The pundits say the secret of the U.S. election - some secret - is that a burning bush of otherworldly evangelical religion and bigotry triumphed over rest-of-the-worldly cosmopolitanism and yuppiness. Though my editor will pull her hair out to see my food obsession go to these lengths, I will try to show that the real secret - as in hidden in plain sight, like the food in the refrigerator many men can never see - of the U.S. election is that bread-and-butter matters, specifically agricultural, defined the key divisions.
God, gays, guns and grizzlies, said to be the issues that brought out the vote for President Bush in the hinterland, coalesced because of underlying habits of the North American food system. Lest anyone think such trends are exclusive to the U.S., the same habits may well account for the Conservative voting strength that's mostly limited to dispossessed rural areas of Ontario and western Canada.
I don't want to challenge the greatest of all U.S. pundits, H. L. Mencken, who predicted some 75 years ago that because the U.S. president is elected to express the inner soul of the people, "on some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
However, we need to understand that voters in the U.S. Southern Bible Belt and Midwest heartland have had their faith in the godliness of the White House deepened by seeing "In God We Trust" engraved on $90 billion worth of Bush Republican farm subsidies flowing through their areas, paid for by the taxes of the heathens who inhabit the Democratic strongholds along the East and West Coasts.
The defining political role of food systems is as American as apple pie. The budget for the U.S. department of agriculture is second only to the military's, and the role of the agri-military complex has always been more important to U.S. foreign policy than the stereotyped "military-industrial complex." Take a refresher course in American history and check out the aggressive and expansionist agricultural drive behind the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s and 60s, the Boston Tea Party that kicked off the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the war against Mexico that brought Texas and California into the Union in the 1850s, the extermination of the buffalo and the war against the aboriginal peoples during the 1860s and 70s, not to mention the Civil War between slavery-based King Cotton and grain-based Free Soil of the 1860s.
Remember the Alamo and the war to spread slavery and cotton, and forget about blaming militarism on an industrial complex, a prejudice that only confirms the cultural headlock of Bible Belt and heartland agrarianism.
Rural areas account for about 55 million voters living on 80 per cent of the land mass of the U.S. - and in the U.S. system, their votes are almost worth double. This is partly because under-populated states (mainly in the Bible Belt and heartland, that are dominated by capital-intensive, people-less monoculture) elect two senators, just like New York and California; partly because these states get an automatic base vote in the electoral college; and partly because rural voters who own more than three guns vote overwhelmingly (about 83 per cent) for Republicans and don't cancel out one another's votes, as is common among more diverse urban voters.
Food and ag issues have long defined U.S. folkways and ideas of masculinity. It was Yankee Doodle Dandy, not John Kerry, who was first typecast as an aristocratic northeastern effeminate male with a feather in his cap because he was so keen for pasta (macaroni was then the fave food of the rich). Not to mention the cowboy, the central icon of American manhood and diplomacy and inspiration for George W's speaking and diplomatic style.
Many medium-sized Midwestern and Southern cities would vanish and their hinterlands become unsustainable were it not for the fact that their economies survive on "land grant' universities, set up by governments for ag research and higher ed for locals - another enduring expression of the U.S. agricultural heritage and its ability to funnel money to support people-less but expansionist agribusiness.
Most tragically, ultra-conservative social and cultural politics have always been either the consolation or booby prize when pro-farmer politics were defeated. William Jennings Bryan became notorious as the man who led the assault against teaching evolution in the Scopes trial of the mid-1920s. Thirty years earlier, he was the standard-bearer for farmers in revolt against eastern bankers, proclaiming that people should not be "crucified on a cross of gold."
The same fate befell Thomas Watson, the fiery Southern farm populist who backed white-black unity against big business until his political defeat during the 1890s, and then emerged as the leader of Jim Crow segregation. Wisconsin, a leading state in the radical farm belt from the 1890s through the 1930s, gave rise to red-baiting Joe McCarthy during the 1950s. Texas, the electoral bastion of populists and socialists at the turn of the last century, is now the bastion of plutocrats.
Radical heartland populists used to urge farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," but today's agribusiness interests count on subsidies to sell off their surpluses.
Capital-intensive agriculture relies on cheap oil to supply the fertilizer and pesticides, run the farm machines and fuel the haul of cheap food to long-distance markets. This may explain the otherwise seemingly biblical interest in the crusade to conquer Babylon, the motherlode of cheap oil.
Of course, agriculture was born in that region of the world, as was god-fearing monotheism. Farm belts threatened by desertification as a result of poor agricultural practices (the Middle East and American Midwest both exemplify the trend) have common ways of understanding God.
The American heartland is dominated by what were always called drylands - remember Death Valley Days? - considered inhabitable until the rise of cheap energy and irrigation. Its residents are no strangers to desert-bred worldviews based on conquering the wilderness and corralling its free spirits.
In the desert, God is a man and a father, not a woman, as was Mother Nature. God is as harsh and unforgiving as the blazing sun, and lives in the sky, unlike forest gods like those of aboriginals, which dwell in the world, rustle in the leaves, show themselves in the world's beauty. Hell is hot, just like the desert. God is judgmental, wrathful, punishing and untouchable, drawing a line in the sand, just like the Bush family dads - not loving, maternal, sensual and all-embracing like the forest gods of polytheists and Hindus or Jesus' mother, Mary.
Fear triggers a primal need for a strict father, which is why fear, rather than hope, is the calling card of tyrants. It's why George Bush dresses the part of a physical, masculine and anti-intellectual he-man - a typecasting that the eastern intelligentsia, who don't know about farm desert theology and politics, mistake for a sign of stupidity.
Many despairing voters who supported John Kerry think their problem was the "God gap" and their failure to go for the values and bigotry vote. They forget that Kerry would be dismissed as a conservative extremist and nutball in any riding in Canada or Europe. They forget, too, that values arise from life's trials and tribulations, which must be addressed positively or left to curdle, spoil and cause illness.