David Shribman: Iowa’s silence belies its huge political voice | Opinion

Maybe it’s the long, lonely winters; perhaps it is the isolation of large farms. Whatever the reason, Iowa is a state of profound calm. The first time Southern novelist Allan Gurganus went to a dinner party there, he felt uneasy at the long silences around the table – two minutes, then three, then four, when the only sound what he heard was “fresh corn chewed by molars around the chamber.”

And yet, in those silences in a state where Robert Frost said the rich soil “looks good enough to eat without putting it in the vegetables,” the deep mysteries fester, and the bitter rebellions too.

One of those mysteries, and one of those rebellions, is simmering right now in the run-up to the midterm congressional elections.

It’s not loud like the Iowa City Beer Riots, an 1884 rebellion against a legislative dictate that banned alcohol consumption and prompted mobs, threats, the stripping and tarring of a prosecutor of the city, the stabbing of another, and the stabbing of a judge. It’s not violent like the 1931 Farmers’ Rebellion against a law requiring cows to be tested for tuberculosis, which sparked a backlash that required the dispatch of 31 National Guard units from Iowa to quell the uproar . Nor does it match the upheaval a year later, when dairy farmers furious at low milk prices blocked 10 freeways leading to Sioux City, closed creameries, picketed railroad depots and used spike boards and thresher belts to enforce their blockages.

It is simply a rebellion at the ballot box, and its effects may be far greater than any of the rural rebellions of the past.

In the four years between the two elections with Donald Trump on the ballot, voter turnout in central Iowa’s Poweshiek County has increased by 713 net votes. The number of votes by which Trump increased his total: 711. The number of votes Joe Biden garnered compared to the number recorded by Hillary Clinton: 2.

This figure may be skewed a bit by the absence of Grinnell College students leaning to the left due to COVID-related distance learning, but the figure is still striking. Poweshiek is a rural county with a population density of only 32 people per square mile; Polk County, home to Des Moines, has a population density 26 times greater.

“Rural America is the most distressed part of the country, and so when we talk about what governments are doing, it seems to be leaving rural America behind,” said Caroline Tolbert, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “Trump’s message was for communities left behind. The country is a complex map of haves and have-nots. People here are struggling to be represented and need help. Trump’s themes spoke to them.

The trend is repeating itself across the state. Lee County, along the Mississippi in far southeast Iowa, added 1,296 voters in 2020 — and they went for Trump with an almost exact 3-to-1 ratio. A dozen years earlier only, Democratic nominee Barack Obama won nearly three-fifths of the vote in the county.

“These people — many of whom are low-income white people — have grievances, and they’re not being addressed by the Acela Corridor,” said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier, who was raised at Fort Madison, the seat of the county, and was educated at Simpson College in Indianola in south-central Iowa. “You couldn’t find a harder sell to critical race theory than Lee County. They don’t feel too privileged because of their white race.

Iowa is a state where Democrats won six of seven elections from 1992 to 2012. But Trump’s 9 percentage point victory in 2016 was a 15 point gap from Barack Obama’s victory four years earlier. . And Trump got a bigger percentage of the vote in Iowa in 2020 than he did four years earlier.

This is important because in the six elections from 1992 to 2012, the Iowa vote never deviated from the national result by more than one percentage point.

During the farm credit crisis of the mid-1980s, Joan Blundall, then director of the rural intervention program at the Northwestern Iowa Mental Health Center, told me that Iowans had “a hostile view of the entire economic system. They’ve been shut out of prosperity, they think the political system just can’t be trusted, and they distrust both Republicans and Democrats.

Now they’re more suspicious of Democrats, and today’s Republicans — with the exception, of course, of Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s nearly 89, has been on Capitol Hill for 47 years and is running for office — look like little to previous Republicans.

Two of these new-age Republicans have recently arrived in Iowa, stirring up passions and, in some ways, trouble.

No political figure foresees a respite in August in Iowa; the state doesn’t display “Vacationland” on its license plates like Maine does, and it doesn’t offer the kind of lakeside fun found in Wisconsin and Michigan, nor the mountain retreats that make Colorado and Utah summer hiking destinations. But with its first presidential caucuses and sophisticated electoral base, Iowa is a political test kitchen. So when former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida landed in Iowa last year, they didn’t have kayak tours and sand castles.

Visitors argued that Trump was the legitimate president, that moderate Republicans were no Republicans at all, and that, as Greene said, the country was threatened by a conspiracy of the news media, Democrats and big technology companies – a new “bad axis.” No one noted that his remarks echoed the accusation that aviator Charles Lindbergh had made in Des Moines nearly 80 years earlier, when he declared in 1941, less than three months before Pearl Harbor, “The three most important groups that have pressured this country towards [entry into World War II] are the British, the Jews [sic] and the Roosevelt administration.

So, of all the places where the future of American politics is being determined — the suburbs where moderate Democrats won hard-won midterm victories in 2018 to Trump’s congressional districts, the states where Republican legislatures have enacted voting-restricting laws, places where 2020 election results have prompted bitter disputes — one of the significant battlegrounds is Iowa, where Jonathan Dolliver, a Republican who served in the Senate from 1900 to 1910, said “Iowa will become Democrat when hell becomes Methodist”.

— David M. Shribman is the former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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