By Fordham professor Mark Naison:
Some people are astonished that a 92 percent white state, which is heavily agricultural, voted for President Obama in two straight elections, in contrast to states with similar demographics and similar economies like Kansas and Nebraska. But if you’re historical research takes you back to the 1930s, you won’t be surprised. Iowa was the organizational center of one of the most radical agrarian organizations in American History, the Farm Holiday Association.
The Farm Holiday Association was organized by small farmers who felt they were being driven into poverty by low prices for what they produced and by bank foreclosures on their farms when they couldn’t paid their loans or mortgages. On the verge of losing everything, they picked up their rifles and engaged in highway blockades, which prevented agricultural goods from being transported to markets until prices went up, and armed occupation of courtrooms to prevent judges from seizing farms that had gone into arrears. So large was the support for these actions among Iowa farmers that truck traffic ground to halt in large portions of the state, and judges were forced to extend payment periods on farm loans or drastically reduce their interest and principal.
These actions began in 1931 and continued into the early years of the New Deal when parity payments under the Agricultural Adjustment Act allowed many farmers in the state to have enough income to stave off foreclosure, but in the interim, they prevented mass impoverishment and displacement of the state’s family farmers.
I don’t know if today’s Iowa voters have a historic memory of these events, but it has been my experience, from my own family, that stories of resistance struggles do get passed down from generation to generation and can shape people’s identities long after the initial event took place.