Dismal in Des Moines: Democrats are Part of What’s the Matter With Iowa

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

Iowa Nasty

In a recent Truthdig report, titled “What’s the Matter with Iowa?,” I reflected on how the now fully Republican-controlled state government of Iowa is involved in a vicious, multi-pronged assault on working people of all genders and sexual identities. This ferocious right-wing attack is not very “Iowa nice.” It includes legislation abolishing public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights (passed last month) and a measure (House File 295, now awaiting the state’s right wing governor’s imminent signature) that will nullify recent increases of the minimum wage in three Iowa counties. The second bill will also ban local and county governments from setting their own minimum wages (notwithstanding significant differences in the cost of living between the states’s rural and more urban counties) or requiring employers to provide workers with family leave. Another measure marching through the Iowa legislature will roll back workers’ compensation benefits. These bills are part of a broader package of virulent legislation aimed also at immigrants, women’s abortion rights, gun safety, and water safety.

If North Carolina can face a liberal boycott for violating transgendered peoples’ bathroom-choice civil rights, I argued, progressives might want to consider a boycott of Iowa for their offensive against working people of all genders and sexual identities.

A Shared Title

Three interesting things happened in the wake of my Truthdig report. First, I found out that a liberal University of Iowa history professor named Colin Gordon recently published an essay titled “What’s the Matter with Iowa?” in Dissent magazine. Gordon’s essay covered many of the same terrible Iowa bills I discussed in Truthdig.

I can’t say I was surprised. The title I inadvertently shared with Dr. Gordon is an obvious bit of clever word sport right now. It’s a play on the title of Thomas Frank’s widely read book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004).

I would have caught the shared title and topic it if I paid any attention to Dissent, where I did some of earliest and most widely read non-academic essays.  But I haven’t looked at Dissent in many years, not since Noam Chomsky clued me in on its long history of supporting Israel and U.S. foreign policy

A Promise and Reminder

Second, I got the following e-mail from an angry white male Iowan: “tell anyone to ever boycott my state again and me and a couple good old boys are going to make sure you won’t be able to ever again. A promise.”

That’s also not very Iowa nice.  But, sadly, it’s fairly standard right-wing online terrorism here in the “heartland.” And another reminder to me to take advantage of Iowa’s lax gun laws (a right-wing “stand your ground” upgrade is currently in the legislative works) to arm for self-defense.

Boycotting Steve King

Third, Iowa is in fact facing some boycott blowback. The Iowa Tourism office has recently seen a dramatic uptick in online messages and phone calls from people who have vowed to cancel trips and vacations to Iowa. The cause of the boycott threat? It’s not the state’s onslaught on working people (or, I might add, its recently escalated strikes against clean water and a livable climate). It’s about Republican Steve King, Iowa’s westernmost U.S. Congressman. Two Sundays ago, the openly white nationalist King sparked public outrage when he praised the Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders for, in King’s words, “understand[ing] that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization,” King elaborated, “with somebody else’s babies.”  King later went on an Iowa radio station to say that his comment was about “our stock, our country, our culture, our civilization.”  He said that “we [white Amerikaans – P.S.] need to have enough babies to replace ourselves.”

Rep. King’s comments certainly merit condemnation and protest. But what, I wonder, are the prospects that the Iowa’s blitzkrieg against working people (of all genders, sexual identities, races, ethnicities, and religions) would Democratic Party liberals to cancel vacation and/or other trips and events in Iowa?  Slim to none.  It’s identity politics that agitates them the most. That’s a shame – and no small part of why their party is out of power in the White House, Congress, most state governorships, and in most state legislative assemblies in the nation.

A Nice Surprise

Which brings me to something interesting that didn’t happen after my Truthdig report. It didn’t elicit any emails or other online comments from any lefties criticizing me for failing to point out that the Democrats are also part of the problem.

That was a nice surprise.  One of the more irritating things in Left political writing these days is that if you dare launch a criticism of Donald Trump and/or other Republicans you open yourself up to the charge that you are soft on the Democrats.  It doesn’t seem to matter if you are like me and have published hundreds of essays and even whole books dedicated to Left criticism of the “dismal dollar Democrats” (a recurrent phrase in my writing) and to the notion that both leading U.S. political organizations are “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair in 1904).  Pen a piece disparaging the rightmost major party politicians and office-holders and I can still expect a condescending message from some self-styled radical who is excessively proud of himself for having figured out that the Democrats are also a capitalist party.

