Guest columnist Karen List: ‘Iowa nice?’

  • Iowa Democrats gather to choose their candidate for the 2004 presidential election at a caucus meeting in Slater, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2004. AP

Published: 12/5/2022 10:33:29 PM

Two years ago after the implosion of the first-in-the-nation Iowa Democratic caucuses — meant to tell the world who was the leading candidate for president — I wrote a column for the Gazette defending the state where I was born and grew up. The headline was “Remember ‘Iowa nice.’”

The famous caucuses were a disaster because it took Iowa poll workers a week to tell the waiting world that the winner was Pete Buttigieg (26.2%), followed by Bernie Sanders (26.1%), Elizabeth Warren (18.1%) and, in fourth place, Joe Biden (15.8%). A defective phone app had prevented 1,600 precinct captains from reporting votes.

But not to worry, I told you, Iowans generally are “smart and resourceful, and they like to do things right.” They would figure it out, I promised, and they did. The Iowa caucuses are the bedrock of participatory democracy, I said, and they were.

I defended my state against an avalanche of criticism because I’d been so impressed at how seriously my former classmates and Iowans generally took their democratic responsibility. They listened to as many candidates as possible in person in venues from local diners to church basements to school gyms to private living rooms before deciding how to cast their votes.

Some of them listened and spoke to literally all the candidates running for president. Because Iowa had voted first for 50 years, it meant something to win the state, so all the candidates showed up.

Biden drove around in a bus with a huge sign on the side saying: NO MALARKEY. Amy Klobuchar came to potluck dinners with her signature tater tot casserole (obviously a huge hit in a state where fried tenderloins are the size of dinner plates).

And many candidates shook voters’ hands at the Iowa State Fair. I myself years ago had seen Republican candidate Bob Dole walking around the fair in 90-plus degree temperatures wearing a black suit and tie and a smile way bigger than circumstances would have dictated.

And some of my friends did their homework until the last minute, not deciding which candidate’s sign they would stand under until they were driving the 10 minutes to their caucus locations. I was so proud of them, and I felt like I was right there with them because they were texting me as the evening progressed or, more accurately, as it didn’t progress.

In addition to enjoying the communication with my friends, I loved Iowa’s turn in the spotlight because every four years I saw datelines in the New York Times from the smallest towns like mine: What Cheer! Pella! Burlington! And I shared with you my confidence that it would all come right in the end because that famous song about “Iowa nice” was really true.

But now, Iowa probably is about to lose its first-in-the-nation designation. Democratic officials are planning to give that honor to South Carolina in 2024, a change supported by President Biden. No malarkey.

That’s happening in part because of the massive cock-up in 2020 and in part because Democrats argue that Iowa is not representative of the nation, with its population 90% white.

And my “Iowa nice” argument that the state should be trusted to do the right thing?

I might have to take it back.

Iowa may have become as mean as some other red states. As a reporter friend in Cedar Rapids told me, “It doesn’t help that we’ve fallen so deeply into the red sea.” The state is a different place from when we were in school together and different from its pre-Trump days: “No steps forward,” she says, “and 50 steps backward.”

My classmates who took their duty two years ago so seriously, now say Iowa doesn’t deserve to be first. “I’m glad that Iowa is losing its first-in-the-nation caucus.,” one said, because “it’s no longer representative of the country in any way.”

Well, it hasn’t been representative for years, but it’s only recently that it’s become more rabidly conservative. The New York Times says with Trump’s election, Iowa “lurched more forcefully to the right than any other state.” After the recent mid-term elections, the state auditor was the only Democrat left standing. There are no longer any Democrats representing Iowa in Congress. And Trump stumped for Sen. Charles Grassley who in November won his eighth term in the Senate despite the fact he’ll be 96 when the term ends.

As a young Iowan, I remember being proud that my state’s governor and then senator was Democrat Harold Hughes. And all the way from Massachusetts, which has been my home for three decades, I was proud that Iowa voters, including my 80-something, lifelong-Republican Aunt Gigi, supported Obama twice.

But at this point, I’d estimate that half my high school classmates are Trump Republicans and conspiracy theorists. Their rants on Facebook against liberal elites certainly aren’t very nice.

But I find hope in the fact that we still have yearly reunions, and we still get along because when we’re together we don’t talk about politics. We remember each other as we were in our youth — the band queens, the girls’ basketball champions, the boys who ran the film projectors and the Future Farmers of America. We all got along then, and we all get along now by pushing politics aside and remembering the best of our younger selves.

And maybe that’s how “Iowa nice” continues to work today — even in a sea of red.

Karen List is a professor in the UMass Journalism Department. In her Mediapolis, Iowa, high school, she was a first-team all-state basketball guard and Queen of the Snowball.
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