Iowa needs to escape the boiling water

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.

There’s an old story about how to boil a frog. If you put a frog in boiling water, it will quickly jump out. But supposedly, if you put a frog in tepid water and gradually heat it, the frog stays until it boils to death. 

Like the frog, Iowans failed to recognize the danger of political climate change. And Iowa is now boiling.

I began teaching in 1979 in a tiny central Iowa town. It was a great place to begin. It was also a great place to try politics. But I was a Democrat surrounded by Republicans. They weren’t moderates.

They were conservative to the core. But not Kim Reynolds conservative. They were Bob Ray conservatives. They preached from the gospel of small government and were so tight with money, they squeaked. But they governed with principles. They were consistent, predictable, and accessible.

I disagreed with their policies, but even as a young, shoot from the hip, Democrat, I could talk to them, and they listened with respect or at least without showing disdain. They were able to rationalize why schools just couldn’t have more funding. After all, the price of corn was bad.   

They always answered the phone and attended forums. Generally, they disagreed but were not disagreeable. I can’t remember any issue where I was treated as the enemy. 

Iowa was considered a tepid state: not too hot, not too cold. Most of the time there was a search for the middle and the extreme ends of both parties were quieted by the adults in the room. If a politician from either party had called for teachers to be arrested for books they were teaching, they’d have been laughed out of the chamber.

But that was then; this is now.

So, how did Iowa go from tepid to boiling?

Anyone who thinks they have the whole answer probably doesn’t. But I think there are a few contributing factors.

Terry Branstad made a political comeback in 2010 as the resurrected, Republican governor. But he didn’t govern like before. He had a harder edge and different advisers. The legislature was split between parties, which dulled his edge until after the 2016 election, when Republicans gained control of the state Senate as well as the House. 

Branstad immediately sought revenge on public sector unions from grievances he held from his first go around as governor. He quickly trashed meaningful public sector collective bargaining, which had created relative labor harmony for more than 40 years. 

Second, Donald Trump morphed from narcissistic businessman to narcissistic politician by harnessing grievance politics. If that brash, in your face politics worked for “The Donald,” why not try it at the state level?

The water began to heat.

The COVID-19 pandemic polarized us, and America chose sides, with the uniforms being masks versus no mask. Republicans refused to acknowledge medical science, while Democrats became loud evangelists for staying home, moving schools to remote learning, and getting immunized.

The MAGA base branded compromise as capitulation and punished any who dared extend a hand to the other side. Real problems were ignored, like access to affordable child care, poverty, mental health issues, and public school funding. Republicans created solutions in search of problems because they were rewarded for branding anyone who disagreed with them as “woke enemies.”

The right’s scream machine, FOX News and numerous talk radio hosts, blasted out propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories, which drowned out any chance of compromise between the parties.

The water boiled.

The only way to jump out of political climate change is to escape via the ballot box. Iowa voters can rescue the state. We need to wake up, or like the frog, it’ll be too late.

Top photo of boiling water by Africa Studio, available via Shutterstock.

  • Holy War

    The rise of evangelical Christianity in Iowa since 1980 is not to be underestimated. Because the evangelical movement is largely southern-based, it brought the mores of the old Confederacy into a state that long prided itself on its role in the Civil War. I lived and worked in Iowa in the 1970s, then moved to Texas in the early 80s where I saw the ways of the Southern Baptists dominate the culture. I returned to Iowa to see that the Southern Baptist melody that moved northward, in the form of a new political movement. I knew Bob Ray and he was a devout Christian. But Bob Ray believed that faith was a private, personal matter. Today's evangelical Republicans do not.

    • Evangelical make no bones

      Right now evangelicals have several associations that promote their agenda, bring rightwing GOP candidate to Iowa to meet Iowa’s evangelicals., lobby and organize pressure, and operate a cottage industry to perpetuate the wedge issues essential to their existence. The FAITH and FREEDOM Coalition assembled about a thousand to hear from nine potentials whose names might appear on the caucus ballot. The Family Leader will host a conflab in July where Tucker Carlson is expected to rattle their bones. My question, besides the unions, where are the associations with a counter mission of faith, hope, and actual charity?

