The Purity Pundits of Polk County
by Jeff Rohrick
In his July 2nd article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Rev. Mel Schlachter described ‘Iowa Nice’ as a “live-and-let-live approach; at best showing mutual respect, solving conflicts with even tempers, and staying positively connected over time.” He also said, “Conflict avoidance can be a downside of Iowa Nice.” He’s right. After I attended the first two Dakota Access Pipeline protests in Boone and Pilot Mound, I asked myself, “Can ‘Iowa Nice’ stop the pipeline?”
To my surprise, Pat Rynard’s October 12th article on IowaStartingLine.com, “The Death of Iowa Nice,” tackles this same issue. Rynard begins by largely attributing the death of ‘Iowa Nice’ to the grotesquery of Republican discourse then proceeds to underplay how the Iowa Democratic Party became a co-conspirator in its demise. He perpetuates his ongoing, disdainful narrative of the progressive left by using two statements from supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, one directed at Senator Mike Gronstal, the other mistakenly directed at Rynard himself. After the Democratic State Convention, Rynard tweeted, “Let me be the first: As an Iowa Democrat, I thoroughly disavow the Iowa Democratic platform.” This is yet another jab by Rynard at the Sanders delegates who were willing to stay the course until 2:00 AM to draft a progressive platform that might not align with his more centrist views. The problem with Rynard’s article is that it not only downplays the division, it ignores his role in the death of ‘Iowa Nice.’
Occasionally, Rynard makes some necessary and cogent arguments, like his call for Tom Henderson’s resignation after the Polk County Convention. However, in the same article, he quotes Clinton delegation chair Sean Bagniewski multiple times, but doesn’t get a single quote from Sanders delegation chair, Fred Trujillo. He also rightly calls out the ineptitude of former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Yet while he demonizes the Sanders campaign for the DNC leak last December, IowaStartingLine.com has ignored the emails proving collusion between the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the corporate media that led to the resignations of five DNC employees. The real issue is that Rynard seeks out ‘news’ to fit his narrative, whether it’s publishing quotes from Sanders supporters to paint them in a negative light; highlighting Bagniewski’s perception of the Polk County Convention while ignoring Trujillo’s; celebrating the merging of the Clinton campaign with the DNC a month before the California primary; or using Twitter to gaslight his readers, whose vicious and derogatory statements about Senator Sanders over the last 12 months highlight the attitude of many of his followers.
Fortunately for his narrative, Rynard misses the moments that cast Secretary Clinton’s supporters in the same light as he casts those of Senator Sanders, like the Clinton delegate next to me at the state convention who said, “When are these [expletive] [expletives] going to get the [expletive] out of here?” Or at the first meeting of the Polk County Democrats after the state convention, when two members of the Iowa Caucus Review Committee came to preview their upcoming report only to be thoroughly and unnecessarily ripped apart by two longtime county Democrats who were clearly offended that a review of their perfectly-oiled caucus machine was even needed.
The October 5th article by Rynard’s colleague, Rick Smith, “Is Purity Undermining the Democratic Party?” also starts by pinning the problem largely on Republicans. But his real targets are the Fight for $15 activists. “The minimum wage is an example of this absolutist-purity requirement. The Fight for $15 has been a powerful motivating issue that the Democratic Party has embraced. A minimum wage of $15 is an excellent goal the party should support. However, an absolute refusal to compromise on the amount could result in no increase at all.”
There are two problems with Smith’s argument. First of all, that Iowa Democratic Platform disavowed by Rynard includes the plank “We support replacing minimum wage with “living wage” of at least $15 per hour, annualized to CPI.” If the platform speaks for the party, why is Rick Smith, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee, chastising those who are attempting to make that platform a reality? Under current federal guidelines, the raise to $10.75 would create a gross annual salary of $22,360, meaning that any household with four or more people would be considered impoverished on one minimum wage income (not accounting for changes to the poverty guidelines by 2019). A couple with two children living on one $10.75 minimum wage income would have to live in poverty to allow one parent to stay at home with two young children. As Jonathan Neiderbach, District 1 Democratic write-in candidate for the Polk County Board of Supervisors, stated, “The idea that we can’t convert a stable Democratic majority on the County Board into a $15 minimum wage for all workers is outrageous.”
