Right now all eyes are once again on Iowa. While the 2012 Republican candidates are scrambling to make last minute efforts to get ahead in the polls, another movement is in full swing to make sure that the winner of the 2008 caucus and Presidential election – one Barack Obama – has to answer once again to his formerly impassioned supporters.
Four years ago I not only caucused for Obama, but actively recruited family farmers to vote for him during the caucus and general election as well as organizing a conference call at the Obama campaign’s request four days before the first in the nation caucus to try to persuade Iowa farmers and environmentalists to support the junior Illinois Senator. After that, I ran a volunteer get out the vote office during the general election in Clear Lake, Iowa, making hundreds of phone calls and knocking on doors in the summer and fall months. Like millions of enthusiastic activists, I was active and fully supported Barack Obama’s campaign. Sadly, quite a bit of polish has worn off many of his previous campaign promises.
The question now for Iowa Democrats is, will they blindly stand by their man or will they express their dissatisfaction with Obama’s complete failure to follow through on what he promised us during his first tour through the Iowa countryside?
For the past several weeks, Iowa Occupiers have stepped up protests and occupations in front of candidate’s offices, including all Republican candidates, President Obama’s and occupying the Democratic campaign headquarters, but only after Obama’s campaign staff locked and fled their offices. In the face of an adversary, it seems Obama’s team only knows one move – retreat.
Iowa Democrats: An Opportunity to Stand on Principle
The latest examples came before the New Year when President Obama failed to defend America’s fundamental civil liberties only hours before the clock struck midnight by signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which legalizes “indefinite detention” of American citizens without trial or jury (something unimaginable to our Founding Fathers) and has once again opened up the possibility of approving the Keystone Pipeline that will run through prime farmland and most likely contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, which farmers and residents from South Dakota to Texas rely on for water, food and livelihood.
For those dissatisfied with Obama’s past three-year performance – we are legion – the Iowa Democratic caucus rules allow caucus goers to show up to their precinct locations and caucus “Uncommitted”.
Oddly enough, “Uncommitted” has won three previous times in Iowa. Even out placing Jimmy Carter in 1976. Seriously.
I was heartened when I received a call in early December from a fellow state Democratic activist that plans were afoot to register this dissatisfaction with Obama’s performance by participating in Occupy Iowa Caucus.
According to Drew Veysey, a native Iowan who is one of many behind this occupy event:
“Going to the caucuses and voting 'uncommitted' is important because it sends a message to the leaders of both parties that we no longer consent to a political system that privileges the very wealthy over regular people. As regular people, the 99%, we don’t have the funds to buy elections or the individual sway to manipulate politicians. What we do have is our vote, and collectively refusing to vote for the 1% status quo is a way to express our profound disappointment in our current political system.”
For many previous Obama caucus goers, we thought we were getting a candidate who agreed with the motto of the Occupy Iowa Caucus website that “A Better World Is Possible” not simply someone who could give a good speech when things got tough.
Four Years Ago: Iowa, Farmers and History
As we approach the Iowa caucuses, only four years after Obama’s historic and unexpected victory, I find myself, a loyal Democrat, unable to muster the faith to place my vote behind the candidate I once held in high esteem like many progressive Iowans.
Four years ago at this time I was sitting in Obama campaign headquarters in East Des Moines, only blocks from the state's capitol, busy calling Iowa farmers and rural residents to caucus for the one-term Illinois Senator.
At the time, just like today, the winner was still a toss up, with people betting that Edwards, who’d spent nearly four years pounding the back roads of Iowa, would beat Obama and possibly Hillary. While the mainstream press had devoted nearly the entire caucus season promising us that Hillary would be crowned the victor, I’d spent the previous year listening to Iowa farmers and rural activists vent about the state's Democratic party’s complete failure to live up to campaign promises they had made for more than a decade - and they weren’t going to be fooled again.
Most of these promises centered around Iowa politicians' failure to stand up to industrial agriculture’s latest imposition on rural society – the factory farm – which had moved into the state in record numbers during the 1990s and exploded in number since the Iowa legislature repealed county level officials' ability to veto building permits for confinements in their counties.
