The persistent notion that Iowa (and the Midwest in general) is special – holy almost – in the narrative of some American dream: the Heartland much like Iowa Nice is a lie.
Iowa is Noheartland.
In the coming days, weeks months into years I will try to make sense out of the place that Iowa has become – a place I don’t recognize anymore. Maybe some of you understand – that place that was home doesn’t seem like home anymore because it has been torn apart. The decline of Iowa from blue-purple-red has been coming on: it didn’t happen overnight. But the rapid turn to the right – as away from the right thing to do and the political right – has turned Iowa into scorched hell scape.
Dramatic? Maybe. But maybe you should come along and decide for yourself.
You might even find some hope.
…crossing Iowa on some train…
The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers then the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.
A video opens of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds seated at a desk. She is smiling, wreathed by parents and children holding protest signs. One held by a little girl right next to Reynolds is emblazoned with the latest conspiracy theory: masks cause staph infections! From camera right Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley (yes, US Senator Chuck Grassley’s grandson) comes running into the room. He carries a bill the GOP passed just after midnight banning schools from requiring masks. The crowd goes wild: free at last from the tyranny of the mask.
The bill came out of nowhere and for seemingly no reason; the school year is winding down for most districts in Iowa. School administrators, local elected school boards and parents were caught unawares as the legislation passed in the dark of night. With the stroke of a pen Reynolds killed one of the GOP’s holiest sacred cows: local control. But that fact matters little. It is the fanfare that matters, Reynolds and Iowa’s GOP adhering closely to the Trumpian philosophy of governance: say it loud enough often enough and the voters will buy anything, health, local control, science be damned.
States have long been touted as laboratories of democracy but Iowa, emboldened by conspiracy theories, craven local GOP officials and a lock on the statehouse and governorship is a laboratory experimenting people’s lives through direct policy violence.
I have covered Iowa politics well over a decade following local issues and candidates like then Senator Barack Obama on his road to the presidency to Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking to an over capacity crowd in Sioux City, Iowa on the hottest day of the year in July 2018. My home state has gone from blue to purple to deep red to rival any southern state. But in the last year over the course of the COVID19 pandemic that has killed over 6,030 Iowans (and counting) the right hand turn has been profound.
In the last month Governor Reynolds rejected $95 million dollars of federal COVID relief funds meant to bolster safety measures at public schools, announced she would end the federal program of increased unemployment benefits in June and said she wanted an anti-trans kids bill on her desk before the end of the legislative session. These announcements were made proudly on Fox News.
Like other Trump aligned state houses under GOP control, Iowa passed a discriminatory election law. It shortens the early voting period to 20 days from the current 29, just three years after Republicans reduced the period from 40 days. Mail in ballots now must be received – not just postmarked – by Election Day to be counted. Voters have to come together and request satellite voting sites and one will only be granted if there are enough petitioners, and if you miss one general election you will be removed from the voter roll. County election officials are now banned from proactively sending out absentee ballots and polling places will shut down an hour earlier – at 8pm on election day. But unlike Georgia you can hand a bottle of water to a person waiting on line without it being a crime.
There are special kinds of policy violence and overt racism, too. Take State Senator Zach Whiting – alleging the Iowa Capitol was under siege by Black Lives Matter activists gathered in peaceful protest on the grounds. He was supposedly so scared he was counting his ammo in his state-house office. Later Whiting walked it back — it was a lie — with no apologies to the BLM community or citizens of his district.
Ginning up fear around the Black Lives Matter movement led to an unprecedented number of reporter arrests around the country. It is right out of the Trump playbook to cast journalists as enemies of the people. Andrea May Sahouri is a breaking news reporter for the Des Moines Register. Covering a BLM protest last summer Sahouri was pursued by a policeman in full riot gear through an almost empty parking lot. While she screamed with her hands up “I’m press, I’m press, I’m press” the officer grabbed Sahouri and pepper sprayed her directly in the face. Her arrest led to a trial that caused international concern over press freedom. She was found not guilty. Iowa was the only state that put a reporter on trial.
State Representative Skyler Wheeler crusaded to ban the 1619 Project from being taught in public schools threatening to withhold state funding. I reached out to Wheeler to see if he knew the woman who developed the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times project, Nikole Hannah-Jones was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t hear back. Fortunately his measure didn’t pass.
Koch Brothers funded state senators and Trump loyalists have codified racism into housing law, empowering landlords to reject vouchers from people living in poverty. The move (and any targeting housing vouchers) disproportionately impacts communities of color. According to recent data from Talk Poverty, more than 340,000 Iowans live in poverty, of whom less than 10 percent are white; the rest are people of color. And of the 368,000 Iowans with a disability, an estimated 19.7 percent live in poverty.
Iowa’s economy is contracting, tax breaks for Big Ag increasing and owner operated family farms almost extinct. And farmers who do own and operate their land have full time jobs or side businesses to keep their family afloat. People commute across the state to work in high risk packing plant jobs, most from Central America, Mexico and increasingly immigrants from Africa. In Iowa’s 4th congressional district – the second largest producer of agricultural products in the US – biggest employer is Wal-Mart. A friend sent a photo from Facebook recently, it was a confederate flag flying above a “FUCK BIDEN” flag in Iowa just south of the Minnesota border.
Back in April Reynolds announced she, on behalf of Iowans, rebuked a federal request to help house children from the US/Mexico border. Children, unhoused fleeing crises in their home countries were not “our problem” Reynolds said. These children – including toddlers – are the “president’s problem” and that Biden had flung open some imaginary door at the border and let all of those people flood in.
But in July 1975 after touring refugee camps in Southeast Asia, Iowa’s Governor Robert Ray said of what he had seen: “I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die’ we wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation.” Governor Ray made the only decision he and his fellow Iowan’s could: Iowa will take them. In October 1975 the first Tai Dam refugees arrived in Iowa.
It wasn’t until I read Governor Ray’s obituary in 2018 that I was reminded he was a Republican. It honestly for a moment didn’t compute. The guy who was the Governor during most of my life (he served five terms), a humanitarian who didn’t chase culture war bogeymen, who worked for small family farms and bolstered Iowa’s educational system to become the best in the nation was a Republican?
Every four years the eyes of a nation turn toward the sweeping corn fields of Iowa. Home to the confusing first in the nation caucuses where white people gather in local schools and conduct a mysterious sorting ritual, grouping by candidate until a plurality is reached, a winner declared and as they say “as goes Iowa, so goes the nation.”
But of course this is nonsense. Clunky ancient voting system aside, Iowa hasn’t served as anything more than a stage for scores of presidential hopefuls stumping at the Iowa State Fair. Out of town reporters parachute in and out report the same exact story about a mythical place year after year after year after year.
The national conversation about why Iowa shouldn’t go first in our general election cycle has been a hot topic since I can remember. I am not here to argue for or against Iowa’s status. But I am here to tell you this: Iowa, once cast as a bellwether to the nation, has become America’s canary in the coal mine.
“As a professor at the University of Iowa, I have talked to many graduating students who say they will not stay in Iowa and likely will not return here. They believe Iowa is becoming a backwater state because of the Republicans’ culture war legislation around abortion, guns, racial and LGBT issues, and so much more. At a time when our population and work force are declining, the Republicans seem bent on pushing more young people and young professionals away.”
— Christina Bohannan, Iowa state representative of House District 85. She is also a professor at the University of Iowa Law School.