Politics
2:44 am
Sat December 24, 2011

Iowa's Relevance Criticized With Locals Caucus-Ready

Originally published on Sat December 24, 2011 10:11 pm

Every caucus season, swarms of politicians and journalists descend on Iowa. Inevitably the question arises: Why should this state have so much influence?

This year, one particularly harsh article about Iowa is getting almost as much attention in the state as the candidates themselves. The article, written by Iowa resident Stephen Bloom, raises some old questions about the state's role in selecting the nation's president.

"Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life," published in The Atlantic, makes Iowa out to be less Field of Dreams and more Deliverance meets Children of the Corn.

Getting A Rise Out Of People

In between mentions of the "gently rolling plains," Bloom, a University of Iowa professor, depicts rural Iowa as a place of "waste-toids and meth addicts" where there are "elderly waiting to die."

One town he calls out as a "depressed, crime-infested slum" is Keokuk.

"Like a lot of river towns, Keokuk has had recent economic distress because of industry leaving and going overseas, and those kinds of things," Chuck Betts, the director of the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce, says. "So yeah ... we have been economically distressed for a while, that's true. But you can't find a town in the United States that that's not true about."

The article raises some hard truths about Iowa and how it doesn't accurately represent America. For instance, more than 90 percent of Iowans are white. Many of its towns have fewer than 1,000 people.

But for many here, this piece felt personal.

"I think in a way he was profiling us to be like nasty river people that don't do anything at all, that kind of thing," says Tanner Walden, a bell ringer at a Salvation Army bucket in Keokuk.

Walden's sister and fellow bell ringer, Brianna, says that parts of the article may be truthful.

"But I think there's a better way of putting things. Like, he didn't have to be so blunt about everything I guess," she says, "and that gets a rise out of people."

In fact, some of the reactions to the article have been considerably nasty. Bloom declined to comment for this story, but he told a blogger this week that his family has received death threats.

Not Just 'Campaign Props'

Still, there is a journalistic tradition of reporters writing stories many Iowans feel are just too simple.

"If they would just rent a hangar at the airport and stock it with a farmer and a cow and a pig and a horse and a pitchfork and a barrel of hay, they could fly right in, do their stereotypical photo op and fly right out again," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.

He points out that for just as long as Iowa's had its critics, it's had a rebuttal: the democracy-in-the-heartland argument.

"In the bigger states with bigger populations, regular voters tend to be treated simply as a campaign prop for a photo op or something like that," he says. "In Iowa, voters have to be treated as individual or real human beings, and that's good for the candidates."

Now, he says, that might be changing, as campaigns are spending less time in Iowa and voters are more able to form their opinions from national debates.

Still, the caucuses are a unique event. Voters — many of them rural, many of them white — come out at a specific time and place and debate issues and candidates.

Back To Business

Iowans are fine with it this way. They've heard all the criticisms before. While some may sting, most are shrugged off.

Like Betts of Keokuk's Chamber of Commerce, they might even make a tourism campaign out of it.

"This is an opportunity. In fact, I'm throwing around the idea of hosting a 'Crime-Infested Slum Days' sometime in the future. Perhaps Mr. Bloom's birthday will be the date of the celebration," Betts says. "And that's kind of a half-serious idea."

As Iowa Republicans prepare to caucus in just 10 days, they'll put the insults aside and focus on choosing a candidate.

Copyright 2012 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.iowapublicradio.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And every caucus season, there's swarms of politicians and journalists who descend on Iowa. Inevitably, the question arises: why should this state have so much influence? Well, this year, one especially harsh article about Iowa was written by someone who lives there, and it's getting a lot of attention. As Iowa Public Radio's Kate Wells reports, the article raises some old questions about the Iowa's role in selecting the nation's president.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Look, Iowans know what you think about their state.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hunting and fishing and rural and crime-infested slum town, yeah.

WELLS: Wait, did we lose you back at crime-infested slum towns? Then you haven't read the article published online at the Atlantic called "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life," written by Stephen Bloom who teaches the University of Iowa. It makes the state out to be less "Field of Dreams" and more "Deliverance" meets "Children of the Corn." In between mentions of the gently rolling plains, Bloom depicts rural Iowa as a place of wasteoids and meth addicts where the elderly are waiting to die. One town he calls out as a depressed, crime-infested slum is Keokuk. Chuck Betts is the director of the Keokuk Chamber of Commerce.

CHUCK BETTS: Like a lot of river towns, Keokuk has had recent economic distress because of industry leaving and going overseas, and those kinds of things. So yeah, we have been economically distressed for a while, that's true. But you can't find a town in the United States that that's not true about.

WELLS: The article raises some hard truths about the state and how it doesn't accurately represent America. For instance, more than 90 percent of Iowans are white. Many of its towns have less than a thousand people. But for many here this piece felt personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

WELLS: Tanner and Brianna Walden are siblings and bell ringers at a Salvation Army bucket in Keokuk.

TANNER WALDEN: I think in a way he was profiling us to be like nasty river people that don't do anything at all, kind of thing.

BRIANNA WALDEN: Like, I don't know, some things hold truth but there's a better way of putting things. Like, he didn't have to be so blunt about everything, I guess. That gets a rise out of people, so....

WELLS: In fact, some of the reactions to the article have been considerably nasty. Bloom declined to comment for this story, but he told a blogger this week that his family has received death threats. Still, there is a journalistic tradition of reporters writing stories many Iowans feel are just too simple.

DENNIS GOLDFORD, DRAKE UNIVERSITY POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR: If they would just rent a hangar at the airport and stock it with a farmer and a cow and a pig and a horse and a pitchfork and a bale of hay, they could fly right in, do their stereotypical photo-op and fly out again.

WELLS: Dennis Goldford is a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. He points out that for just as long as Iowa's had its critics, it's had a rebuttal: the democracy-in-the-heartland argument.

PROFESSOR: In the bigger states with bigger populations, regular voters tend to be treated simply as a campaign prop for a photo-op or something like that. In Iowa, voters have to be treated as individual or real human beings, and that's good for the candidates.

WELLS: Now, he says, that might be changing as campaigns are spending less time in Iowa and voters are more able to form their opinions from national debates. Still, the caucuses are a unique event. Voters - many of them rural, many of them white - come out at a specific time and place, and debate issues and candidates. And Iowans are fine with it this way. They've heard all the criticisms before. And while some may sting, most get shrugged off. Like Chuck Betts of Keokuk's Chamber of Commerce, they might even make a tourism campaign out of it.

BETTS: This is an opportunity. In fact, I'm throwing around the idea of hosting a Crime-Infested Slum Days sometime in the future. Perhaps on Mr. Bloom's birthday will be the date of the celebration. And that's kind of a half-serious idea.

WELLS: As Iowa Republicans prepare to caucus in just 10 more days, they'll put the insults aside and focus on choosing a candidate. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.