When Edwards, Hillary and Obama strolled into Iowa in 2007, “local control” had been one of the state’s leading hot-button political issues for more than a dozen years. I myself had been embroiled in the fight for local control for over a year at the time after moving back home to Iowa from Washington, D.C. when a factory farm was proposed a half a mile from my sister’s farm. During the 2006 campaign in Iowa local control had been a white-hot election issue, with Democrats promising reform.
For most Iowa Democrats it was no surprise that John Edwards spent much of his campaign promoting progressive reforms to food, agriculture (one of the state’s leading economic engines and its main source of environmental pollution) and factory farms. He went so far as to drape a hay wagon in signs that read “Hogs for Edwards: Support the Family Farm” during a parade through Des Moines.
After watching Edwards carve out such proactive positions on agriculture, Obama’s campaign jumped on board and came up with a solid list of his own. I followed the Obama proposals closely because I was regularly asked by the Obama staff in Iowa for my advice on the issues and how they would play with certain segments of the family farm and Democratic base.
Pigs, Politics and Presidents
While the mainstream media regularly credits Hillary’s third place finish in Iowa to her stumble in a prior debate, her real drop in the polls was ultimately decided for most progressive Democrats and rural Iowans when she came out with the wrong position on pig shit and factory farms by appointing the former head of the National Pork Producers Council to chair her Rural American’s committee.
This choice and the Des Moines Register’s wide reporting of the event sealed Hillary’s third place finish in the 2008 caucuses.
Into the breach of Edwards' lackluster ground game and Hillary’s sacrificing of the environment for political expediency, stepped the Senator from Illinois.
For a modern presidential candidate, Barack Obama crafted one of the most progressive food and agricultural blueprints of any candidate traipsing through Iowa's much-lauded cornfields. Indeed, Obama's promises to create payment limitations on crop subsidies, implement a packer ban, break up agribusiness monopolies and regulate factory farms were sweet music to many Iowan's ears who had long grown tired of the iron fist rule that agribusiness lobbyists maintained over the state's capital.
The state’s legislature is so pro-industrial agriculture that after two decades of writing every pro-factory farm law in the nation, the Iowa House actually passed a bill to make it illegal to take photos or undercover videos on Iowa’s farms. Sadly, Iowa elected officials fealty to agribusiness lobbyists has only succeeded in pushing more farmers off the land and handing Iowa the distinction of having some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the nation.
While, like many Iowans I was initially skeptical of Obama's inexperience and scant accomplishments, I was taken with his passionate calls for transforming our nation's political system and his promise to stand with America's family farmers over agribusiness.
At the time supporting Obama seemed very much a lark. Obama had a thin resume, but his team had created the best on-the-ground organizing outfit Iowa had ever seen and he and Edwards were widely acknowledged as the only alternative to guaranteed corporate policies that would follow a Clinton return to the White House. For many Iowa farmers putting a Clinton back in the White House meant three things: Tyson, Walmart and Monsanto. Little did we know.
Obama Distinguishes Himself
Two months shy of the 2008 caucus, Obama boldly told a packed room of Iowa farmers and rural activists, "We'll tell ConAgra that it's not the Department of Agribusiness, it's the Department of Agriculture. We're going to put the people's interests ahead of the special interests.” It was at this same event, the 2007 Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit, which I organized, that President Obama also famously promised to label GMO foods if elected. Instead, his administration has only approved new genetically engineered crops like they were new flavors of Chiclets.
In the end, the battle between Obama and Edwards for the heart of Iowa's progressive farmers came down to the wire. And four days before the 2008 caucus I was brought in by the Obama campaign to organize a last minute conference call to convince family farmers, environmentalist and rural residents to caucus for Obama. At that time the battle for the rural vote was heated, with farmers evenly divided among Edwards and Obama. Not a single farmer I spoke with in the previous 12 months had considered caucusing for Hillary, although the wives of a few elected officials did.
On the call, Senator Obama made his case about why he would be a better candidate for Iowa’s farmers and promised to fight for the very issues that progressive Iowa farmers had long cared about, including regulating factory farms and supporting a packer ban, something which he pointed out twice during the conference call to Iowa’s farmers - many still undecided - that his opponent John Edwards had failed to do during his time in the Senate.
