Iowa nice, but the caucuses are still a huge problem

Have you seen the vid on Youtube called “Iowa Nice”? If not, let’s start there.

The producer of the video, Scott Siepker, is an Iowa State University grad and host of Iowa Outdoors on Iowa Public Television.

“The main objective was just to make people laugh,” Siepker, 29, said.

The video, titled “Iowa Nice,” does have more serious purposes as well. Because there is no Democratic challenger for President Barack Obama, a one-sided perspective of Iowans is being highlighted with the national media in town for the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Siepker said.

A friend asked me this morning what this piece was in response to, exactly. Everybody loves Iowa, he said.

I don’t know Siepker, obviously, but I do know a bit about Iowa, having spent two years there in the late 1980s earning my MA from Iowa State. I responded that I think the caucus process has put a real bender on Iowans this time around. For months there’s been all this attention on barking gongbat candidates and the voters who love them (seriously, the only way the Republican Party can get any crazier is if the candidates start running around naked, picking lice out of each other’s hair and debating in trees). And all those idiot voters are Iowans. Perhaps the feeling among intelligent Iowans is that the abuse being heaped on the morons, richly deserved though it may be, has generalized a bit too much.

As someone born and raised in the South, I have plenty of experience when it comes to ridicule. You almost can’t help getting a little sensitive, even when you agree with the criticisms. Even when you know, firsthand, that the real story is worse than everybody outside the region realizes. There’s always this little part of you that wants to defend yourself, at the least, to make sure that everybody knows that all citizens of your state or region aren’t like that.

This is what I think is going on in “Iowa Nice” and I think the piece is fantastic. It’s smart, it’s perfectly attuned to what people are saying, and best of all, Siepker crawls up in your grille with an attitude that isn’t at all what we expect of Iowans, who are easily the nicest people in America.

Thing is, all the ill-will being projected Iowa’s way today is a result of a faulty electoral process that every four years manages to drag the nation even deeper into the mire. The US is well and truly fucked, and thanks to the ways in which both major parties are rigged against the citizenry it seems likely to remain that way for the indefinite future. When you structure a nominating process the way we have, kicking the game off in Iowa is like starting the Super Bowl by shooting both starting quarterbacks in the head. What ensues might be interesting. It might be competitive and dramatic and even entertaining (in the way that mud wrestling night at a truck stop is entertaining). But it isn’t going to be the sort of thing that either team can walk away from feeling proud about.

In 1988, I got a good up-close look at the inside of the Iowa Republican Caucuses. At that point in my life I was a young GOPer who had voted for Reagan twice. I was educated and moderate, but I had significant problems with the Democratic Party. Looking back, I am not proud of those days, but that’s a subject for another post.

I arrived at the caucus with my friend Kristen, not really knowing what to expect. What unfolded was nothing short of earth-shattering for me. If you’ll recall, that was the year that Pat Robertson was running, and at caucus time Jack Kemp was another front-runner. Nobody was really taking Vice President Bush, the eventual nominee, seriously. For my part, the main frustration was that the man who was clearly the best candidate available, Howard Baker, didn’t seem to be running at all.

The scene in the caucus looked like an outtake from a Ma and Pa Kettle movie. I lived in Ames proper and spent all my time either on campus or at the club where I DJed, so I had never seen the local white trashery in all its glory before. Sweet hell, you could have cast a sequel to Deliverance out of that room. Some speaking in tongues and serpent handling wouldn’t have been entirely out of place.

I’m making sport at people’s expense, I know, but the truth is they were by any measure I can think of some of the most stupid human beings I had ever been in the same room with, and given where I grew up, that’s a considerable statement. And these people, they were going to dictate who America got to choose from in November. If memory serves, Kemp won the precinct and Rev. Pat took second.

Miraculously, I was able to get myself elected as a delegate to the county convention. (I was picked as an alternate, and then one of the electees couldn’t make it.) I did so as a vocal Baker supporter, using a strategy that leveraged the man’s loyal support of Reagan, whom everybody worshipped.

The county convention was more of the same, though. It was a better dressed class of entitled fundamentalist hillbilly, to be sure, but the five moderates in the room got nard-stomped on every vote. You have to understand, too – this was a major university town. Way back in the 1980s. Before FOX News. These days, we’re accustomed to a GOP where you win by proving that you’re the most unhinged, I will bomb Canada the day I’m elected motherfucker in the race. Science is a liberal Jew-boy conspiracy and you’re not 100% certain about elementary math, either. Iowa Republicans were a generation ahead of the rest of the nation in pure, off-its-meds psychopathology. Proto-teabaggers, if you will. I cannot fathom what the place is going to be like tonight.

