Republicans may have trouble making Washington's hogs 'squeal': Neil Macdonald

Republican Joni Ernst, an adept at hacking testicles off hogs, is on her way to Washington with castration accoutrements in hand, writes Neil Macdonald

Republican Joni Ernst is on her way to Washington, castration accoutrements in hand

Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who bragged in election ads about castrating hogs as a young farm girl, said she can be relied upon to “cut pork” once elected. In victory, she happily announced she intends to “make them squeal” when she arrives in the Capitol. (Brian Frank/Reuters)

Joni Ernst, an adept at hacking testicles off hogs, is on her way to Washington, castration accoutrements in hand.

On Tuesday night she became the 51st Republican winner in the struggle for the United States Senate, pushing her party over the top and into control of the upper house of Congress.

Her victory speech, a modern classic, was a monument to intellectual despair. A call to mediocrity, rather than to arms.

Ernst is the Iowa populist who bragged in election ads about castrating hogs as a young farm girl. By virtue of that, she said, she can be relied upon to “cut pork” once elected.

In victory, she happily announced she intends to “make them squeal” when she arrives in the Capitol - “them” being all the other politicians and public servants in Washington.

They are, you see, not professional or dedicated but an idle bunch of elitist wastrels who love taking folks’ hard-earned money and throwing it away on foolishness. They can be overcome, though, Ernst promised, “because this is the greatest nation in the history of mankind.”

Loud cheers. Of the thousands of others who’ve promised the same thing, Ernst will be first to succeed.

Of course, she didn’t detail what pork she intends to cut.

The Iowa way

Ernst was light on policy throughout the campaign, instead preaching the “Iowa way” and promising to take a “good hard look at entitlement programs.”

Presumably, though, the Iowa way (service, self-sufficiency, thrift) doesn’t include eliminating the billions in agricultural subsidies – government handouts – that farmers in this nation of rugged individualists enjoy so much.

Republicans stormed to power in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, extended their majority in the House of Representatives and put a series of Democratic-leaning states under control of Republican governors in a midterm election that was a clear repudiation of President Barack Obama. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images )

Nor does it mean trimming the single biggest area of federal spending – the military. The Iowa way, Ernst explained in a triumph of circumlocution, “means keeping America strong in the world, because the world is a safer place when America is the strongest nation in it.”

The Iowa way also means preserving social security and Medicare, massive entitlement programs that happen to be massively popular and that threaten to mushroom out of control unless benefits are cut or taxes are raised to pay for them.

Together, in fact, defence, medicare/medicaid and social security account for most mandatory government spending.

Oh, and Ernst also wants to abolish the IRS.

But it doesn’t matter. Because elections no longer have anything whatever to do with fact and everything to do with peddling homilies that reinforce existing biases and ignorance.

After touching lightly Tuesday night on a few of the nation’s problems, Ernst launched into a story about how her mother taught her values “not with a lecture or a book" — bookishness now having become an elitist thing — "but with plastic bread bags.”

She only had one pair of good shoes growing up, apparently, and on rainy days her mother protected them with bread bags.

“I wasn’t embarrassed. Because every day when it rained and I got on the school bus, there were rows and rows and rows of other kids just like me with plastic bread bags tied to their feet.”

Mitch McConnell (left), pictured with his wife, former United States Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, is about to become the Senate Majority leader - easily the most powerful Republican in America. (John Sommers/Reuters)

Now, I went to school with military brats, some of them from large families in which a corporal or a private was the sole earner, people who seemed to eat nothing but macaroni — and still, they arrived at school in those cheap gum-rubber galoshes that cost about a dollar a pair. We all did. I suspect Ernst’s hog farmer dad could afford a pair, too.

But the bread-bag story is the sort of up-by-the-bootstraps trope every politician here needs to carry around nowadays. 

The subtext is that formal education, as opposed to good old common sense, is elitist, and that growing up on a fixed or low income (except for welfare or unemployment insurance) somehow confers a deep wisdom unavailable to the more affluent.

So treasured is that notion in modern America that during the last presidential election, even Ann Romney, wife of the ultimate one-per-center, had to come up with a story about their struggles as a young couple. They ate off an ironing board, or something.

Ernst wound up her victory speech describing “an America where no matter who your parents are or what neighbourhood you grew up in, you have the chance to succeed. An America where it doesn’t matter who you know, all that matters is how hard you work ...”

An imaginary place, in other words.

Political pandering

It’s actually unfair to single out Ernst. She’s just pandering, and who can blame her? In U.S. politics, the people are the boss, and the boss is consulted every two years and the boss can be a dunce.

The boss sometimes fires good employees on a whim, often prefers nasty to smart and can evince little interest in bothersome facts. The boss loves uncomplicated aphorisms designed to free him/her from the civic burden of considering complex solutions.

I just spent a few days in Kentucky speaking to the boss. It’s impossible to do that and not feel sorry for the people campaigning.

With the exception of one voter (and he was rich and educated), most people wanted to talk about how much they despise politicians, who never do anything for them.

In the wake of the U.S. midterm elections, the issue is whether Obama, his congressional Democrats and the newly robust Republican majorities will be able to break the legislative gridlock that has gripped the U.S. capital in recent years. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Kentuckians tend to despise Obamacare, the president’s signature health care law, and they’ll tell you so.

Then they’ll allow that Kynect, the state’s online insurance exchange, is a pretty darned good thing. It’s provided insurance to the previously uninsured in that have-not state, and made coverage affordable for those struggling along on minimum wage.

Kynect, of course, is Obamacare. Just don’t call it that.

Also, Obama clearly hates coal miners, and wants to take people’s guns away (gun ownership has risen sharply on Obama’s watch).

Of course, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat vying for Kentucky’s Senate seat, tailored her message accordingly, running hard against Obama. All she managed to do was irritate her party. She lost.

For my money, the fellow who did win in Kentucky is the sort of person you want in high office. Mitch McConnell is about to become the Senate Majority leader, easily the most powerful Republican in America.

In his victory speech, he kept the pandering to a minimum and talked about trying to work with Democrats to maybe get a few things done in Washington.

That may seem a bit rich coming from a leader who’s made it his mission to obstruct Barack Obama, but McConnell has had the guts to stand up to the messianic, loopy, far-right flank of his party, the people who want to wreck and starve government rather than actually govern. 

If Joni Ernst is as smart as McConnell, she’ll set aside the castration shears and wade into serious policy issues. Sucking up to the boss is easy, but it’s no path to greatness.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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