Obama's Promises to Keep
Sadly, for America’s farmers (and everyone who eats), Obama has proven less tough in the White House than he did on the conference call to Iowa famers four years ago. Just like Edwards, Obama recently caved in the face of pressure from the big meat packers, issuing final fair market livestock rules, known as GISPA that noticeably left the packer ban on ownership and sale of livestock on the cutting room floor. The loss on GIPSA and the packer ban, even after Secretary Vilsack’s USDA wrote very strong rules, came at the hands of a panicked White House political team in the face of agribusiness pressure.
For farmers and ranchers that voted for Obama in 2008, this failure could be one betrayal too many. Since a good majority of farmers live in Red states or the Red portions of Blue states, there’s no longer any incentive to stand up for a President who won’t follow through on his word. Right now, while many commodity farmers are doing good in the current market, they are increasingly realizing that they are at the short end of a long rope that ultimately leads to their liquidation from land ownership. All they have to do is look around the countryside when they drive down the road and see the abandoned farmhouses where their neighbors used to live. And like the last man standing in the middle of the battlefield, they’re starting to realize that it was the politicians that did them in.
Certainly there are other reasons, a long list even, that will caucus “Uncommitted” at the 2012 Iowa Democratic caucus, but the chief reason is that I, like many Americans, have found myself the loyal member of a party whose loyalty is not reciprocated.
While the Wall Street bankers that destroyed our economy got massive government bailouts with no strings attached in 2009, neither Congress nor the Obama administration would lift a finger for family dairy farmers when they faced the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. At the same time Obama rubberstamped meaningless reforms for Wall Street’s misdeeds, his administration was conducting what has essentially turned out to be a series of empty show trials with the Department of Justice and USDA antitrust investigations that have not resulted in any serious actions against the largest agribusiness abusers.
For the love of farmers and the future of our nation, I cannot caucus again for a candidate who says one thing on the campaign trail, but locks himself up with agribusiness lobbyists once he’s received our vote. Sure, some may consider a protest vote politically naïve, which is fine, but in a democracy politicians should be rewarded for how hard they actually fight for you and not for the lip service they pay to the ideas they know you want to hear.
In many ways, Iowa Democrats and family farmers have been on the front line of industrial consolidation of agriculture for more than three decades and Obama’s promises to end that was a major factor as to why he did so well over Hillary Clinton. At this time, Obama has not earned my vote and it is the morally right thing to do to vote “Uncommitted” in the 2012 Iowa caucus to register the growing dissatisfaction with President Obama’s dismal performance and the direction of our nation.
The sad thing is it’s not just food and agriculture that Obama has failed on, it’s the environment, labor, reforming Wall Street, standing up for our civil liberties and economic fairness – all cornerstones of our modern democracy. The question is if President Obama won’t lead on these issues, who will?
At the moment, the only people that have really taken the bull by the horns are the people at Occupy Wall Street and similar camps across the country. And this movement didn’t spring from nowhere; it arose out of the absolute failure of Barack Obama and fellow Democrats to adequately mount a proper defense of our nation’s democratic and economic rights.
Again, it’s not what Obama says; it’s what he fails to do.
The real question is: If not now, when? Tonight is the night that Iowa Democrats need to stand up for the rest of America. In other states, there is no such opportunity to register a protest vote against the current direction of our nation.
At the moment, I, like millions of Americans across the country, wait urgently for a leader who will stand up for the American people - not just in stump speeches, but in action and deed. Right now our Constitution is in tatters, our democratic rights and our environment under daily assault and our nation’s family farmers are more vulnerable and less protected today than when President Obama first took office.
For these reasons and dozens more, I will stand with Occupy Iowa Caucus tonight and vote “Uncommitted” in front of my fellow Iowans. If any politician wants our votes, it should be widely known that a growing number of us are greatly dissatisfied with the current system and we look to leaders who are ready to lead in difficult times and not make excuses when the opposition bites back. If there’s one thing about rural Americans, they can spot someone who is really fighting for them and someone who is just going through the motions.
Caucusing “Uncommitted” where Obama originally launched his presidency, may be the only way to get the White House to wake up from their slumber and actually stand up for the American people instead of continuing to stumble down the hollow path of false promises. The only thing we have to lose is our democracy.
Follow Dave Murphy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/food_democracy