116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law [protects] but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
Since then, the passage, sometimes referred to as “Wilhoit’s Law” from its namesake of Frank Wilhoit, has been making the rounds of the internet with a fair degree of credibility, especially given its origin as a comment on a blog post. But folk theory aside – what does ‘Wilhoit’s Law’ mean in practice, in application – in the context of Iowa?
In recent years in Iowa, there are a few groups of people whom the law has protected without much in the way of bounds. Despite the best efforts of the courts, numerous bills – the infamous “ag-gag” laws – have sought to prohibit recordings inside animal confinements, in order to allow the ‘hog barons’ to exploit the land, livestock, and workers with impunity. Those frustrated by political protests, to the point of desiring to ram protesters with their trucks, are also protected from liability by new provisions in the law.
Similarly, the already-wide discretion held by the police, by which oversteps have resulted in injustices such as man in Iowa City tased and arrested merely for “walking while Black,” has been expanded even further under the recent direction of the state. The infamous “Back the Blue Act” contains such gems as making it illegal to fail to stop for a unmarked police car – which by definition would be more difficult to spot, and in effect, provides cover to police who, to some extent, are trying to deceive the general public by means of abandoning their uniforms.
Furthermore, the bill, past just this last year, codifies qualified immunity into state law, which in practice has allowed police offers to act with virtual impunity, so long as they claimed to have been acting “reasonably” after the fact. In the words of Justice Sotomayor, qualified immunity “sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished” – the ultimate expression of legal protection without bounds; the right to kill without liability.
The list on the other side – whom the law has bounded, without protection – is much longer. Changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining laws in since 2017 have meant that public sector unions are constricted in their ability to bargain beyond wages, face an unfair election environment, and are constantly required to put resources towards frequent re-certification elections just to continue existing, much less focus on other pressing issues.
In the literal sense of the law putting people in bounds or confinement, the racial disparities in incarceration are among the worst in the country in Iowa. Black Iowans are incarcerated at a rate nearly 10 times higher compared to white Iowans, to the point where Black Iowans comprise 25 percent of the state’s prison population, despite comprising only 4 percent of the state’s population writ large. If Iowa were an independent country, its overall per capita incarceration rate would be equivalent to the second highest in the world -- below the United States and just above El Salvador.
Without any offer of protection, the Reynolds administration has also expressed its clear disdain for transgender individuals, by publicizing and codifying the exclusion of transgender girls and women from high school and college athletics. Notably, before a similar ban was overruled in Utah, the state’s Republican governor had vetoed it, on the basis that he could find only one example of a transgender girl playing high school sports, and four transgender youth overall playing high school sports, in a state with a comparable population to Iowa. Against a backdrop of 86 percent of transgender youth experiencing some degree of suicidality, Gov. Cox went to note in his explanation of his veto, “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few”.
Although abortion is still legal in Iowa, it is clear that the incumbent state government does not wish for it to remain that way. Placing restrictions on womens’ autonomy and self-determination without much in the way of protections for their health, Gov. Reynolds signed what was then the country’s most restrictive abortion law in 2018, banning the procedure in most cases about six weeks into a pregnancy – before many people know they are even pregnant. Although this bill has been blocked via court order, the Dobbs decision in the federal Supreme Court this summer has empowered the state government once again to push through with these restrictions.
Public servants in Iowa’s communities have also had their work affected by new laws in recent years – not to protect their work or position in society, but instead to constrain how they can act. Local government officials have now been pre-empted from raising local minimum wage, regulating gig economy services such as Lyft and Uber, or enacting paid leave mandates. In schools, mask mandates to control the spread of disease are now prohibited, as is the teaching of vaguely defined “divisive concepts”, such as the systemic racism and sexism inherent to the founding of Iowa and the United States – both of which were once allowed to be taught, when I was in school.
In recent years, the middling electoral outcomes of the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) have at times been attributed to a lack of imagination, casting themselves only in opposition to the ruling Republicans rather than presenting a credible vision of progressive governance – a charge that I myself have levied in the past. Former state representative Ras Smith put it well, when discussing the IDP’s ill treatment of him during his primary campaign for the governorship, describing the IDP as “the party of ‘we are not like them,’ rather than deciding this is who we are”.
From Wilhoit’s perspective however, anti-conservatism is not only necessary, but might also be sufficient to ward against its reactionary reach. He ends his blog post with a proposition of what opposition to his definition of conservatism might mean:
“The law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone; and it cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone.”
I am not sure if this is the correct way to think about the topic; all that I am certain of is that I think it is worthy of deeper interrogation. Certainly I am apprehensive of any political philosophy being based primarily on a comment to a blog post. But if near-reflexive opposition to the state Republican Party is to be the flavor of the IDP, then following what it takes to achieve the above is more convincing than yet another “coordinated campaign” -- at least for me, personally. To see this realized in Iowa might read something like:
A state where white and Black Iowans alike can expect to receive equal treatment under the law; an Iowa where students, workers, and minorities have just as much legal protection as the wealthiest hog barons.