Abolish the electoral college? Here’s a better idea for Democrats headed to Storm Lake

Abolish the electoral college? Here’s a better idea for Democrats.

Presidential candidate Julián Castro greets potential voters in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 23. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

March 22

Pledging to abolish the electoral college is a sure crowd-pleaser with Democratic voters this year. It’s easy to understand why. Twice in the past 20 years — including the last election — Democrats won the popular vote for president but lost the White House. As it was (arguably) designed to do, the electoral college devalued urban strength in favor of rural areas.

But folks have been trying to get rid of the electoral college for more than 200 years, so don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, Democrats might simply try harder to win rural votes.

A good place to start would be Storm Lake, Iowa, where Democratic candidates are invited to a forum on rural affairs March 30. At least half a dozen would-be presidents plan to attend. The rest ought to join them, because they’re likely to hear two strong themes they can use to reach farmers in 2020 and beyond.

First: Farmers want the government to defend them against encroaching monopolies among their suppliers and their main customers. The same forces of consolidation that are snuffing competition elsewhere in the economy are choking farmers, too. Rural audiences are ripe for a platform of vigorous trust-busting and strategies that put farmers at the center of the farm economy.

That’s what the second theme is all about. Farmers have a leading, transformative and potentially lucrative role to play in fighting climate change. Scientists are looking with rising excitement at the potential of soil — good old dirt — to capture and store huge quantities of carbon currently loose in the atmosphere.

A few facts frame the picture. Roughly three times as much carbon is contained in just the top meter of Earth’s soil as in the entire atmosphere. Traditional farming practices gradually release that carbon. From the dawn of the Industrial Age to the present, the work of clearing and farming the soil has transferred almost as much carbon into the atmosphere as the burning of all fossil fuels, according to a 2017 survey of this subject in the journal Scientific Reports.

The good news is that existing techniques — if adopted widely — can reverse this process while improving crops at the same time. Instead of producing atmospheric carbon as a byproduct of outdated practices, global agriculture can pull huge, game-changing quantities of carbon from the air and store it back in the soil through methods such as mulching, organic manure fertilizing, tree farming and proper crop rotation. Remember: Organic matter is largely built from carbon. By using that decaying material to build up soil, and by disturbing the soil as little as possible, the carbon is stored. In the process, other important nutrients also enrich the earth.

Admittedly, some of these techniques may sound like tips for backyard gardeners from the Whole Earth Catalog. But experts aren’t pushing some hippie reverie of subsistence farming. Emerging strategies for refilling the carbon reservoirs in soil are compatible with the high-tech agriculture of the United States today. For example, GPS systems and no-till seeders allow today’s farmers to plant large fields more densely than before, and with far less soil disturbance.

Next-generation soil management strategies present both an environmental and an economic opportunity. We have seen this play before. Poor soil management was the primary cause of the Dust Bowl that decimated agriculture across much of the Midwest during the 1930s. Together, America’s farmers and the government turned that disaster into a long-range triumph. The campaign to undo the Dust Bowl ultimately improved farms, enriched farmers, conserved topsoil, advanced science, strengthened universities and filled bellies around the world. No one knows better than farmers that conservation and prosperity can go hand in hand.

Many rural Americans are already part of the low-carbon future thanks to the rapid growth of wind farming as a revenue stream in the Big Empty. Democrats can use that familiarity as an opening to propose a large-scale, long-term push to implement the future of soil conservation and stewardship. Struggling rural communities can find new vitality as the nation pays its farmers to harvest atmospheric carbon and return it to the earth.

Rightly or wrongly, farm country has a chip on its shoulder about most Democrats. Ag voters think the coastal party sees rural America in terms of problems to be solved. “We’re from Washington, and we’re here to help” is the line that never fails to get an eye roll over truck-stop coffee.

But farmers are proud people. Economic and technological trends may seem stacked against them, yet they persist in seeing themselves not as problems, but as solutions ready to be tapped.

Democrats might get a fresh hearing from rural America if they can learn to appreciate the potential of farm country. Start by putting government on the side of farmers against monopolies, rather than on the side of bureaucrats against farmers. Then rally farmers to the challenge and opportunity of a generation: to occupy once more the cutting edge in meeting the world’s most urgent needs.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

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