The Iowa Democratic Party has been conducting a 2016 post-election postmortem on why they lost rural Iowa so badly.  One recommendation resurfaces in every one of these autopsies conducted over these losses.  The suggestion is that urban Democrats must listen to the needs of rural Iowans if they ever expect to gain their votes.

However, one rural Iowan warns Democrats it will take more than fake listening and feigned concern to reconnect with rural Iowa. Doug Burns, co-owner of the Carroll Daily Times Herald writes a column, “Taking Note,” for the Herald’s editorial page. Burns also writes the “Political Mercury” column for Des Moines’ Cityview newspaper. As a fourth generation newspaper man living and working in the heart of Steve King country, Democrats should pay close attention to Burn’s warnings. In a recent column, Burns offers a harsh reality check to urban Democrats about how rural Iowa views them.

“Rural Iowa faces challenges, many of them threatening our very survival as viable economic communities, and the Democratic Party, rather than genuinely connecting with us, dispatches urban candidates (and worse, surrogates) bubbling over with condescension and smugness,” Burns wrote earlier this month. “The only way it could be worse is if the Democrats sent tenured poetry professors or street mimes to our towns to campaign for their party’s initiatives.”

“You can feel this, sense it. Even leathery-skinned veterans of the public square like me find the attitudes of too many current Democrats, from Des Moines to New York to California, unbearably dismissive,” he continued. “They point fingers rather than offering a hand in goodwill. The Democrats lecture and fake listen. And they can’t hide their disdain, their amusement at rural Iowa. It’s as if they are visiting the zoo, gathering tidbits on our country ways, for later sport at our expense with friends over drinks in the Central West End of St. Louis or The Big Apple’s Brooklyn Heights — once these city Democrats, you know, skip out to Omaha or Des Moines before returning to their super-hip enclaves where people are more familiar with the cuts and recovery of gender-transition surgeries than slaughtering hogs or combining corn.”

Burns isn’t the first journalist to warn Democrats about taking rural Iowa for granted. Others have warned Democrats about their seeming exclusive focus on all their constituency caucuses while ignoring rural blue collar voters.

If Democrats want to regain these voters, Burns offers a very simple message

“People vote their own interests. Full stop. Not enough Iowans cast ballots simply because they are offended for black people and Latinos,” Burns wrote.

Democrats didn’t offer these rural blue collar voters any hope of improving their economic situation. Burns offers advice on where King is vulnerable and it’s not by attacking his racism.

“Here’s the opening, though: King is not serving in Iowa’s interest on matters having nothing to do with race. He’s gone Washington, D.C., fancy. That’s the terrain on which Democrats must engage him. King may be supremely white and fantastically European, but he’s no longer one of us in the way we desperately need our congressman to be.”

Congressman Loebsack and the Iowa Democratic Party established the Building Blocks Committee following the 2016 election to “review campaign tactics and messaging in order to figure out improvements for future campaign cycles.” It’s basically a rural Iowa listening tour in search of a message that will resonate with these rural blue collar voters.

Democrats are right; listening is essential, but once rural needs are identified it must translate into policies that promise to improve rural Iowans’ economic wellbeing. Democrats must propose real economic solutions that restore Iowa small towns, bring good paying jobs and improve the incomes of rural Iowans. If Democrats turn listening into action they may be able to win back rural voters.


by Rick Smith
Posted 4/25/17

22 thoughts on “Rural Iowans Give Urban Iowans Some Tough Advice

  1. Good God Burns’ own condescension as he describes the ‘elite’s’ condescension is breathtaking. His description of the poor abused rural folks drips self pity. He’s suggesting we Dems treat these poor melting snowflakes like tender flowers. Trump’s rise to power proves that that doesn’t work. What works is exactly what the repubs have done. Dems need to cynically grab power at any cost, telling any lies necessary to get it. What will save the democrats is the next generation, who are smart and fleeing the backwards hinterlands where diversity is not welcome. Republicans are like dead people who don’t know they’re dead yet. I just want to say to these sad people “go to the light, old man. that’s right.” I hope to see the last of them in their graves.

