By Jack Schuler
I am a member of the Central Committee for the Polk County Democrats, and I moved to call the question, which led to the vote to overturn the events committee’s decision to exclude Heather Ryan from the Steak Fry speakers. I am no Ryan supporter. In fact, my choice candidate dropped out over the summer due to separate incidents of childishness and exclusions from members and volunteers of the county party. At this point, all I know is that Ryan does not have my vote. Still, I voted to overturn the events committee’s decision to disallow her from speaking, not out of support for the candidate but in opposition to the behavior of members of the Executive Board and the Events Committee. My reasons follow, and I know from discussions with other voting members of the Central Committee that some of my sentiments are shared.
- This is not a free speech issue.
The First Amendment states that the government shall not infringe upon free speech. A private organization, which the Democratic Party is, is under no obligation to permit anyone to speak. Just like the Progressive Caucus can delete your post from its Facebook page the Party can decide to not allow candidates to speak at the functions it sponsors and hosts. The government cannot bar me from writing this piece, seeking publication for, reading it aloud on the street, or distributing it as a pamphlet to all who wish to take it. Any one of our Iowa-based political blogs is well with its rights to decide not to publish it. In this same fashion, Ryan can say whatever she wants, but the party is not obligated to provide her platform to do it.
All of that being said…
- To exclude Heather Ryan is to symbolically exclude the people themselves.
The things Ryan has said in the past involve naughty words and lowbrow insults towards incumbents. While it’s certainly not the classiest way to do politics, it’s not inciting violence or advocating for bigotry. Ryan’s choice of words is nothing that the voters themselves haven’t already expressed about Steve King and David Young. Hell, I have publicly called King worse things than “asshole.” Excluding Ryan tells voters who are angry with King and Young that their anger isn’t justified. It sends a message that Party leadership doesn’t care how the voters feel. Instead, the biggest concern is creating a program that is safe, that delivers a slew of focus-group-tested-standard-issue Democratic messaging™, that does not resonate with the deepest needs of the votes we most need, and that does nothing to stir to the fed-up voters ready to abandon politics and the Party altogether. At the very least, Ryan says what many are thinking and unites the collective opposition to incumbents.
- Now Heather Ryan (and every single political opponent of the Democratic Party) has control of the narrative.
Heather Ryan is media and communication savvy, and the last thing you want to do if you oppose her is let her control the narrative. By failing to include the Central Committee and initiate an open and transparent dialogue, the leadership behind the decision handed Ryan a pen and a blank page. She got to write her own story where she could become the victim of a secret cabal that sought to undermine her candidacy, even if that wasn’t true. Like it or not, we are in a political post-truth era where perception is on par with reality. Over a decade ago, we all laughed at Stephen Colbert’s diatribe on “truthiness,” but we failed to notice his foreshadowing. It doesn’t matter who called whom, what was said, if anyone called at all, or what the Events Committee’s intentions were. It feels like Ryan was being ostracized and silenced, and that is the reality that many will subscribe to, especially if they already have a negative opinion of the Party and its leaders. It won’t take much, either, for the Democratic Party to be swiftly reminded of the Ryan debacle anytime an opponent wants to paint our Party as elitist and exclusionary. If there was ever a political equivalent of a butt fumble, this is it.
- The Central Committee was not consulted.
If it wasn’t already hard enough for Democratic leadership to shake the labels of exclusionary and elitist, failing to allow the Central Committee to have a say in Ryan’s inclusion or exclusion reinforces the images of backroom dealing and shadowy manipulation that plagued the Party in 2016. If you want us to look like the big, blue tent that we claim to be, let the Central Committee serve one of its many purposes. We’re not just here to approve minutes and accept committee reports. We all assumed our positions, sacrificed our time, and expected no compensation so that we could represent our precincts and take part in a democratic process. Had we been included from the moment this became an issue, we would have been able to not only vote on Ryan’s inclusion, but we also would have been able to create an honor code or speaking guidelines for each candidate to adhere to. I voted against the no profanity motion because I didn’t believe that there was enough time to create clear guidelines that the Central Committee could agree upon. This would not have been the case had we been included from the beginning.
- How voters react to Heather Ryan will yield more information than any poll or focus group.
Removing the forum for a message doesn’t make the sentiment disappear. Whether you like Ryan’s message or not, the voices of those who spoke in support of her show that what she says and how she says it is resonating somewhere; furthermore, the voices of those who spoke against her show that there are also those who can define exactly why they oppose her. Ryan represents something tangible and relatable/opposable, depending on how you feel about what she says. In this regard, she differs from the other candidates in her race, none of whom have really set themselves apart in any way. While giving the voters nothing to stand against them about, they haven’t given us anything to champion on their behalf. If Ryan speaks with her usual candor and the voters reject her, then we will have concrete evidence that our base desires a different approach. If she resonates, however, then we will know that the highbrow approach demanded by many leaders and committee members is being rejected by the rank and file.
As I mentioned in my second point, there are voters with palpable anger towards the deafness of our incumbents and even our own Party leadership. We’re tired of going high and losing. We’re tired of knowing damn well that King and Young are assholes but being shushed by our leadership for saying it. We tired of listening to our opponents call us and the people we love every rotten name and slur in the book, while we’re expected to play nice. If Heather resonates with enough voters to win her primary or at least perform well, it will show that her message and delivery have resonated with voters that we will need to win. It will show us that, while we don’t necessarily want to go the name-calling, we need to harness that very real anger and frustration voters feel as they watch their legislators sell them out again as our Party continues pushing pleasant but vacant candidates.
In the end, we spent the majority of our three-hour meeting on a single topic as the Central Committee corrected the brazen foolishness of those who chose to exclude Heather Ryan. In the end, those leaders got the chaos they created for themselves. All the bickering, the red-hot emotions, and anger were all a byproduct of a foolish decision that could have easily been prevented. Unfortunately, that meeting will be remembered for the Ryan debacle, when the only good thing that happened was the unanimous acceptance of Brenda Phongsavanh’s motion in support of DACA recipients.
Perhaps the best way to move forward is to remind ourselves that after a night of infighting, we remembered to be decent people long enough to stand together in support of the vulnerable. Before we adjourned, we managed to act like we might be Democrats after all.