“Liberalism Deserve a Huge Part of the Blame” (Tom Frank, 2004)

The irony here, though, is that, taken alone, my “What’s the Matter with Iowa” report deserves the criticism. So does Professor Gordon’s Dissent piece, by the way (even more so, since its author has no prior known history of calling out the Democrats as a corporate and imperial party). We deserve the censure particularly because we played off Tom Frank’s book title. Frank’s famous volume has long been cited by liberals mainly as a description of how clever and dastardly Republican strategists used social and cultural wedge issues like guns, religion gay marriage, and abortion to move white working class and rural voters off their supposed natural “pocketbook” interest in the Democratic Party.  But What’s the Matter with Kansas? went deeper than that.  Too near his book’s conclusion, perhaps, Frank noted that Democratic “liberalism deserves a huge part of the blame for the [right-wing white working-class] backlash phenomenon….Somewhere in the last four decades,” Frank wrote, “liberalism ceased to be relevant for huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita [Kansas] with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatives won them over.” It lost them because the Democratic Party took the working-class majority’s “lunch-pail” (economic) issues off the table in pursuit of elite corporate campaign donations and upper middle professional class votes.  It bought into “identity politics” every bit as much, if in a different way, as the Republicans.  As Frank reflected:

“The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters – their traditional base – the big brush-off, ousting their representatives from positions within the party and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer.  A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would have been difficult to invent.  And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting…The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issue like guns and abortion whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns.  We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.”

How relevant is that passage more than 12 years later, in the terrible wake of a presidential election that was not so much won by the noxious white nationalist Donald Trump as lost by the two-faced arch-corporate-neoliberal warmonger Hillary Clinton? The Democrats would likely have won had they run Bernie Sanders, who campaigned fiercely and precisely on what Frank called “the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.”  They went instead with a wooden, two-faced, Wall Street candidate who wrote off much of the nation’s white rural and working class population as “deplorables.”  The Democrats opted for an especially noxious neoliberal version of “hate and castrate” (white males) identity politics that cost them essential working class votes in key heartland states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio – this while the miserable economic performance of neoliberalism depressed much of the minority vote on which she was counting.

More than any Republican presidential candidate in memory, to be sure, Trump undertook an explicit appeal to “forgotten” white working class voters’ pocketbook interests, combined with declarations of economic nationalism and a critique of globalist “free trade.” But the Frank critique holds, with the Democrats’ yuppie-liberal corporatism creating a giant vacuum for the Republicans’ to exploit to win votes from the working-class folks who used to constitute the Democrats’ base. Trump also ran with the highly racialized white identity politics that pull in millions of white working class and rural voters when the Democrats abandon “the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.”

The Dismal Dems of Iowa

The dismal dollar Dems’ neoliberal disease is no less present in Iowa than on the national scale.  Iowa City and Des Moines liberals are rightly outraged at the racism of Steve King.  They look with understandable horror at the right-wing idiocy of the state’s two Republican U.S. Senators, the senile buffoon Charles Grassley and the pernicious Joni Ernst. They cringe with reason over the state’s vicious and bumbling corporate-evangelical governor Terry Branstad.  They naturally shudder at the state’s ever more corporate-captive legislature and at the seizure of three of the state’s four Congressional seats by the radically regressive, arch- reactionary GOP.

But who of remotely progressive and populist substance have the state’s Democrats put up to seriously, substantively, and charismatically champion the needs of the state’s rural and working class majority over and against Big Business and the Republicans? The last Iowa politician who could make any hint of a significant claim in that regard is the multimillionaire Tom Harkin, the longtime liberal U.S. Senator who retired 2014.

The last serious challenge Steve Herrenvolk King got was from Christie Vilsack, the dull neoliberal spouse of the former arch-corporate Iowa Governor and Obama Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Joni Ernst took Harkin’s open seat in 2014 from the dreary Democratic attorney Bruce Braley.  In a classic case of professional-classist political suicide, Braley got caught on cell phone video telling some Texas trial lawyers that Grassley was just “an Iowa farmer who never went to law school.” That was a real winner in the working class and rural heartland.

The last Democratic candidate to fall to the preposterous Grassley (last November) was the monumentally uninspiring Patty Judge, an open tool of Big Ag interests.  Ms. Judge is no friend of labor, workers, or the environment.

The Democrats’ failed candidate in the last election in Iowa’s 1st Congressional district last fall was Monica Vernon, a Republican for most of her life. With an MBA from the University of Iowa, Ms. Vernon owned and operated a private market research firm for decades. She has no known genuine attachment to working class issues.

A Betrayal to Remember

My favorite treasonous Iowa Democrat is the state’s last Democratic Governor, Chet Culver.  He was notorious for betraying workers and unions. We are approaching the nine- year anniversary of the fateful day when then-Governor Culver vetoed a bill that had passed the states’ two then Democratic-controlled legislative bodies. The strongly labor-backed measure would have significantly enhanced public-employee unions’ power in contract negotiations, expanding the scope of topics open for bargaining. But the “pro-labor” Culver shot the legislation down, sending shock waves through the party and labor movement. According to one report at the time:

“Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, was stunned by the veto…’I think we heard in fairly deafening terms yesterday where we lie in the big picture of things,’ he said. …Sagar said the veto underscores his nagging feeling that elected Democrats have not done enough to help workers over the last two years. This is despite Democrats holding control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since the mid-1960s….Republicans greeted the veto with a level of praise that might make observers forget Culver is a Democrat….Nearly all House and Senate Democrats voted for the collective bargaining bill, and now they will have to defend themselves against the charge that they supported a bill that a governor from their own party refused to sign” (emphasis added).

