From Populists to Politicos

Brian sits down with political scientist Adam Sheingate, to discuss how the struggling American farmer turned into the farm lobby—one of the most powerful interest groups in American politics.

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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**

PETER: For the rest of the hour today, we’re focusing on that idyllic image that railroad companies capitalized on in the 19th century– the image of the independent, self-sufficient yeoman farmer. And we’re considering the ways subsequent generations have continued to capitalize on it.

ED: Consider the current Farm Bill, for example. The most recent version of that legislation awarded more than $5 billion in direct subsidies to farmers each year. Now, the Farm Bill is set to expire this week, and its future is very uncertain. Fortunately, history, not the future, is our beat, and so we got to wondering how those subsidies got started in the first place.

PETER: The most basic answer is that they started with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, created in the midst of the Great Depression. But farmers by then had been lobbying for political reform going all the way back to the populists in the 1890s. That third-party movement was defeated by voters in 1896, and two and a half decades later, when conditions for farmers had hit rock bottom, they came up with a new strategy.

ADAM SHEINGATE: What happened in the 1920s is the representation of farmers as an interest group came to Washington.

BRIAN: This is Adam Sheingate, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. Adam says that the powerful farm lobby we know today has its origins in the American Farm Bureau Federation.

ADAM SHEINGATE: So the Farm Bureau begins in 1919, and it’s really an outgrowth of the efforts by the federal government itself to promote the development of agriculture and increases in productivity by sending out folks called county agents through something called the Extension Service. The county agents really became an important force by helping organize farmers into County Farm Bureaus, and then those farm bureaus came together into State Farm Bureaus. And in 1919, the federation of states made the American Farm Bureau Federation. And they decided that they should employ a guy named Gray Silver to–

BRIAN: Oh, you’re making that name up.

ADAM SHEINGATE: To go to Washington and to represent their interests. In fact, there were other groups like the Grange that also employed Washington representatives at that time, and I think it’s a recognition by farmers, given their history of efforts to shape policy through electoral politics and the failures of those strategies in the late 19th century, to take their case to Washington, not as a partisan force, but as an economic or occupational interest that would potentially cross party lines and speak directly to members of Congress, senators who represented farmers, who came from the rural parts of the United States. And speak more directly to their constituency interests rather than their partisan identities.

BRIAN: Adam, something isn’t adding up here. You’ve convinced me that this is an innovative lobby that comes to Washington, but unless I missed something, there wasn’t any major farm legislation passed in the 1920s.

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, they tried. They were successful in getting Congress to pass legislation that would have required the government to step in and purchase commodities to lift prices, but that bill, which was called the McNary-Haugen Act, named after its sponsors, was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge twice, in fact.

BRIAN: So in other words, the farmers were successful in capturing Congress. They just forgot one important office.

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. That’s right, and they couldn’t get the bill signed. And then by the end of the 1920s, the Farm Bureau sees a massive decline in their membership in the latter part of the 1920s.

BRIAN: Is that because people can’t afford to pay the dues?

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. They can’t afford to pay the dues. They may leaving farming. You think about the Dust Bowl in the ’30s. And so the leadership of the Farm Bureau at the time is thinking about two problems, really. One is the problem of how to help agriculture. The other is the problem of how to maintain and build an organization of farmers. And with the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, they come upon a solution to both. One is a government policy which will control production and lift prices but also will be administered through those same county agents, and in fact, through the farm bureaus in those localities, so that joining the Farm Bureau becomes closely linked to receiving a government check.

BRIAN: Ah, there’s an incentive for joining.

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. And through the 1930s, their membership takes off and they become the largest farm organization in the country.

BRIAN: Were there other factors in the ’30s that made farmers particularly effective? I’m going to throw out one possibility. When everyone is hurting, when everybody all of a sudden is feeling pain, perhaps it’s a little easier to get the same proposals through. Was that a factor?

ADAM SHEINGATE: I think that we have to remember that farming was a much larger part of the economy than it is today. So in terms of economic recovery, it would make sense that farming and agriculture would have to be a big part of the puzzle or a big part of the solution to the Depression.

BRIAN: So we’re not doing something special for the farmers. This is what we need to get the economy moving again.

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, I would say it was part of the larger fabric of weaving a welfare state in the 1930s, that we just happen to have a sector-specific form of a welfare state.

BRIAN: But of course, there were plenty of groups that were not successful. What made farmers particularly effective in the 1930s?

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, I think we have to remember geographic representation. We have a lot of members of Congress, members of the Senate, who represent rural areas. And for those members of Congress and senators, the farm lobby becomes a very important and reliable source of information about what’s happening back home in their districts.

And that’s, I think, an important basis for the influence of the farm vote– creating that link between an interest group and elected representatives. And perhaps it’s easier to do that with agriculture, because for those rural areas, that’s very clearly the most important concern that most people have. Perhaps in other parts of the country, there’s a number of issues. There’s business. There’s labor. There’s maybe ethnic issues– immigration. Perhaps there’s more of a single-issue focus at the time in these rural areas that allows that linkage to become stronger.

BRIAN: So is this the 20th century variant of farmers being good citizens? What they’re adding now to the traditional notion of that independent incorruptible farmer as a source of information for DC? They’re kind of the first public opinion polls, in many ways.

ADAM SHEINGATE: I guess so, yeah. That they figure out a way to communicate. But I think your question is also getting at this interesting aspect of farming that on the one hand, is about the individual yeoman, but is also about claiming a certain exceptionalism for farming– that it’s different from other occupations. It’s subject to different challenges, let’s say, of the weather or other factors beyond farmers’ control. That it performs an important function in the larger economy– we all have to eat. That farmers are obviously are part of this fabric of democracy going back to Jefferson. All of those political, economic, cultural claims, I think, combine to make the claims of farmers particularly forceful in American politics.

BRIAN: Adam Sheingate is a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. He’s the author of The Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State– Institutions and Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan.

ED: It’s time for a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we made some unlikely advocates for Philippine liberation– Michigan beet farmers.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.