Report — From the February 2016 issue

The Trouble with Iowa

Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses

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There is no doubt that conservatives would like to win the presidency, but they don’t actually need to. We have a naïve sense that to correct wrongs in our country, we simply need to elect the right president, pass the right laws, and that’s that. Politics in a state such as Iowa, however, teaches us that laws are only the beginning of the process, the opening bell for litigation, lobbying, and defiance. Faced with a federal mandate to regulate hog manure, Branstad simply cut the budget that paid for inspectors. Likewise, he roundly criticized William Stowe, urging Des Moines Water Works to address its issues with collaboration and volunteerism.

“What we see every time we hear ‘collaboration’ is buying time, a defense for the status quo,” Stowe told me. “The status quo will ultimately bankrupt our rivers and seriously jeopardize the public health of our consumers.”

Faced with regulation that will limit the carbon emissions that are killing the planet, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, a fellow who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, urged states to violate the law. The tightly organized, cohesive network that is the American right wing has abrogated the social contract with wholesale, institutionalized civil disobedience. Want to regulate the manner in which farms pump liquid shit? Sure. Can you do it with the twenty-eight inspectors Iowa has to oversee 4,000 hog factories, the pumping on which occurs almost entirely during a few weeks in autumn, and often at night?

The standoff that results from all of this plays out across our continent. Those endeavors that produce food and energy need scale and landscape and are of necessity rural and are of necessity unspeakably destructive. The industries involved must be free to operate on their own terms in the landscape in the nation’s midsection, where the states are red and square. As Stowe says, all they have to do is to protect the status quo. To do that, they don’t need to play to checkmate; stalemate and gridlock are success enough. Iowa’s caucuses, and for that matter the whole presidential ritual, will do nothing to change this.

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’s “Bakken Business” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

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