Jefferson County in southeast Iowa is home to Fairfield, a cultural blend of old school Iowan farmers, international students and free thinkers attracted by the lure of Maharishi University of Management, a hub for education and transcendental meditation in Iowa. During the 2016 election, Republican Donald Trump received 46.7 percent of Jefferson County’s votes for U.S. president, while Democrat Hillary Clinton had 46.2 percent, almost a tie.
Immediately to the south is Van Buren County, sitting on the Iowa-Missouri border. Its county seat, Keosauqua, is filled with old brick buildings, mansions and reminders of times past. Here, the voting preference is clearly Republican. Trump took 72 percent of the 2016 vote while Clinton collected only 24 percent.
To the north of these counties is Johnson County, home to the bustling Iowa City-Coralville area. Iowa City is a writer’s oasis in the midst of traditional American farming country, and heavily Democratic. Clinton won 66 percent of the 2016 vote and Trump received 28 percent.
A series of IowaWatch interviews in these three politically diverse counties in the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential precinct caucuses revealed that polarization remains a powerful force that can halt some Iowans from even wanting to talk about politics.
For some, people are too emotionally attached to issues, such as regulating abortion. Others mistrust state and federal political leaders. Several Iowans interviewed said they were fed up with the news media and how politics are reported. And Democrats were predictably 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 political disagreement, several voters among more than 50 people IowaWatch spoke with in these counties over several summer weeks said they can 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 continued, 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 questioned in June thought the overall tone and civility in Washington, D.C., had gotten worse since the election of President Trump. 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.
“They are all a bunch of crooks and I don’t mess with it,” a Jefferson County man who declined to be interviewed or give his name said when IowaWatch approached him while he was visiting Keosauqua, in Van Buren County. A lot of people among more than 50 approached by IowaWatch didn’t want to talk about politics.
JEFFERSON COUNTY: EVEN SPLIT
The sun shines momentarily before being replaced by dark storm clouds in downtown Fairfield on a summer day in June. Café Paradiso is quiet in this town of about 10,000 people as customers float in and out before the 3 o’clock coffee rush.
Craig Deininger, of Fairfield, sits by a brick wall and is in a time crunch. His taxes are due by 1:30 and currently it is 12:30. However, he is intrigued by this question posed to him: can Iowans have a civil conversation over controversial political issues? He strokes the side of his beard and says about 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 vote divide in 2016. For Deininger, the divisions are on a state level, not a local level.
Richard Reed, a Jefferson County supervisor, said debate is necessary when it comes to the good of the people where they are living.
“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.”
Fellow supervisor Dee Sandquist, also a Republican, said interest in civil political conversation is not a given for everyone in the county. “It depends on who you talk to, everyone is an individual, everyone is different,” she said.
Maharishi University of Management student Tamlin Day said he’s felt personally attacked when talking about public policy. Day is a transgender male and an advocate for LGBTQ students.
He blames the current Republican Party’s movement to the right, in line with Trump, which he said has given power to social discrimination. “Civil conversation happens around issues that we are already in agreement with,” Day said. “We will have to see how things go in November.”
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 political 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 in only the first six weeks of gestation, is one of those issues people have difficulty discussing because it is too controversial, Roth said.
VAN BUREN COUNTY: TRUMP COUNTRY
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.”
He added, “politics does not have a very big role to play in Van Buren County.”
Yet, his fellow supervisor, Waugh, said he was 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.”
“One of my senators put it best, if you stick in Des Moines long enough, you start to think like Des Moines,” he said.
In the county seat of Keosauqua, the BP Gas Station has a sit-down eating area where farmers converge over Sprite, coffee, reflection and hushed conversations. IowaWatch approached three men and asked if people in Van Buren were having a civil conversation about politics. One of the men left immediately. The other two did not want to give their names, although they did a great deal of talking about the 2016 election (they hated Trump less than Clinton), gun control, farming and proper management of local farmland.
