There are many conversations going on about the “populist” surges around the world, their causes, stakes, implications, etc.

For all the stories going around regarding the Trump victory and “forgotten” white and rural voters, I haven’t seen this one come back ’round, on the Obama Administration’s backing down on agricultural market concentration.

Specifically, Lina Khan, the author of a stunning and thorough 2012 piece in Washington Monthly on concentration in agribusiness, particularly contract poultry, says:

It is no stretch to assume that, from the perspective of the White House, the choice to abandon an apparently failed effort to protect independent farmers from such abuses may have seemed politically pragmatic. But over the longer term, it may prove to have been a strategic political failure. By raising the hopes and championing the interests of independent farmers against agribusiness, the administration effectively reached out to the millions of rural voters who don’t normally vote Democratic but whose ardent desire to reestablish open and fair markets for their products and labor often trumps any traditional party allegiance. Instead of translating that newfound trust into political capital, the administration squandered whatever goodwill it had begun to earn. Worse, the administration’s silent retreat amounts to a form of moral failure. Having amply documented the outrageous abuse of fellow citizens, it decided it was not worth expending more political capital to right this wrong.

While it seems unlikely that this particular battle was “the” thing that pushed certain rural voters one way or another, one wonders if it might not be an important, and under-appreciated part of it. Indeed, as you can see in this simple diagram by legal scholar Daniel Cole, effective action, trust, reciprocity, and reputation are all tied together — tied together in a way that I think is both intuitive, and under-appreciated/valued in progressive political thought. In essence, an importance of process AND action: getting things done together reinforces trust, reputation, and willingness to sacrifice for each other (reciprocity), but of course, if you don’t have a process that connects people and builds trust and engages people repeatedly/regularly, the loop of the “virtuous circle” won’t really be closed, either.

In any case, I’d say the example of the anti-trust back-down is perhaps another case where Democrats, and Obama’s legacy, may have been hurt by insufficient progressiveness and daring. Even had a stronger push been defeated, as it looked likely to be, Khan implies that the “backdown” of the Obama Administration did not go unnoticed by the farmers and supporters who showed up for the “listening tour” on anti-trust. Certainly, the sense of betrayal, of our politicians not really “being there” for [certain] people is something seen repeatedly in today’s discourse. Perhaps the value of being there for a group, even when you might (or do) lose, needs to be re-visited for the long-term movement-building that US electoral politics mitigates against. That is, people often remember those who stood by them and fought for them even when the odds were against them, and all did not go according to plan. “Cutting your losses” can sometimes also mean you’ve cut–wounded–your relationship with putative allies and supporters.

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