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Will ‘rage politics’ be all the rage in 2024?
Feb. 26, 2023 6:00 am
Around this time eight years ago, the state of Iowa began crawling with what a few of us call “presidential wannabes.” It was the year leading up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, when both parties would need to nominate a new candidate for President. Of what one would consider “high-profile” candidates, there were 17 Republicans and three Democrats. I was an active political volunteer and decided that I would try to see every candidate possible. I attended rallies and meet-and-greets for at least 15 of them — including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. (That was back when he could fit a rally inside the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo.)
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when multiple people asked me how the Mike Pence event went. The former Vice President came to the Cedar Rapids Pizza Ranch a week and a half ago to speak about parental rights and the LGBTQ culture war as part of an initiative of his group, Advancing American Freedom. Sure enough, I attended, and each time I was asked how it went, I shrugged without much to say. It was everything I expected it to be and nothing I didn’t.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. One thing I did not expect was the attendance of recently-declared presidential candidate Perry Johnson. You may never heard of Johnson, a businessman from Michigan, but you’ve likely seen his work if you watched the recent Super Bowl. He was behind the ad that featuring images of elected officials like President Biden, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez caricatured as “fat” and “bloated” (just like the United States government.) I’ve never seen a declared presidential candidate show up to another (likely) candidate’s event to boast their “support” for the other candidate, or even just the values the other candidate was there to champion. At any rate, I’m just glad my face wasn’t in the cringey video Johnson’s campaign made of his appearance.
That little oddity aside, everything else about the event was pretty typical, to the point where I found myself thinking less about what Pence’s appearance meant for future campaigns and more of past campaigns and other political events that it reminded me of. I’ve attended so many over the years. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush packed the room at that same Pizza Ranch in March of 2015 for the first big candidate visit in Cedar Rapids of the 2016 cycle. In the same room Jeb appeared, Barbara Grassley conversed with a group of us in August 2016 on behalf of her husband the Senator, when she quipped that she’d told her children the previous year that she’d write them out of her will if any of them voted for Ted Cruz at the 2016 caucuses. “He gives Chuck such fits on the Judiciary Committee!” she exclaimed while we all laughed.
Most “rah-rah speeches” (another term I picked up from other political junkies over the years) have the same format. They’re held in a venue big enough to fit the anticipated crowd, but small enough to give the room that “packed” look. Attendees arrive early to sit (or stand) as close as possible. A local political figure gives an introductory speech to get the crowd energized and brings out the candidate to cheers and applause. The candidate gives an enthusiastic speech, fires up the crowd, then shakes as many hands and poses for as many pictures as possible. Sometimes they speak with the press before their staff whisks them away to keep them on their schedule. All this happened during Vice President Pence’s appearance on Feb 15.
The higher-profile the candidate or elected official, the more likely people vehemently opposed to their candidacy or elected status will assemble near the site of the visit to protest the appearance. Some of the opposition also will attend the event itself — after all, they too are constituents and/or voters. At the Pence event, I stood next to two women who showed up clearly expecting that they would not like what he had to say about K-12 transgender policies and the Linn-Mar parents’ lawsuit. While everyone else clapped and cheered, the two women next to me booed as loudly as they could, balking and scoffing at every sentence he spoke.
I’ve seen that before. Whether most people like it or not, the presence of loud, angry opposition isn’t really an abnormal occurrence at campaign events and town halls anymore. I call it “rage politics” because for many, involvement in civic activism now centers on the expression of political rage.
Americans are good at rage politics. They rage over their candidates losing the election. They rage over the other side winning the election. They rage over legislative agendas and school board policies and Supreme Court decisions. To them, the other side isn’t simply misguided, it’s evil. I first witnessed it in early 2017, after Donald Trump took office. I had driven to attend a town hall meeting with Sen. Joni Ernst at Coe College that ended up being swarmed with angry leftists to the point that the auditorium reached capacity and I was blocked along with a number of other people from entering the building. While a few of us waited outside, hoping to be let in as others left, we could hear the shouting of the crowd from inside.
Having taken note of that and other raucous town hall meetings happening all over the country, then-Congressman Rod Blum’s staff opted to limit attendance at the four town halls he held in May 2017 to residents of his congressional district and require registration and ID for entry. It was a strict move I normally would question, but as one of the volunteers asked to check the huge list of names and IDs for the Cedar Rapids meeting, I quickly realized that the size and the hostility of the crowd made it necessary. About 20 minutes into the town hall, I entered the gym where it was being held and stood at the top of the bleachers in back. As the Congressman answered a question about the funding of Planned Parenthood, a woman next to me yelled every obscene term I’d ever heard to describe female genitalia (and a few that I hadn’t.) Only a few of us nearby actually heard her. For everyone else, her hollering was drowned out by the rest of the crowd.
Having witnessed all that and more as American political rage rages on, I’m glad that the event with Vice President Pence was relatively tame, with only the two ladies at the back of the room making a small stink. But I can’t help but wonder how our collective rage will carry into the 2024 election cycle with so much more to be angry about that we weren’t before. We’re angry about COVID-19; some of us for what we see as so many preventable deaths, others for what we see as the devastating effects had on our society from business shutdowns and school closures. We’re angry about school funding. We’re angry about the culture wars spreading in our K-12 schools. As we seek political solutions to our culture problems, will our politics be politics as usual? Or will rage be all the rage in 2024?
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