Fear and loathing in Des Moines

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I felt a bit like one of the characters in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on Monday after registering as a Republican and slipping into one of the whitest and wealthiest precincts in Iowa for the state’s quadrennial caucus.

I’m an unapologetic liberal who normally votes Democrat, but I lost interest in both parties after former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg crushed Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Afterward, it seemed to me as if both Republicans and Democrats had sold their souls to the same Wall Street interests that have been shipping American jobs overseas, foreclosing on our homes, and locking our kids into a cycle of debt that begins in college.

So I chose to go looking for answers to a simple question on Monday at my local Republican polling place. Namely, who the heck is voting for the candidates backed by the monied interests waging economic war on their fellow Americans?

The standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 people caucusing inside Des Moines’ Plymouth Congregational Church was entirely white, mostly elderly, well-fed, and very well dressed.

All white – as in one lonely black teen, no identifiable Hispanics and less than five Asians.

Mostly elderly, as in I qualified as a youngster at 51.

Hardly the representative crowd most outsiders think of in a state that serves as a political bellwether for the nation and is entrusted with the first primary election of each presidential race. The Iowa Caucus is given more influence than it deserves by the national news media simply because it’s the only game in town this early in the presidential election. 

However, the state’s demographics are becoming less like those of the rest of the nation with each passing year. The offshoring of American jobs continues to batter more populous areas that have not benefited from the higher corn prices and farmland values which insulated Iowa from the hard times of the past decade.

The painful truth is that the Iowa Caucus is a wonderful experience for Iowans, but the lessons drawn from it must be extrapolated for a national population which is needier and more diverse. And the candidates who are elevated or knocked down here are not always the ones the rest of us would like to see winning and losing.

“A lot of bad things have happened in this nation the past few years,” a middle-aged man to my left said to the elderly woman seated between us.

“I like to blame it on the Democrats,” he added with a chuckle.

Oh brother, I thought, pulling the brim of my baseball down. It’s friggin Faux News. Regurgitated.

I stared down at a text from a Republican friend who cryptically advised me not to be “disruptive” as the self serving fictions of the far right filled the air.

The Caucus is the cue for Wall Street’s chosen candidates to begin doling out the $10 billion they’re expected to spend this year. A figure which dwarfs the $5.3 billion spent in 2008, before the Citizens United ruling turned our elections into outright auctions.

The Caucus’ biggest significance is its ability to expose the weaknesses and strengths of fringe candidates like former U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who went on to become president after winning Iowa in 2008, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who suspended his presidential campaign Monday night after a dismal showing in this year’s Caucus.

That early vetting is a lot of responsibility for a largely rural state that’s becoming whiter and richer than the rest of the nation with each passing year. Housing is affordable here, jobs are plentiful, and elites still send their kids to public school.

Hardly the experience the rest of America has been enjoying since 2005.

The $51 billion national mortgage settlement that prosecutors reached with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers in 2012 is a perfect example of the gap in economic suffering between Iowa and the rest of the nation. That’s the amount the big banks agreed to pay to the American families victimized by their improper foreclosure procedures from 2008 to 2011.

Only 1,192 or the 750,000 victims were Iowans. That’s slightly more than one tenth of a percentage point – far short of the state’s 1 percent share of the U.S. population pie.

In other words, if the suffering that necessitated the National Mortgage Settlement had been evenly distributed by state population Iowa would have needed about seven times more victims just to shoulder its fair share of the collective pain load.

Meanwhile, one of the worst offenders among the banks is Wells Fargo. It’s the largest private employer in the Des Moines region with some 13,000 workers here. Which means that as Wells Fargo is hurting the rest of the nation it’s passing out paychecks in Iowa.

“I don’t think the Caucus process is fair,” the young blonde woman seated on my right said to her elderly neighbor. “I mean a lot of my friends work and they couldn’t be here tonight because they have to work. But if you’re unemployed it’s easy to be here.”

