Civil discourse deferred when it comes to caucus state Iowa

President Trump throws out hats that say “Make our farmers great again!” after the Roundtable Discussion on Workforce Development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa Thursday, July 26, 2018.
President Trump throws out hats that say “Make our farmers great again!” after the Roundtable Discussion on Workforce Development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa Thursday, July 26, 2018.

Jefferson County in southeast Iowa is home to Fairfield, a cultural blend of old-school Iowa farmers, international students and free thinkers attracted by the lure of the Maharishi University of Management, a hub for education and transcendental meditation in Iowa.

In the 2016 election, Republican Donald Trump received 46.7 percent of Jefferson County’s votes for president, while Democrat Hillary Clinton had 46.2 percent, almost a tie.

Immediately to the south is Van Buren County, on the Iowa-Missouri border, where Trump took 72 percent of the vote while Clinton collected only 24 percent.

To the north is Johnson County, home to the bustling Iowa City-Coralville area and the University of Iowa. Clinton won 66 percent of the county’s vote, and Trump received 28 percent.

A series of IowaWatch interviews in these three politically diverse counties in this state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses revealed that polarization remains a powerful force that can halt some Iowans from even wanting to talk about politics.

Some people were focused on hot-button social issues such as abortion. Others mistrusted state and federal political leaders. Several Iowans interviewed said they were fed up with the media and how politics is reported. And Democrats were upset about Trump. Blaming the other side is an instinct, the interviews revealed.

“It’s human nature to point the finger and blame and judge and not accept change,” Stephanie Waddell, an Iowa City Democrat, said. “It would be lovely if everyone could understand that you can disagree with some and still respect them as a person.”


Yet, despite the disagreement, several voters among more than 50 IowaWatch spoke with in these counties over several summer weeks said they could talk about politics on a local level.

“We are civilized,” Van Buren County Supervisor Bob Waugh, a Republican, said. “We can have civil conversations,” he said, adding in the same sentence, “without any outsiders.”

Waugh’s comments reflect a national sentiment revealed in a July 3 PBS News Hour/Marist poll that showed 70 percent of adults thought the overall tone and civility in Washington, D.C., had gotten worse since Trump’s election. The poll of 1,205 adults was conducted June 21-25 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.


The sun shines momentarily before being replaced by storm clouds on a June day in downtown Fairfield. Inside Café Paradiso, Fairfield resident Craig Deininger sits by a brick wall and worries. His taxes are due by 1:30 p.m., and it is 12:30 p.m.

However, he is intrigued by this question posed to him: Can Iowans have a civil conversation about controversial political issues?

He strokes the side of his beard and says of Democrats and Republicans: “They are the same people, with different names, and they will sing whatever song fits their interest. They are not all evil, but most of them are scummy. They will be able to come together and talk if there is money.”

Deininger, a political independent, is a farmer and on-and-off Jefferson County resident for the past eight years. He said he does not see controversy in Jefferson County, despite the divide in 2016. For Deininger, the divisions are on a state level, not local.

Richard Reed, a Jefferson County supervisor, said debate is necessary for the good of the community.

“Those who run for office should not be elected if they can’t have a debate,” Reed, a Republican, said. “What we need is common sense. Any elected official who is signed to a committee or a board has a job to do, but they don’t always look at the bigger picture.”


Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

At one point during the summer, IowaWatch tried to pull together a meeting of Jefferson County’s Democratic and Republican party leaders to talk about political discourse. Multiple efforts to talk with Democratic Party Chairwoman Susie Drish were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, including scheduling conflicts and, in one text, emotional distress over current events. The county’s Republican Party chairwoman, Marshan Roth, said such a meeting wouldn’t work because it would only divide the county.

Iowa’s recently passed fetal heartbeat bill, restricting abortions to being allowed only in the first six weeks of pregnancy, is one of those issues people have difficulty discussing because it is too controversial, Roth said.


Not surprisingly, given the county’s political makeup, Van Buren County Supervisor Mark Meek and his two fellow supervisors are Republican.

“For the most part people are talking,” he said. “They can have a civil conversation.”

Yet, his fellow supervisor, Waugh, said he is wary of outsiders stirring up political division. When asked who the outsiders were, he rephrased and said, “big boy people,” then, “people in Des Moines and Washington. They have no idea what it is like to make a life and a living in Van Buren County, in rural Iowa.”

Van Buren County’s Democratic Party chairwoman Twyla Peacock said she could talk about politics with Republicans unless they are Trump supporters.

“He (Trump) is against everything I am for. He has very little respect for anybody,” she said.

So, she avoids the topic when she can, Peacock said.

“There is no sense in having hard feelings,” she said.


Nestled into Iowa City’s north-side business district is the Hamburg Inn No. 2, a landmark pit-stop for political figures such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also a greasy spoon and much-loved establishment for Iowa City residents.


Stephanie Waddell and her mother, Char Waddell, sat at the table on a July morning where Bill Clinton sat in late 2007 when campaigning for his wife, Hillary Clinton, before the 2008 Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa.

Stephanie Waddell, who lives in Iowa City, said people can talk about politics, but to a point. She said she is a veteran and, while she is a Democrat, she knows veterans who are Republicans with whom she can chat amicably about a wide range of issues.

But she and her mother said civil discourse ends if it is not in a small group. Char Waddell, who lives in Burlington, said she has begun losing hope in the ability of people to come together.

“You need to have people work together in order to get anything to actually work,” Char Waddell said. “And you need to have people to listen to others and not be judgmental of the opinion because you can learn so much and you will then learn to get along with people. But I fear we are a long way from it happening.”

At another table were siblings Susan and Chris Kilgore and Chris’ grade-school-aged daughter, Ada. Susan lives in Valley City, N.D., and Chris lives in Iowa City.

“Anything that is processed through the media seems to become almost toxic,” Chris Kilgore said. “The media creates sound bites. You can’t discuss an issue when you are only hearing a 15-second clip.”

Mark Decker, the county’s Republican Party chairman, sees the local vote results.

“We are 2 to 1. It is difficult to be a Republican,” he said.

Decker said people are having conversations every day, but compromise is hard. The Republican Party, itself, is divided, he said.


Hans Hassell, a former political science professor at Cornell College, said Americans do not always have to agree. He points to a theory called deliberative democracy as the way people in America talk about politics.


Deliberative democracy refers to how a series of discussions are held, focusing on a certain political topic to determine what the majority wants. Debate and bargaining may occur in those discussions.

In other words, disagreement is not bad.

“You can have a reasonable discussion and debate, but consensus cannot always be reached,” Hassell said.

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a non-profit, online news website at that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.


Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.