Iowa labor historian and activist Jeneatte Gabriel recalls that “This measure was considered to be a significant inroad into empowering public-sector unions. The Democrats controlled the state legislature, both branches. As a result of the deep frustration and sense of betrayal, many Union chose to stay home on election day, helping Republican Terry Branstad retake the governorship in 2010.”

“Maybe We Need a White Working Class Caucus”

In a reflection on the party’s abject failure last fall, Iowa Democrat Rick Smith noted how “in recent years Democrats have gradually divided into a long list of individual factions, i.e., Women, African-American, Hispanic, College, LGBTQ, Disability and more.”  Further:

“The Iowa Democratic Party added five new constituency caucuses this year at their 2016 Convention. They are Progressives, Women, Rural, Senior/retiree and Labor. With these additions, the Iowa Democrats have now divided themselves into 13 separate factions. The motivation for establishing individual caucuses for each group is to recognize and promote their specific needs, interests and issues. The danger is that the party becomes more fragmented and each caucus becomes a separate silo disconnected from the party as a whole. The message becomes a chaotic cacophony of voices competing for attention rather than one or two easily understood messages appealing to everyone….”

“Clearly, Democrats failed to reach the white working-class voters that were most concerned about their future. Democrats talked about requiring schools to open bathrooms to transsexual students. Democrats talked about bringing in more immigrants, including Syrians. Here in Iowa, Democrats added legalizing all drugs to their state platform. Many Democrats cringed when progressives insisted on putting the legalization of all drugs in their platform. This handed Republicans a powerful negative ad that would be used against Democrats. Democrats were careless and arrogant in not recognizing these were frightening concepts to many working class and evangelical Americans.”

“Maybe,” Smith ruefully mused, “we need a white working-class caucus that we elevate to the same level as our other groups. The fact that Democrats lost one of their most loyal bases of support, union households, should shock us into change. We failed miserably in providing them with a credible solution to their economic anxiety. Democrats took the working-class voter for granted.”

The No Audit Caucus

And maybe the Iowa Democrats shouldn’t have rigged the pivotal Iowa presidential Caucus to make sure that the noxious neoliberal identity politico Hillary and not the fighting populist Sanders was registered as the official winner. The caucus tallies were razor-thin and cried out for a thorough inspection. “The results were too close not to do a complete audit,” said The Des Moines Register’s editors in a commentary titled “Something Smells in the Democratic Party.” Further: “Two-tenths of 1 percent separated Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. A caucus should not be confused with an election, but it’s worth noting that much larger margins trigger automatic recounts in other states.”

Iowa Democratic Party chair Dr. Andrea McGuire, the former president of a private health services firm (Meridian Health), resisted calls for a review.  She refused to release the raw vote totals, consistent with her history as a long-time Hillary supporter who donated to the politician’s various campaigns and who reportedly drove a car bearing the license plate “HRC 2016.”

Who knows? Sanders might have been the Democrats’ presidential candidate but for such neoliberal obstructionism.  The Iowa Caucus has a long history of picking the Democrats’ nominee.

Super Dave Loebsack

The state’s one Democratic Congressman, David Loebsack, responded to the 2016 elections by telling the Register that the Iowa Democrats need to concentrate less on identity politics and more on bread and butter concerns. “I just don’t think that enough focus was paid to economic issues,” said Loebsack. “Yes, we are a party that is for equality; yes, we are a party that wants comprehensive immigration reform; yes, we are a party that represents a lot of different, diverse groups. But we’re also a party that represents economic opportunity.”

It’s an ironic admonition coming from Loebsack. A mild-mannered, charisma-challenged former small-college political science instructor who fell into the U.S. Congress almost by accident (during the anti-Bush 2006 mid-term elections), Loebsack caucused hard for the doomed neoliberal warmonger Hillary over Sanders last year. Back in the 2007-2008 Iowa Caucus race, before his bizarre affair with Reille Hunter was exposed, John “Two Americas” Edwards was the clear pro-labor and populist candidate among the big three (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Edwards) contenders vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sincerely or not, Edwards truly ran on “the class language that once distinguished [Democrats] sharply from Republicans,” earning labor endorsements across the state.

After a long and creepy holdout, Loebsack endorsed the slippery Wall Street candidate Barack Obama.  A big financial contribution from the future neoliberal president’s campaign helped sway not-so super Dave in Obama’s direction.

Loebsack got a $5500 campaign donation from Energy Transfer Partners, the builder of the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline (which runs through 18 Iowa’s Iowa counties with the approval of the state’s Republican-appointed utilities board), last year.  Along with his (quite nasty and mean-spirited) Hillary activism on Caucus night (which I beheld in person), that may be part of why he doesn’t seem to like show his face around his new (thanks to redistricting) hometown of Iowa City (which went strong for Sanders) all that much.

So, yes, fellow leftists, the dismal dollar Dems are no small part of the answer to the question “What’s the Matter with Iowa?” My educated guess is that the story is much the same in other red states where campus-town liberals are no doubt gnashing their teeth over the latest right-wing outrages of their Big Business-captive state governments.  They can grind their molars all they want, but it’s all for naught unless and until progressives to get out from under the control of pernicious identity-mongering neoliberals within and beyond the Democratic Party.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).