The danger of groupthink

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.

As a teacher I joked, “I hope I die during teacher in-service, because the transition won’t be abrupt.” Those meetings were deadly dull, and about as relevant to teaching as Lawrence Welk to rock and roll. 

But there were exceptions.

During one of those deadly sessions, the principal wheeled in the Betamax, and we watched “The Road to Abilene.”  It’s a simple story, and it might help answer the question, what happened to Iowa?

The story is about a family in Coleman Texas on a 103-degree day sitting on their porch playing dominoes. The father suggests they go to Abilene for supper. It means 84 miles round-trip in a car with no air conditioning. No one wants to go, but no one objects since they all believe everyone else wants to. 

Family members refuse to voice their true feelings for fear of disagreeing with what they think is a unanimous decision. Groupthink forces the family into a trip no one wants to take, to a place no one wants to visit.

I’m afraid that’s why the party once known for small government has decided only big government has the wisdom to write public school curriculum, decide what books may be in the library, and make medical and school bathroom decisions for LGBTQ kids and their families.

It’s groupthink at its ugliest, and it’s not about a stifling 84-mile car ride no one wants. It’s about the future of Iowa and the well-being of our kids.

This thinking often takes hold when one party controls the entire state government, and it doesn’t really matter which party has the trifecta. No one dares test the validity of the unanimous agreement.

In a state ruled by one party, the legislature can become an echo chamber, fueling groupthink. In Republican-controlled states, the word, “mandate” is used so often, it might as well be capitalized as a proper noun.

That’s how extremism burns down a state.

There’s little doubt Iowa is now a GOP stronghold. The Republican voter registration advantage continues to grow; as of last month, there were 686,894 active registered Republicans, compared to 591,030 Democrats and 591,530 no-party voters.

The GOP base often rewards the most extreme politicians, but that doesn’t mean Iowa legislators should assume all of the state’s Republican voters are baptized in the church of MAGA. Many of them are hard-core “always Trumpers,” but some part of the base may be open to something else.

The latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom showed that 44 percent of self-identified Republicans have “very favorable” feelings toward Trump and another 36 percent view him mostly favorably. But just 47 percent said they would definitely vote for Trump if he were the 2024 GOP nominee, and 27 said they would probably vote for him.   

Despite the Iowa legislature’s continued attacks, the same Iowa poll indicated that 65 percent of Iowa adults and 72 percent of parents with kids in public schools think their public schools align with their family values. In addition, 62 percent of Iowa adults said they oppose the private school voucher law Republicans enacted in January. Just 34 percent of respondents supported that law.

So, how can Iowa begin to recover from groupthink?

The easiest way is for voters to vet the candidates better. Those who pledge to be an independent voice before November need to be held accountable in January. Republicans who are sick of legislators bullying just because they can need to tell them to stop.

I don’t believe there’s a majority of moderate Republicans hiding under the Golden Dome, but I know some can’t stomach this extreme agenda. They could help shatter groupthink by disagreeing more in public. That takes political bravery, which we’ve always expected in Iowa but has been in short supply lately.

Hopefully, that quiet base will start to shout in time to keep Iowa from taking a trip no one wants to a place no one wants to visit.

Top photo of the Iowa capitol by Bruce Lear, published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Lear

  • Is it groupthink or follow the leader

    I don’t necessarily disagree with Bruce, but I tend to think that most of what the Republicans in the legislature are doing is the result of fear of a Governor who won by 19 points and is wielding that fact to intimidate the Republican legislators.