It’s August in Iowa, which means tomato season, sweet corn season, and journalist season — when a contagion of journalists descends on our state. The source of the outbreak is Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status for the Democratic caucuses. Rashes of journalists trail around the candidates, stumbling from Casey’s to hog confinements. This blight brings with it a bevy of takes that flatten the nuance of Middle America — reducing us all to 4-H kids, cafes without almond milk, and farmers in a rural diner opining about how much they like the president.
Recently, Max Boot, a columnist who writes for the Washington Post, went to the State Fair and reported back that watching kids raise pigs gave him hope for the future of our nation. He writes, “I left reassured that the normal rhythms of Iowa life continue as they have for generations, despite the various pathologies on display in modern America — from the White House to the El Paso Walmart.” His comments make us a weird Other — foreign and bizarre, as if we weren’t actually connected to the rest of the world through the same wires, roads, and internet as the rest of the country.
Middle America is a dissonant space, pulled between the extremes of the coasts. We have the reputation of being a moderating, milquetoast place, full of bland casseroles and passive-aggressive assurances that we are fine. Between the ebb and flow of East and West, we become a palimpsest for people to write their own narrative over. We are a product of a media imagination, rather than the actualities of our place.
In actuality, the rhythms of Iowa life have not, in fact, continued as they have for generations. Schools are consolidating, churches are closing, as are obstetrics units in our hospitals, and the hospitals themselves. Only 56 communities in Iowa have a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant who can provide mental health services. The state’s methamphetamine crisis is as severe as it has ever been, with no relief in sight. Iowa has affordable real estate for some, but in rural towns and cities there’s a lack of low-income housing.
Life has changed, and drastically so. The sense of loss that accompanies the vast changes to our state breed a nostalgia for the way things used to be. But between the recession and the farm crisis of the 1980s, there has never been an easy time to be an Iowan.
I thought, as a nation, we learned from the 2016 election, that to see parts of America as “the Other” is to misunderstand it and misread it and, in doing so, to feel betrayed by it when elections happen.
But this lesson hasn’t sunk in.
So here they come again, chasing after the politicians who try to look respectable eating corn dogs, nibbling fried Snickers, and shaking hands with all the “friendly folks” out here. All the images that come out of this season are a Rorschach and question: Who are we as a country and where are we going? What does it say about us that the state with a progressive history of welcoming immigrants under Republican Gov. Robert Ray elected (and reelected) the racist Steve King as a congressman?
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What is missing in the narrative coming out of Iowa is complex, nuanced and hard to deep fry and eat on a stick.
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