caldwell explains:

Agriculture certainly plays a larger role in Iowa than many parts of the United States. But less than 5 percent of the state population actually farms, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. The insurance industry accounted for a little shy of 3 percent of the state's jobs in 2007, yet one never hears about the need for Iowa politicians to bow down to the cultural importance of insurance agents. Contra the standard trope of the state as mostly rural, a majority of Iowans (64 percent) live in urban areas. The Des Moines metro region alone contains nearly 600,000 people, about 20 percent of the state's entire population. Iowa's a microcosm of the country, which is largely suburban and urban place but romanticizes its agrarian roots.

Ah, but it isn't about numbers (and on the national level, fewer than 1 percent of us are farmers). It's about virtue. Farmers are the salt of the earth, the heartland heart of the nation, the most American of Americans. If you're going to talk about them at all, it must only be to sing their praises.

But you know what farmers really are? Just people, not necessarily any better or worse than anyone else. They don't, as a group, deserve to be insulted, but there's also nothing in their profession that necessarily makes them particularly wise when it comes to things like making laws. They'll tell you that their work is unusually vital ("No Farms, No Food" as the bumper sticker has it), and it's true that what they do is very important. But so is the work that a lot of people do, even some people who don't live in the heartland or work with their hands.

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