I scanned the room for the hordes of unemployed she was alluding to. All I saw was more of the well-to-do. Either the unemployed of Des Moines are flush with cash and sporting tweed sportcoats or they were sitting this one out.

The general consensus inside the influential church seemed to be that only a billionaire candidate or one of their lackeys can be trusted to restore America’s greatness. What exactly is gone from that greatness, other than the undeclared war the party of inherited wealth has been waging on American workers, I do not know.

Each candidate was given three minutes to speak from a lectern positioned between two huge crosses. So much for the separation of church and state.

What would Jesus do if he lived in Iowa?

He’d Caucus.

Republican candidate Donald Trump’s designated spokeswoman summed up the general feeling in three short sentences. She didn’t offer a single policy or platform.

“All I can say is vote for Donald Trump,” she said, staring meaningfully at her fellow pod people. When her unblinking eyes met mine I nodded dutifully in a bid to fit in. Lest the others realize I have neither slept nor been supplanted by my Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ doppleganger.

“He’s going to change things,” she continued hypnotically. “Make them all better.”

Translation: “There’s a black guy in the White House – you know, the White House. It’s White. Like us. That’s why it feels so weird to have one of ‘them’ in there. Did you realize that would happen when you voted for him in 2008? I sure didn’t. What say we blame him for shit he has no control over and see how long it takes him to flip out.”

The Iowa Caucus is supposed to represent the best of American democracy in action, but the ideal political climate it creates is more like a friendly playing field for the over-entitled political aristocracy of Washington, D.C. That’s because the 120,000 Iowans who participate in it are nothing like most of the rest of the nation. Allowing them to disproportionately influence the electoral process by voting first is like letting Grandma order up the entertainment for your bachelor or bachelorette party.

It’s not gonna have a happy ending.

“I like Des Moines,” the young person on my left said to her neighbor, appropo of nothing. “I just flew in from DC and when I went downtown there were no black people.”

WTF? 

“Say nothing, say nothing, say nothing,” I told myself. “Smile and nod. Smile and nod. You’re happy to be here. Just happy to be part of the fellowship.”

The Republican Caucus went off like clockwork in my precinct. We were in and out in less than 35 minutes. When it came time to vote each of us wrote our chosen candidate’s name on a sheet of paper, folded it up and passed it down the row of seats.

Amazingly, my young neighbor scribbled “Ben Carson” on her paper. It could be she doesn’t realize he’s black. 

Whatever the Iowa Caucus once was, it’s morphed into the political equivalent of the old Surreal Life television program in the wake of Citizens United. That’s the Reality TV show which rewarded the house’s celebrity has-beens with more air time for being outrageous and obnoxious, thereby extending the lackluster careers of such ambitious blockheads as Janice Dickinson, Vanilla Ice, Chyna, Gary Coleman, Jose Canseco and Brigitte Nielsen.

The Iowa Caucus has a similar level of inaccuracy. It’s given us such can’t miss winners as Bob Dole, John Kerry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Richard Gephardt.

And yet the national media continues to advance the knowing fiction that this fatally flawed process actually provides insight into the political sentiments of a larger national audience that is younger, more diverse, more worldy and considerably less insulated from recent economic events.

The impact is yet another win for Wall Street interests hellbent on concealing the incredible damage their excesses have done to Main Street America. Imagine how different our political process would be if we made like professional football, which gives the first pick in each annual draft to the team with the worst record the year before.

The political equivalent would be giving the first primary in each presidential election to the state with the worst economy. That would have led to the first presidential primary being held in Michigan this year, where Detroit has lost a third of its population since 2004. Or Florida in 2008, after its housing market imploded.

The Iowa Caucus is a wonderful experience for the Iowans who participate in it and those like them, but it’s not necessarily a blessing for the rest of the nation. Because it marginalizes the economic suffering occuring elsewhere as it elevates the more sheltered political views of lucky Iowa.

That’s the reason “the process,” as it’s known here, doesn’t provide as much meaningful insight into the temper of the rest of the nation as the news media claims.