    • Branstad

      Branstad was a campus leader at I of Iowa, and leveraged that ambition to get on the Republican ballot in Lake Mills, a stronghold for conservatives. He served as a rep first in 1973-74 and was active on the floor, especially if public radio was broadcasting a debate. He was on the floor in 1974 when the House, majority Republicans, passed SF 531, the public employee bargains law. He opposed all planks favorable to employees, as did Chuck Grassley, an announced Congressional Candidate. Republican Brice Oakley was the floor manager and, over a lengthy debate, patched together the final bill that included final offer arbitration. The ranks of ISEA and AFSCME swelled and, strangely were viewed as a more potent lobby than Farm Bureau. If there were evangelical groups, they weren’t organized. Branstad ran against Oakley and another moderate Republican for Lt. Gov. position, and was elected by a split vote that gave him just over the 35% needed. He ran for governor in 1982 and beat the eminent Roxanne Conlin … and a succession of Democrats through the 1994 election, and he “retired” in 1998. Interestingly, when teachers salaries were slumping, he along with ISEA lobbyists promoted a $100M infusion of money to support teachers. That move shook lose an ISEA endorsement in 1990, and Branstad became the “Education Governor” for the next eight years. Branstad’s backbone was straightened by his wealthy benefactor, the businessman Marvin Pomerantz who strongly supported public education and served as chair of the board of Regents at the time. The Republicans list three elections in a row and had no bench when another wealthy donor recruited Branstad. Pomerantz had died, so the governor’s agenda took a sharp turn left. Interestingly. In 2010 rightwing evangelical Bob Vander Plaats (himself a primary contender) was organizing Iowans to reject retention of judges who had supported same sex marriage.

  • Scapegoating public officials and state officers

    The Reynolds Administration used cruel and publicly humiliating actions hurdled at the Des Moines Public Schools former Superintendent, Dr. Tom Ahart, in the throws of the first wave of COVID pandemic, admonishing the entire district of 31,000 students for moving to online learning. The preparation for which must have been of immense complexity. The insidious proliferation and spread of this virus was so incredulously overlooked by the Governor and she intentionally targeted Dr. Ahart, demanding in person classes without masks. It was one of the most reckless swipes at public health/ medically sound science. And here we are with the fourth or fifth sub-variant SARS-CoV-2 currently passing through Iowa. May the unmasked public government officials and mocking GOP pundits who spread lies and virus upon Iowan victims who perished or were afflicted with long COVID-19 symptoms be forever linked to their deceptions and persecuting, bullying methods upon those who were simply doing the correct, preventative, public health sanctioned methods for preventing the SARS-CoV-2 spread.

  • Well done, Bruce

    And commenters, too. (A reflection and impetus to comment further on a well done post, I suspect.)

    In short, we are flirting with fascism.

    A side benefit of that, perhaps the only benefit of that, is the sheer number of well written books in the past half dozen years or so, written by people who have family ancestry with direct experience of the most recent time when it got really, really bad in Europe (like now in Ukraine) and the free world had to put a stop to it.

    Some of the books go even further back in time, when it was really, really bad here.

    This is not a coincidence. The authors pointedly say so...that the motivation to write their book was from the "we've seen this before and understand where it can lead" perspective.


    As to media, Bruce, you could have included Facebook as well.

    FB's internal research made it clear to FB that, although nobody is completely immune to latching on to mis/disinformation and/or conspiracy theories, those who self-identified as conservative were far more susceptible than those who identified as liberal. Not even close. FB knew that. But didn't care, at least not initially.

    So for people getting their "news" algorithmically for enragement engagement, that's a big problem.

    We know from the recent Dominion/Fox depositions what Fox executives and staff believed about the level of intelligence of their audience, and what they need(ed) to do to keep their cash cow on top. They knew, and didn't care. And they still don't, despite the settlement.

    It is so embarrassing to have a governor openly proclaiming she's proud that Iowans don't have a clue. Wake up? Goodness gracious...that would be woke!

    As far as I'm concerned, that Jew guy a couple millennium ago was the first woke dude to walk the planet. People were motivated to write about him. There he was, hanging out with and comforting the freaks, the outcasts, the marginalized. Only popping over briefly to people the likes of Reynolds once in awhile to say, "You're doing it wrong."

    So they strung him up.

    Centuries later, people claiming the authority to know what it was all about with that guy, did in Galileo when he pointed out maybe we ought to grow a brain and believe our own eyes.

    I'm not so much freaking out about all the current hand-wringing over artificial intelligence. The concept of infinity becomes so much easier to grasp when pondering the greater threat, our vast supply of natural stupidity.

    The Trump hangover is a doozie. It's gonna be awhile. Some states are figuring it out. Just not us, quite yet.

    Apologies for the length of this. I can get carried away a bit sometimes...

  • Frogs

    Frogs will jump out of water as you heat it up, slowly or quickly. What is being identified is a very human problem of psychological and emotional manipulation, sometimes identified as gaslighting. Frogs are okay; people need to take control.

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