Update: Joni Ernst won the Iowa Senate race. 

These midterm elections have been too depressing to write about much, but I would like to make one small note for the record, before the moment has passed and everyone starts talking about the 2016 presidential race. (Kill me.)

Joni Ernst is the Republican running for Senate in Iowa. She is a previously obscure state senator who, largely by virtue of being young, female, a veteran, and personally pleasant — a combination of qualities that helps elevate her far above the vast bulk of her party’s candidates across the country — has risen quickly to party stardom. She’s now neck and neck with her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley.

Press coverage of Ernst has been almost comically soft and friendly. The Washington Post assigned a style writer (?) to follow her on the trail, resulting in a portrait of Ernst as a “biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangy, twinkly farm girl.” (Seriously. I’m not making that up.) That roughly captures the tone of most mainstream media coverage.

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What is less remarked upon is that Ernst is a faithful mouthpiece for the Tea Party, in all its wackadoo glory. I won’t do a Google roundup of all the crazy — using guns to defend herself from the government, the culture of “dependency,” etc. — but let’s just briefly consider two things.

First, Ernst said this:

We don’t want to see a further push with Agenda 21, where the Agenda 21 and the government telling us that these are the urban centers that you will live in; these are the ways that you will travel to other urban centers. Agenda 21 encompasses so many different aspects of our lives that it’s taking away our individual liberties, our freedoms as United States citizens. So I would adamantly oppose Agenda 21. I don’t believe it is responsible, not for United States citizens.

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If you haven’t kept up with this nonsense, Agenda 21 is a decades-old U.N. resolution that, as The New York Times puts it, “was designed to encourage nations to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas.” (The horror.)

The resolution is not legally binding. There is no enforcement mechanism, no funding, no organization or council. It is, literally, nothing but hortatory rhetoric. There is no conceivable mechanism by which a decades-old, nonbinding U.N. resolution could “take away our individual liberties.”

Yet the Tea Party has convinced itself, apparently sincerely, that any minute jack-booted government thugs are going to come hustling Iowa farmers off their land and into crowded, diseased cities (cities packed with, you know, those people). This is not a caricature of what Tea Partiers believe, or an exaggeration. It is actually what they believe.

There’s no other way of putting it: It’s crazy. It is not a difference of opinion or ideology, not a matter of values or interpretation. It is a falsehood, a scary campfire story spun from nothing through a deranged game of telephone, reinforced by near-total epistemic closure. It is the kind of cracked conspiracy theory that used to appear only at John Birch Society meetings or in crudely mimeographed direct mail or on far-right talk radio. But now it has spread and activists are shutting down actual, real-world infrastructure projects over these paranoid fears. And the Tea Party has so utterly captured the Republican Party that in January congressional Republicans passed a formal resolution opposing Agenda 21.

So: Ernst believes a conspiracy theory that is roughly equivalent, in terms of evidence, to the belief that the U.S. government faked the moon landing or that chemtrails are biological agents. Yet this is not considered a big deal. It has hardly affected the tone or content of media coverage at all. If it is mentioned, it is only to wonder how it might affect the polls.

Second, Ernst said, “Let’s shut down the EPA. The state knows best how to protect resources.”

Instead of viewing this, like the media seems to, as a bit of colorful rhetoric, think about it for a moment. Think about what it means. The EPA, created under a Republican president, is one of the most successful regulatory agencies in the history of democracy, the envy of, for example, Chinese leaders, who are now stuck with crippling pollution and a lack of enforcement apparatus to reduce it.

EPA rules have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and countless billions of dollars in public health and environmental costs at relatively little cost to industry. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments (also passed under a Republican president) alone created some $2 trillion in benefits, at a cost of $65 million to industry. This huge benefit to lives and natural environments has proceeded alongside steady economic growth. It is one of America’s greatest accomplishments.

So imagine, for a moment, shutting down EPA — shuttering its 10 regional offices and its dozens of research labs and research centers, firing over 15,000 engineers, scientists, and policy experts, and dispersing decades of social and knowledge capital.

Who would enforce the dozens and dozens of environmental laws C0ngress has passed? Could state environmental departments fill the gap? Of course not. States are perpetually cash-strapped and the most polluting states are often the ones that cut environmental enforcement first. To cover even a fraction of EPA’s research, analysis, and enforcement work would involve heavily slashing other parts of states’ already threadbare budgets. Most of it would fall through the cracks.

The result would be a massive lurch backward for America — more polluted air and water, more sickness and death among the most vulnerable, more depleted ecosystems. It would also send a devastating message to other countries with whom the U.S. is struggling to control international environmental problems like climate change.

It’s a radical notion (and radically unpopular; the public consistently supports EPA rules). Yet it hasn’t affected media coverage of Ernst at all. Reporters and pundits let it slide by. They laugh it off. Ha ha, Republicans being Republicans again, just talking about reversing huge swathes of post-WWII democratic progress and letting more poor people get sick. Twangy! Twinkly!

It is probably true that as long as Obama is president, the reactionary policies favored by Joni Ernst will not become law. But those policies are favored by almost all House Republicans and most Senate Republicans. What if there’s a President Rubio in 2017?

I realize this is an old, old complaint. Campaign coverage is fluffy, campaign reporters focus on the horse race and ignore policy, blah blah blah. But while campaign coverage has stayed the same, campaigns have changed. Republicans have changed. Shouldn’t campaign media take them seriously? Don’t the people of Iowa deserve to know what they are voting for?

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