  2. Doug Burns knows what he is talking about. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that the party of Bernie Sanders isn’t going to listen to him. Eventually even rural Iowa will look more like the base of the Democrat Party. If you have about 20 years to wait, things will work out just fine.

    Unless this Trump thing gets out of hand.

  3. Wow. Perhaps the perceived condescension is just that – perception, not reality – I sense a huge chip on the shoulder. I live in this area – we are only perceived as hicks and know-nothings when we display behaviors that demonstrate the same. Despite attempts to divide Americans/Iowans by rural/urban parameters, the fact is that we all have the same aspirations for ourselves and our families. The real divide is between the haves and have-nots.

  4. “‘People vote their own interests. Full stop. Not enough Iowans cast ballots simply because they are offended for black people and Latinos,’ Burns wrote.”

    NO. People vote what they THINK are their own interests. That’s a HUGE difference. If people were to seriously and methodically analyze which party’s positions and policies ACTUALLY brought them tangible benefit, versus which party’s positions and policies merely make them THINK they were being served and give them the sense of false security that allows them to sleep contentedly at night, while that party was, in actuality, working actively and tirelessly against their interests behind their backs, most would NEVER give their votes to the latter party.

    The solution, then, is to make it clear to voters what is real, and what is illusion. What is merely hollow promise, to be dangled in front of voters, tantalizing but always just out of reach in order to lock in their votes election cycle after election cycle, versus what has ACTUALLY made their lives better (like Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, collective bargaining).

    Failure to do so allows the narrative, and the language of debate to be forever in control of the Party of Hollow Promises. Control those thnigs, and you control the politics and destiny of the nation.

  5. I studied with a number of tenured poetry professors in Arkansas’ Ozarks. They were badasses. Their friends at other universities were badasses. Just lazy journalism.

  6. This article is only part of the story. As a progressive Democrat AND a native rural Iowan, I get what Burns is saying. Some of our lefty liberal friends do display a real attitude of superiority, whether they are trying to or not, and really do see rural Iowans as hicks. I’m frequently offended by this attitude when I encounter it among some progressives. But that is only part of it. Many rural Iowans do not have “hick” mentality. The Trump voters, and there are many in “urban” Iowa areas as well as rural, need to stop allowing themselves to be lied to and brainwashed by the right wing propaganda machine. While I agree that Democrats have a message of sympathy for every group but poor rural Iowans, some of the disdain the left feel for Trump voters, Trump voters bring on themselves. What are we supposed to think of them when they keep voting for fools like Steve King and Donald Trump? And what are we supposed to think of their intelligence when they can’t seem to determine truth from fiction even when it is a documentable fact? No problem has a singular cause. There is plenty of blame (responsibility) to go around. Oh and by the way, here’s a nice list of right wing propaganda radio stations in Iowa along with the number of hours per day of right wing talk programming. 90% of political news is filtered through conservative punditry. The purveyors of right wing hate radio in Iowa are:
    KCPS Burlington – 12 hrs/day,
    KBUR Burlington – 6 hrs,
    KXEL Waterloo-CF – 12 hrs,
    WOC Quad Cities – 11 1/2 hrs,
    WHO Des Moines 11 1/2 hrs,
    KSJC Sioux City – 13 hrs,
    WMT Cedar Rapids 8 hrs,
    WDBQ Dubuque, 6 hrs,
    KILR Estherville – 15 hrs,
    KGLO Mason City – 9 hrs,
    KFJB Marshalltown, 3 hrs,
    KASI Ames, 6 hrs, and
    KICD Spencer, 5-6 hrs.

  7. In most Steve King elections, 40% of the voters vote for the democrat. In “liberal” Des Moines (metro), I think something like 45% of the electorate voted for Trump. Similarly, something like 40% of deep red Mississippi voted for Clinton and 40% of deep blue California voted for Trump. I think our winner take all election system is skewing our perception of voter preferences in urban/rural or blue state/red state distinctions.

    Maybe the problem is not that democrats don’t listen to rural voters (or maybe its that republican’s don’t listen to urban voters?), but that winner take all elections result in a significant proportion of the population not actually being represented in government?

    I think we have a crisis in our election system that is manifesting itself in bitter partisanship. It seems to me better messaging and focusing on economic issues probably is not going to systematically change the situation.

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