The Politics Of The American State Fair

Folks, it's state fair season — that time of year when tents spring up around the country to serve fried food, and politicians get photographed eating it. Despite (or perhaps because of) its sheer excess, the state fair has become a political proving ground.

To the uninitiated, a visit to the state fair is a bizarre experience. There are pigs the size of small airplanes. There are cows made of butter. There is fried beer. All this is pretty foreign to anybody who grew up in an urban area, a fact David Foster Wallace acknowledged at the beginning of his famous and hilarious 1994 essay on the Illinois State Fair: "I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they'll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish." Despite his Illinois heritage, Wallace views the fair with a combination of awe, disgust, and sheer dumbfoundedness, which pretty much describes the attitude of every liberal I've ever attended a fair with (the one exception was a wonderful lady who was really, really into horses). It also more or less describes the attitude a lot of liberals have to contemporary America itself.

The point of a political state fair visit is essentially to display the opposite of this. If you are, say, Mitt Romney, you are going to eat that pork chop on a stick and you are going to like it (which apparently isn't hard, since even pinko NPR reporters like those pork chops). If you are Rick Perry, you are going to pose with a cutout of a soldier, and spend your time "shaking and howdying, [...] just talking to folks." If you're Michele Bachmann, your lackluster fair performance might lead critics to question your campaigning savvy. Basically, the job of any political candidate at a state fair (especially Iowa, because of that state's influential caucus) is to come across as a real American, someone who loves the country and its most mainstream traditions without reservation or irony.

Of course, this is getting kind of tough. For instance, Rick Perry apparently told a little girl at the Iowa State Fair to get some exercise after eating she ate a funnel cake, a move likely to be popular with anti-obesity activists, but unpopular with conservatives who want the government's hands off their cookies. In these post-Huckabee-weight-loss times, the consumption of fried food is no longer the right-wing unifier it once was. But the state fair is about more than just eating off of sticks. Wallace wound up his essay with this meditation on the Midwestern landscape:

The farms themselves are huge, silent, vacant: you can't see your neighbor. Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd. To see something besides land and grass and com and cable TV and your wife's face. Hence the sacredness out here of spectacle, public event: high-school football, Little League, parades, bingo, market day, fair. All very big deals, very deep down. Something in a Midwesterner sort of actuates, deep down, at a public event. The faces in the sea of faces are like the faces of children released from their rooms. [...] The real spectacle that draws us here is us.

Midwesterners may be the main attraction at their fairs — for one another, for pith-helmeted East Coast anthropologists, and for political candidates too. Perry and Bachmann and Romney went to see their Iowa audiences, to test their reactions — and especially in Bachmann's case, this may have been revealing. But they also went because Midwesterners want to be seen and feel that they aren't, at least by coastal media outlets. At state fairs, they're on display — and they may like it that way.

Rick Perry: 'Shaking And Howdying' At The Iowa State Fair [ABC]
Political Reporters Love 'Pork Chop On A Stick' At Iowa State Fair [Huffington Post]
Has Rick Perry Proved He's A Better Campaigner Than Michele Bachmann? [Christian Science Monitor]