This was the day that I finally realized that I had no business being a Republican, in the same way that just a few years earlier the Southern Baptist Convention had demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that I had no business associating with them, either.

I feel for Scott Siepker and the rest of Iowa’s rational citizens. I know they’re embarrassed and I know they wish they could make it stop. But it isn’t going to as long as Iowa insists on going first because leading that political charge is so important to the self-image of a state that leads the nation in very little besides corn and brain-drain. I asked one of my classes in 1988 how many were leaving Iowa after graduating. 24 hands out of 27 went up. If you’re not going to farm, there’s not a lot to do. That’s a shame because the state has more to offer culturally than you’d think, and its public educational system (then, at least) was among the best in the US.

That said, we’d all be better served if the first shots of the electoral war were fired in places that were a little less at the mercy of slobbering hillbillies. You might argue that in this day and age Iowa’s argument that it represents real America is dead-on, but is representative really a worthy goal when things get as bad as they are? Wouldn’t we better served by aiming a little higher, by emphasizing those ideals that we admire and aspire to?

I don’t know which state ought to go first, ideally, but if it were my decision I’d give California and New York a shot. I can hear the howling from the right already, but I don’t much care. Those folks are the problem, and I’m more concerned about the solution.


  • Yeah, liked the post, not that impressed with the video.

    I thought it was OK except for the shout out to farmers. Farmers are a huge part of the problem with politics in this country. Talk about entitled! The truth is, if you are progressive or even reasonable, the problem is not the South as much as it is non-urban areas, where you can hide from evolution.

    Having said that, Iowa is surely better than places like Texas, where even the cities are full of ignorant peckerwoods.

  • Is it the caucus process itself that’s the problem or the fact that these particular caucuses get so much national attention that’s the problem? I never liked caucuses because they rob a voter of anonymity. It also seems a little like mob rule at times, although when done well they’re a good example of democracy in action because of the exchange of ideas that (ideally) can take place.

    I don’t understand your argument for California or New York. If it’s just a population thing, then I agree with you. I always thought it was stupid for tiny states with relatively small populations to be making decisions that impact my voting choices just because my state, with a much larger population, has a later primary.

  • At least a part of the problem is the historic fact that for primaries and caucuses, candidates appeal,to the radical fringe, then move at least somewhat toward the center for general election. My fear is that even the center may be becoming more radicalized (if that’s a word).

    The fact that this first in the nation caucus process is painting Iowa as consisting of a bunch of religious radical bigots.

  • Dear cwmackowski: You have the caucus situation wrong. In Iowa, the Republican caucus still casts a secret vote. It is the Democratic caucus that sometimes looks like mob rule and sometimes is poetic democracy.

  • Thanks, Nancy. I’ve never been out there and only have my caucus experiences in Maine as any sort of context.

  • Dear cwmackowski,

    No worries. My Republican sister calls the Iowa Democratic caucuses a “Cluster F**k”.

    I call the call the Democratic caucuses “the next best thing to sex”. What scares me is that we both could be right.

  • So you spent a short time in Iowa and think that you know what most of Iowa is like. You also paint most of Iowans along with the rebulican party as a bunch of hicks? Well I suppose that I could write a nice article about one of the states that you suggusted have the first caucus California. Seeing as I’ve taken vacations there I could be like you and act like I know everything about the state and the people. I could start off talking about how nice the weather is, and than talk about the ridiculous wealth gap between the rich and poor. Or how about how broke the state is, or maybe the complete out of control illegal immigration problem the state has. I can also be an expert on a state that i’ve only spent some time in!

    • Chris, I respect that it’s very important for you to be angry. But if you’d be so kind as to restrict your comments to things that were actually said, not things you imagine might have been said, I know we’d all be grateful.

  • Bill in SC(the horror)

    Singling out states or regions is becoming meaningless.To quote,Frank Zappa-‘People is dumb all over’.
    I’m a gay man raising a 16-year old girl.Her college of choice? Somewhere in France?

  • Samuel, I doubt you ever voted for Reagan. Your blog here is typical of a self-hating liberal. Portray the Republicans as a bunch of Rural Hicks and the republican party as crazies. You are in the minority. You sound like you are in education, is this the stuff you spew onto your “Students?”