The heavily orchestrated Caucus and the Iowa Straw Poll that normally precedes it draw attention to Iowa, a Midwest state with only 3.1 million residents. That figure is equal to the combined population of Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The number of those Iowans who actually participate in the notoriously conservative Iowa Caucus is even smaller – equivalent to two-thirds of the population of the tiny Island of Guam.

In the grand scheme of things, both numbers are statistically insignificant in a nation of 319 million, with 538 electoral votes. Iowans will generate just six of them –about 1.1 percent.

The numbers are equally ridiculous at the party level. Iowa Democrats elected just 44 of their 4,763 national convention delegates Monday night, according to The New York Times. Iowa Republicans chose just 30 of their 2,472 delegates.

The miniscule number of ballots cast is eclipsed only by the 12,000 or so cast in the Iowa Straw Poll, which would have been conducted last summer had it not been mercifully put out of its misery at age 36.

The Straw Poll gave us Michele Bachmann in 2011, a reptilian religious fundamentalist who surged to victory on the strength of a suggestive photo showing her holding an enormous corndog as her closeted gay husband nibbled on it. That was their political apogee.

So why does anyone care about either event?

The truth is most Americans don’t. The Iowa Caucus is strictly a media event at the national level, which serves as a kind of Spring Training for the DC-NY political and media crowd. They dearly love a junket. Even one that takes them to snowy Iowa in mid-winter.

The Caucus gives both industries a chance to shake-out their campaign staffs for the coming election year in one of the friendliest environments around. And to work on their political messages in much the same manner Kellogg’s test-markets a new cereal.

Why Iowa?

I think part of the allure is that Iowans are inclined to blindly worship virtually any celebrity, without distinguishing between fame and infamy. In exchange for bringing some cameras to the frosty plains, the candidates face almost none of the challenging questions and confrontational heckling they’d encounter in cities like New York City, Boston or Chicago.

Habitually polite Iowans are more inclined to smile and call the worst candidates “interesting.” That’s Iowan for A-hole.

Their misguided courtesy represents a free pass of sorts for ruthless candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who are willing to erect ethnic scapegoats to advance their political fortunes and pocket millions from modern-day plantation owners like the Koch Brothers. To accomplish that in Iowa all these Wannabee Hitlers have to do is allow the locals to revel in the self-serving fiction that flyover country really matters to this nation’s incredibly arrogant political aristocracy.

It distresses me to criticize Iowa like this, because I moved here in 2012 and like the place and its people. On both sides of the political aisle. It’s a good place to live – one that’s far more humane than the rest of the nation.

In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that more than a few of my generous, friendly and courteous new friends here are reading this painfully blunt story and thinking: “God bless him, that Victor sure is one interesting fellow. I wonder what new affliction the Bronx will send us next?”

I’m pretty sure the girlfriend and her family – proud residents of Des Moines’ hardworking South Side – will not be amused.

However, the painful truth is that every four years Iowans are transformed by the Caucus into the collective equivalent of a 14-year-old girl screaming “look at me” beside the red carpet at The Grammy’s as a rock singer walks by scratching the heroin injection scabs on their arms.

These are the folks who want to lead the rest of us out of the tunnel to compete in the big election, but they really haven’t shared in the economic suffering the rest of the nation has endured since 2005 to the same extent.

If they had it’s a safe bet they’d take a dimmer view of people like Trump and Cruz, who are peddling group-based hate and comforting lies to the masses. As well as Wall Street Lackeys like Hillary Clinton. 

It makes you wonder.

Why can’t Iowans just make like the residents of tiny Marlinton, W. Va., and have an annual Roadkill Cook Off or something. It’s got to be preferable to watching another batch of ruthless presidential wannabees try to land some free media exposure by deep-throating a monster corndog every four years.

Doesn’t it?

For the results of Monday’s the Iowa Caucus, click http://www.cynicaltimes.org/articles/sanders-battles-clinton-to-virtual-tie-in-iowa-caucus-334.htm