Rural Iowans Give Urban Iowans Some Tough Advice

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

23 Comments on "Rural Iowans Give Urban Iowans Some Tough Advice"

  • The thoughts are all pertinent. Listening and understanding go a ways. The real problem, however, for either party is coming up with anything viable. Republicans have succeeded only by appealing to the prejudices and worst character traits. They offer no economic plan. In fact, in the pocket of large corporations and agribusiness, they make rural blight worse. Nevertheless, and from my experience in small town economic development, I simply see no uniformly effective answer. The few small towns and rural areas that have slightly prospered have unique and not universally available fortunes. Maybe state-wide high speed internet is a place to start with huge infrastructure spending that is state-wide, without winners and losers among communities. And, remembering Harold Hughes winning on liquor by the drink, I think recreational marijuana is the galvanizing issue to champion.

  • Well, I’m decidedly not “rural Iowa”, but I do believe that Democrats shouldn’t even have to THINK about what Burns says. It should be in our DNA (if you will). I sincerely hope that the Building Blocks Committee REALLY listens (and takes to heart) what it is being told.

  • I live in Steve King’s district and the republicans I know all watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. They don’t vote for their own self-interest. They elect people that promise them tax breaks and school funding and only get the tax breaks while schools decline. Many of them are racists including a number of my own relatives. Add in the dark money funded propaganda from the likes of the American Action Network and it gets very hard to reach them. Democrats need to do a better job of pointing out just who is responsible for the hard times many are living in. It isn’t the party that’s trying to get health care for everyone, living wages or affordable education.

  • It would be interesting to hear what Burns says the Republicans have done to help rural Iowa. Does giving multi-million dollar incentives to an Egyptian fertilizer plant in one corner of Iowa help rural Iowans if that same money could have been used to prop up their schools or repaired their roads or bridges? Does passing lax gun laws where they can shoot their neighbors in any location if they feel threatened help rural Iowans? Does denying funding to Planned Parenthood because some of their sites provide abortions but also cancels all birth control, STD exams, etc. help rural Iowans? What specifically do rural Iowans want?

    • This comment comes across as dripping with confession that Doug Burns warns against. Listening does not mean slamming folks because they didn’t oppose people who support causes that you think are terrible. It means identifying common ground and working in those issues.

      • I see your point, Mr. Coveyou. The problem is that presenting facts that do not fit with your audience’s world view is often perceived as condescension. I’ve seen a video montage of President Trump saying something, then flatly denying he ever said that thing – in other words, demonstrably lying. Some of the comments read (paraphrasing) “SEE! I like him – he says what he means!” How do I respond to that in a serious and respectful way? When the only reasonable answer is WTF?

  • I grew up in Algona. College in Ames and Cedar Falls. Theb worked and lived in Des Moines, then Osceola, then Orange City, and now Waterloo. Three urban and three urban and three rural areas. The biggest difference between them is the people. Rural Iowans are far less welcoming. As a 30-something rent is worse in rural communities due to the lack of availability of apartments and housing. My generation can’t afford homes as much, so we gravitate toward places with jobs and affordable housing. Try walking through a Fareway in Orange City, not a single polite person in there. I often fpund myself the only person offering up a please or thank you. Rural locals think things like yearly parades and monthly Lion’s Club meeting are enough socialization to draw in or keep youth satisfied and connected with their communities after high school.

  • Agreed, King will be tough to challenge on anything he does OR doesn’t do for his district. He was elected because he’s home folks and he talks the talk. But that will be even tougher to challenge.

    “What specifically do rural Iowans want?” What if they don’t know? What if they honestly don’t care – beyond having ther identity stroked? How do you campaign on that? What are the potential pitfalls?

    Speaking to that – there is nothing about recruiting or building candidacies at the local level in King country. Are there no Democrats left at all in the region???

  • Doug Burns is right on the mark. He is one of the best editorial writers in Iowa. On par with the Cullen’s of Storm Lake. Burns hears and witnesses the happenings of rural Iowa every day.
    From one who has personally been involved in rural Iowa politics. Having been the county chair for Carroll County, I have seen it flip from a good blue Iowa county to a red Iowa county. It first started in the 80’s with the pro -life movement and the election of Grassley and Branstad. There were exceptions but most of them were come local county candidates. the voters of Carroll County and I am sure most of the other Iowa rural counties weren’t impressed by some of the Democrats attention to LBGT rights and other issues that aren’t important to rural Iowa. Democrats don’t need to listen but start by doing. First place to start is their county, district and state platforms. Small and medium size Iowa towns are hurting and that is what Dems need to address to bring back Iowa into the Democratic fold. Otherwise we will be losing and going into oblivion. City counties need to take heed.

  • Call me skeptical. Gary Schmidt’s comment points out the problem: due to the sorting that has happened, Democrats cannot appeal to rural Iowa without selling our soul on the issues of women’s health and on gun violence. Burns says “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.” I guarantee you that (a) not one rural Iowan can identify anything substantive in Trump’s “platform” (such as it was) that was a “real economic solution to restore Iowa small towns” and (b) that Clinton had publicly-available policy positions — actual substantive ones, not bumper sticker slogans — that would have done more for rural health care, rural schools, and rural job growth than anything Trump provided. And if you think Clinton/Trump is an anomoly, I would make the same bet on Hatch/Branstad, Braley/Ernst, etc. There simply is no evidence that “People vote their own interest. Full Stop.” unless you classify hatred of others and giving the middle finger to “the system” to be in their own interest.

    • Unfortunately, I think you’re right. If this election “proved” anything, it was that lots of people voted against their best interests. But why the “rural” people Burns listened to voted for Trump and other Republicans AND against policies that might have helped them is still a puzzle for me unless of course rural Iowans really are bigoted hypocrites, or unable to think critically. Perhaps our educational system is failing us?

  • So sorry but after listening and watching are our own Republican legislature hit the state of Iowa this past year with it’s very own version of I/We know best care what they think about any issue. Going backwards is unproductive.

  • I sometimes wonder if it is too late for the Dems to win back the rural vote in Iowa. Rural voters need to hear from a rural candidate that has the rural interests at heart. One that can identify with problems rural folks and small towns and cities face everyday. Democrats don’t need to talk about “rights” because that is a given for the Democratic Party. We don’t need to remind voters about that over and over. Economic well being and issues that effect rural and middle sized towns need to be the Dems emphasis. Medium and small towns in Iowa don’t feel they have been included in any of Iowa’s economic growth. Is there anyone out there that can tell me I am wrong?

    • Funnily enough my daughter spent 5 yrs. and 3 deployments as a Marine for this country and was under the impression that there is no difference between small, medium or large cities/towns in America. Just Americans.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • “‘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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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