    • Kurt: Omniscience must be such a burden.

      Sadly, I voted for Reagan twice. I then voted for Bush the Elder in 1988. Not proud of any of these things, but I learned as I grew.

      Not that I feel any need to prove anything to you, but there were witnesses.

  • This piece does have some valid points, but I tend to discredit writers who refer to a mass of people as “slobbering hillbillies” almost immediately. Perhaps the only thing more absurd is prefacing the slight by praising the states educational system.

    It might also be helpful to do a little research on the current state of affairs rather than announcing opinions formed from 2 year experience of a small sector of the state, which to make matters worse, was gathered approximately 30 years ago.

    Just another slobbering hillbilly

  • The idealist in me actually prefers Jon Huntsman, but I’m leaning in the direction of Gingrich.

    Somehow I fail to see the relationship between my preferred GOP candidates and any reason someone might have to offer generalizations about a people of whom he knows little. I suspect it is easier to turn the focus there as opposed to owning the fact that name calling deters any valid arguments you may have made herein. It’s also bad manners, as I’m sure plenty of Iowa folk could tell you.

    • I’m comfortable with the idea that I made the point that needed making. As I say, I’ve been in that room and have no evidence whatsoever to suggest that our descent into the teabagger swamp has improved things. The truth is, whether you want to believe it or not, I actually went kind of easy on some of the Robertson supporters who were there that night.

      • Also, nobody who supports the most unspeakable human being in the recent history of major party politics in this country needs to be upbraiding anyone else for any reason. On the worst, most appalling day of my life – and there have been some bad ones, I’m ashamed to say – I never stooped to the sort of amorality that Gingrich exhibits on a regular basis.

  • Farmers are not entitled or the big problem in this country. I would be willing to bet the farm that your average unemployed single mother of 8 gets more $ out of the so called farm program than a farmer. You are provided with the least expensive,highest quality food in the world. A country that cannot feed itself cannot defend itself. Would like like to outsource our food supply to China as well? The only thing keeping the US a world power is our ability to supply food to the world. Be careful what you wish for. I will still be down on the farm eating well.

  • This is bad journalism. The intent of the video was to illustrate that Iowa is actually much more progressive than it is perceived, in spite of the media attention that has been focusing solely on the republicans of Iowa since Obama is running unopposed. Instead of addressing this, you went the route of name calling and furthering stereotypes. Refer to the first line of the video, I think Mr. Siepker is talking to you.

  • Bill in SC(the horror)

    ‘States’ don’t progress, unless there’s an earthquake or aliens arrive,and say,take Iowa to another planet…

  • If there is an issue with whether or not the most politically vocal elements in Iowa (or anywhere, for that matter) seem to dominate the room with “representative” slack-jawed, cretinous, slobbering hillbillies, I’m going to stick with my usual perspective that silence and non-participation are complicit. The damning character analysis would seem to hold, in that case.

    Maybe, just maybe, those GOPer’s, Dems, independents and everything in between that stay home and comparatively silent (where the national cameras are concerned) are just the most urbane, educated folks to be found, by golly, just about anywhere.

    My question, then, is just how the ever livin’ frack are the rest of us supposed to know that?

    Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

    I submit that Burke’s maxim works equally well for just about any substituted dichotomy. Urbane/boorish. Ignorant/educated.

    When the good, the nice, the educated, or even just the good ol’ fashioned smart kick back and let the worst speak for them, a little condemnation might just be due to them, as well. Rather than apologists for the “good/nice/smart” of Anywhere, USA crying foul against those who have the temerity to call a turd a turd, what about showing up at the local Annual Imbecil-a-thon and taking back the house with a very vocal, “not in my name you don’t!”

    If folks would bother to police themselves, social critics like Sam, who, trust me, is FAR nicer than I am, wouldn’t have to do their dirty work for them.

    If mainstream Christians don’t like the gibbering from the dominionist/evangelical quarter tarnishing their good name, pipe up for yourselves. If genuinely moderate party affiliates (as opposed to DC “moderate”) don’t like the screeching from the far left and right of the political teeter-totter, pipe up.

    Otherwise, to borrow from Uncle Al, I’m quite sure “you will forgive the more frivolous onlookers if their amusement matches your indignation.” Except, in my case, I’d go so far as to suggest my indignation, rather than amusement, surpasses that of the gosh-darned offended.

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