In the depths of the Great Depression, when angry farmers in the Midwest carried shotguns and pitchforks to warn off foreclosure agents, the president of the Wisconsin Farmers' Union gave this testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee in Washington:
"The farmer is naturally a conservative individual, but you cannot find a conservative farmer today. He is not to be found. I am as conservative as any man could be, but any economic system that has it in its power to set me and my wife in the streets, at my age -- what else could I see but red?"
A.N. Young went on to say:
"The fact is today that there are more actual reds among the farmers in Wisconsin than you could dream about . . . . They are just ready to do anything to get even with the situation. I almost hate to express it, but I honestly believe that if some of them could buy airplanes, they would come down here to Washington to blow you fellows all up."
I cite that scene, as portrayed in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s "The Crisis of the Old Order" (Houghton Mifflin), not because it matches the present mood of America's farmers in another time of adversity. It is the absence of anger today that seems most striking and, when compared with the past example of hard times for farmers, most paradoxical.
Oh, farmers are angry, and they have protested -- politely -- in Washington, but these are not the forces that appear to move them today. A week ago, for instance, I was in Wisconsin, where I had gone to graduate school in Madison, to make a speech. This was in Janesville, a medium-sized city in the heart of some of the world's richest farmland. Among the members of the audience were many farmers.
They asked numerous questions about the workings of Washington and how its policies and politicians affect them. Many were hurting and deeply troubled about their future. But what came through most strongly was not anger. They were puzzled, patient, concerned, uncertain, fearful -- but not in a mood for political revolt.
This was no isolated example. For the past two years, during reporting swings alone or in the company of other Washington Post reporters to Farm Belt communities in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, the same attitudes prevailed. And this encompassed the recession of 1982, when the value of farm land declined dramatically while real interest rates remained high, and farmers found themselves trapped in the economic conditions that have worsened since then. For them, as the country is now well aware, there has been no recovery.
Yet during all that time, and despite repeated political warnings that the soaring Reagan administration deficits posed a continuing threat to hopes for farm recovery, farmers remained solidly and stoically faithful to President Reagan.
No memory of the 1984 presidential campaign remains more vivid than an interview in Waterloo, Iowa, shortly before Election Day.
Exactly a year before, Toni Nies had described the heartbreaking struggle she and her husband were waging to keep their family farm. They were Democrats. A year later, on the eve of the election, this young farm wife described how that desperate effort had failed. They lost the farm. Even so, she was going to vote for Reagan. Like farming, she explained, it takes time to establish good crops -- so grant him another four years to see what he can do.
Which is exactly how a great majority of America's farmers -- including many in economic distress or even bankruptcy -- performed politically. They did not take retribution against this president. Unlike the actions of farmers in other times of hardship, no political revolt swept across the prairies, sending tremors deep into Washington and affecting the occupant of the White House. This time the conservative farmers have remained so. They have not been radicalized -- yet.
The "yet" is the key, for I believe the president faces rising anger from another front in the Farm Belt, one that poses real political problems for him and his fellow Republicans.
That audience in Janesville again: The harshest questions, and the greatest display of anger, involved the Pentagon. "What's [Secretary of Defense Caspar W.] Weinberger up to?" one farmer asked with anger. Other questions about the Pentagon and the huge outlays in money for it came up.
There was an undercurrent of fury in the remarks. Pork barrel, waste, inefficiency, the all-for-defense allocation of scarce resources -- these are the kinds of critical attitudes expressed.
This, too, in my experience, is no isolated phenomenon. It has been there all along, in the Farm Belt and elsewhere.
The Reagan constituency, so supportive of the president personally in many ways, has doubted the wisdom of the massive defense spending from the beginning. Sit in the coffee klatches of Midwestern farm towns and you'll hear strong opinions on this aspect of Reagan's presidency from his supporters. That feeling is intensifying -- and it's certain to continue intensifying as further examples of how Pentagon contractors profit from Reagan administration largess (and escape taxes) and lack of oversight are made public, as they were in the recent shameful disclosures about General Dynamics.
My bet is the sudden return of "Cap the Knife" to the defense budget process won't play well in the hinterlands. People there will see it for what it is -- phony.
"Hey, Mr. Weinberger, where you been for the last four years?" I can hear them ask. "Who do you think you're kidding with this efficiency stuff? Weren't you in charge of that sinkhole all along?"
They might even start making the connection between farm problems and defense spending, and the high dollar and the declining American export market, and how all these grew from the biggest deficits ever foisted on this country.
Patient and long-suffering though they are, they might get mad. It has, after all, happened before.