[D]uring its best moments, the forum offered a glimpse of an alternate vision of how politics might work. As a rule the debates hosted by CNN and MSNBC home in on internal divisions within the Democratic caucus, and questioners attempt to pin candidates by forcing them to choose between constituency A and constituency B. Do you support merit pay for teachers? Answer yes and you piss off the teachers' unions; answer no and you might anger parents.
Rather than a vision of politics as a tribal battle between different interest groups, the Heartland Forum offered one grounded in solidarity across different narrowly constructed identity groups: white, black, Latino, rural, urban, secular and religious. So it was Inez Killingsworth, an African-American woman from inner-city Cleveland, asking John Edwards about the havoc that corporate agriculture has wreaked on Iowan family farms. After Mayte Rodriguez told her story of coming to the United States as a child and now being denied financial aid despite having graduated in the top ten of her class, she was followed by Larry Genter, a white Iowa farmer who explained the context of Rodriguez’s journey north. “Her story is about common people coming into this country looking to better their lives,” said Genter. “In truth, it is government policies that drive people from their homes and countries. I have talked to family farmers in Mexico. They told me that since NAFTA, cheap corn flooded their markets, drove down their price…. I believe that American farmers and Mexican farmers and farmers all over the world have common goals and common concerns. For the sake of our national soul, we’ve got to quit treating immigrants like common criminals.” (The only booing of the entire day came a few moments later, when Hillary Clinton hemmed and hawed when asked if she would prioritize getting immigration reform passed in her first 100 days.)