Van Buren’s Republican Party chairman, Kevin Karr, wasn’t interested in talking about the tenor of political discussions in his county when IowaWatch tried to contact him by phone. He said there can be civil conversation but did not want to say anything else. “You keep calling me and I see it as an intrusion,” he said to IowaWatch over the phone. “You’re intruding into my home and my privacy. I gave you my answer and my answer was a ‘yes.’”
Van Buren County’s Democratic Party chair Twyla Peacock said she can 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.
“At the beginning, when he was tweeting things that were disrespectful, we were talking about that. People thought that he was really going to change things, and we could not agree. I had to walk away. There is no sense in having hard feelings,” Peacock said.
Recent polls illustrate the wide disparity that exists nationally when it comes to talking about Trump.
A CBS poll showed that 68 percent of Republicans questioned approved of how Trump performed when meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. But only 8 percent of Democrats approved, while 29 percent of independents approved. In total, 32 percent of Americans approved and 55 percent disapproved of Trump’s performance, the poll showed. The poll of 1,007 adults was taken July 17-18, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
An ABC-Washington Post poll of 464 adults conducted July 18-20 showed almost the same gap separating how Republicans felt about Trump’s performance and how Democrats and independents felt: 66 approval by Republicans, 8 percent approval by Democrats and 33 percent approval by independents. In total, 33 percent of Americans approved and 50 percent disapproved of Trump’s meeting performance in the ABC-Post poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.
JOHNSON COUNTY: CLINTON COUNTRY
An Independence Day celebration is taking place in Morrison Park, in Coralville, the evening of July 3. The park is packed as rock and roll music is being played on a stage. Families are in their lawn chairs, with picnic baskets and excited children.
Mindy Allen, of North Liberty laughs as she says, “Iowans can have a civil conversation about everything. We are very friendly.”
But change the focus to national politics and, with little hesitation she says, “things are pretty messed up.”
Her friend, Denton Williams, of North Liberty, is quick to add, “there is a clear line in the sand.”
Nestled into Iowa City’s north-side business district is the Hamburg Inn No. 2 restaurant, 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 townies. Stephanie Waddell and her mother, Char Waddell, sit at the table the morning of July 9 where Bill Clinton once 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 military veteran and, while she is a Democrat, she knows many other 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, Iowa, 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. 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, are brother and sister Susan and Chris Kilgore and his grade-school-aged daughter, Ada. Susan lives in Valley City, North Dakota, 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 that compromise is hard. The Republican Party, itself, is divided, he said, adding that he didn’t know how someone can start talking about bringing the party together.
“There are a lot of factions. I am unsure if Trump will run again. I don’t think he likes being president very much,” he said.
However, Trump has started his 2020 campaign already.
IS CIVIL CONVERSATION NECESSARY?
One topic that is generating considerable debate in Iowa is a fetal heartbeat bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, on May 4. The bill was scheduled to become state law July 1, but a lawsuit from Iowa’s Planned Parenthood and the ACLU-Iowa has been filed in order to halt the bill.
The fetal heartbeat bill is designed to prevent abortions from being conducted six weeks after conception when the heart of the fetus can be heard.
Laura McGraw, president of the Iowa Abortion Access Fund, said abortion opponents and supporters need to be talking more consistently about their differences.
However, she said, “abortions will always happen. It will always happen, always has, always will,” she said.
Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Iowans for Life, said statements like that about abortion are a scare tactic. Still, she said, “some of the most productive conversations have been with people who are on the opposite side.”
Historically, talking about abortion takes activists to a place where no room for compromise exists. “Stopping abortion is the ultimate goal,” DeWitte said.
Hans Hassell, a former political science professor at Cornell College, said Americans do not always have to agree. He points to the 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 in order 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.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Fairfield Ledger, The Des Moines Register, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), Dyersville Commercial, Cascade Pioneer, Manchester (IA) Press and InDepthNH.org under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.