The second problem is that Smith compares the Fight for $15 ‘purists’ to the Tea Party for their refusal to compromise. What’s so unnerving is that the Democrats on the Polk County Board of Supervisors not only ignored the Fight for $15 activists, they refused the compromise put forth by their own presidential candidate of a $12 an hour federal minimum wage. Instead, they adopted $10.75 by 2019 and Smith thanked the supervisors for their courage, not for working with the people, but for hammering out a solution that satisfied the restaurant and grocery industries. The Democratic Party has been the bastion of activism for decades, leading the fight for racial justice, voter justice, gender justice, LGBTQ justice, and environmental justice. And it each case, these efforts were largely influenced by young activists; the ‘purists’ Smith now disdains. The great injustice of our time is economic injustice, and while today’s generation of youthful activists are ready to fight, the moderate generation of centrists are willing to compromise in the extreme to prove they’re not the Tea Party. ‘Iowa Nice’ combined with the Democratic need for manufactured civility will only contribute to the ongoing downfall of the Iowa middle class.
What’s even more disturbing is that Smith doesn’t recognize his ilk’s own demand for purity. Like the two scornful women at the Polk County Democrats meeting or the Clinton delegate mentioned above, there’s a ‘time served’ purity among the Iowa Democratic elite. If you haven’t been a participating member of the Democratic Party for ‘X’ number of years, your values, opinions, and principles are unvalued, wrong, and extreme. That’s why, rather than embrace the insurgency of young voters into the party, they were categorically dismissed. Their preferred candidate wasn’t a ‘pure’ Democrat, so neither were they.
The third party rising in this election isn’t the Greens or the Libertarians. It’s the Neoliberals – the corporate friendly, fiscally conservative, socially malleable, globally aggressive oligarchs at the center of our political spectrum led by the ‘pure’ Democrat who embodies the neoliberal philosophy outlined by her husband 28 years ago. While it may seem that the hordes of Republican Washington elite endorsing Secretary Clinton is a reaction to the loathsome stench of Donald Trump, it’s actually a culmination of President Clinton’s strategy of ‘third way’ triangulation. In his article, “The Republicans Have Been Trumped,” Charlie Post deftly explains how Clintonian neoliberalism created both the radical, uncompromising Tea Party, and the progressive activism mobilized by Sanders.
“Lesser-evilism has actually accelerated the drift to the right in US politics. The fear of alienating their Democratic “allies” has led the official leadership of reform movements in the past eighty years to derail the sort of social movements — militant labor struggles, mass movements against racism, sexism, and war — that can win reforms and build left-wing consciousness and politics. In the name of “being realistic,” these forces follow the Democrats, dropping demands for real reforms. The Democrats are then free to “compromise” with the Republican right.
This can be seen clearly in the marginalization of Sanders and his supporters at the Democratic convention, congressional Democrats’ continued support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton’s choice of the “free trade” advocate Tim Kaine as her running mate, and her sharp tack to the right on foreign policy.
The Left’s support for a rightward-moving Democratic Party as a “lesser evil”to the populist right actually facilitates the growing right-wing radicalization.”
The words and actions of the Polk County Board of Supervisors, with Smith as their mouthpiece, are a perfect example of triangulated neoliberalism. The supervisors can appear progressive by taking up the issue of the minimum wage while appealing to conservatives by compromising with the restaurant and grocery lobbyists toward a corporate-friendly solution. Thus we end up with the convergence of the rightward moving Democratic Party with the moderate, corporatist Republicans fleeing from both Trump and the radical Tea Party.
Rynard is right. There is a division on the left. But he wants to minimize it and Rick Smith wants to chastise and label it. If Rynard wants to understand the death of ‘Iowa Nice,’ he needs to start by addressing his own words and behavior. And if Smith is intolerant of political purity, he needs to address the purity demanded by the Iowa Democrats with ‘X’ years of service and applaud the activists rather than the lobbyists.
I don’t think ‘Iowa Nice’ is dead. But I don’t think it would hurt to leave it in a self-induced coma for a while.