Iowa professor scorches earth beneath his feet

An interesting sidebar to the never-ending Republican presidential primary, is the flap over an essay Stephen Bloom wrote for The Atlantic, where he questioned Iowa’s lofty status as the first state in the nation to cast votes for who will run for president.

[Read: Observations From 20 years of Iowa Life, by Stephen G. Bloom]

Bloom is a tenured professor at the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Prior to teaching, he was a newspaper man with the Dallas Morning News, Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, who wrote features examining the unusual characters inhabiting the margins of society that are often overlooked.

He moved to Iowa from San Francisco with his family in 1993, and has since written two award-winning books that focused on aspects of life in small town Iowa.

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in America’s Heartland, illuminated the social clash between the 1,465 residents of Postville and a group of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews who moved to Iowa in 1987 to open a kosher slaughterhouse.

Bloom also was part of the Oxford Project. Begun in 1984, photographer Peter Feldstein set out to photograph every resident in the town of Oxford, Iowa, the project concluded 20 years later when Feldstein came back with Bloom to re-photograph as many of the residents as possible and document their stories.

In short, Bloom has street credibility, for his acclaimed reporting on small-town life in Iowa, as an academic and as a journalist. He has a trained eye to see what others might miss and a history of bringing the truth to light.

* * * * *

Bloom’s essay was published just before the Iowa Caucuses, which caught considerable buzz from the networks. The outcry from Iowans is a result of their collective pride being hurt, but that doesn’t somehow make the question Bloom asked any less legitimate.

Is Iowa sufficiently representative of the other 49 states that it deserves to cast the first ballots in the presidential nominating process?

“Iowa’s not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state’s about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; and growth is negligible. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure.” ~ Excerpt from Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life, by Stephen G. Bloom.

The point of this essay seems to have been lost. This isn’t a referendum on Iowa as a state – only its standing as a diversified representation of America. Bloom did get some facts and nuances incorrect, and that is unfortunate, but the essence of the essay is solid.

Iowa has a hard time pointing to something that is recognized nationally as a point of excellence. In fact it suffers from an inferiority complex. It lives in the wake of Chicago’s shadow, and is surrounded by several other big dogs, like Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha and St. Louis.

It’s America’s heartland. Iowa provides food, in particular pork, soybeans and corn to the rest of the country. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is top of the line, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes play better than average college football, and there are the Iowa Caucuses – these are a few bright spots that shine nationally for Iowa.

The caucuses are a strange animal. They’re nothing like a primary, where everyone goes to the polls and the candidate with the most ballots wins.

In Iowa, residents gather at caucus locations and divide up into groups, depending upon which candidate they support.

Speeches are given, a vote is taken, and if no single candidate has a majority, negotiations begin between the top candidates and those with lesser support, to try to woo-away enough caucus members to secure a majority. Votes continue to be taken until a majority is achieved by one candidate.

Admittedly the question Bloom posed is instantly polarizing to those in Iowa. The state takes its prominence in the country’s presidential-election process very seriously.

Iowa isn’t a state where a candidate can hit a couple big cities, do some fundraisers and get out. Anybody who wants to win Iowa is going to have to spend some time there and drive. Nothing is close.

It requires going to county fairs, farms, and picnics in all 99 counties. A candidate is going to have to get to know people, sit down, eat a bunch of Jell-O and talk to people – speeches will not get it done.

Some issues Bloom highlights are certainly open to debate, and should be, but the characterizations and societal ills he mentions are all true to some degree.

Was it unnecessarily negative – maybe. This could also be a question of perspective. Somebody actually eats all those peculiar Jell-O molds brought to picnics and funerals in Iowa. Others would ask why anyone might consider putting tuna and mayo into gelatin.

It’s about perspective.

* * * * *

The first thing to do in this argument is take emotion out of the equation. I don’t care what issue a person might have with any example Prof. Bloom brought up – nothing in this story justifies death threats being sent to him.

Stay to the facts and work the problem.

There’s no getting around Iowa lacks minority diversification, to the tune of being over 91 percent white.

Iowa is the 30th most populous state in the U.S., with an overall population of 3 million people, which is dwindling. Des Moines is the capital city, and the largest city in the state at 203,000 residents, good for #106 on the ranking of biggest cities in the America.

It is a rural, insular state, consisting mostly of farm land. As Bloom points out, of Iowa’s 99 counties, 88 are classified as rural.

Small towns are disappearing, farms are closing and hopes of replacing rural jobs are virtually non-existent.

The Hawkeye State has an extremely well-educated population, as the University of Iowa is one of the top ranked public universities in the country, but the state fails to keep many of its young graduates at home, creating what is known as the “brain drain.”

Undocumented workers are rampant around the meat packing industry, which has brought increased crime, along with animosity from local Iowans.

The river towns along the Mississippi are in decay, drugs are a serious issue and incidents of suicide in Iowa are alarmingly high.

These are cold hard facts.

That being said, I love Iowa. I’ve lived there twice and received my undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Iowa, but there is a big difference between arguing about whether Iowa is a good place to live versus should it be the first nominating contest for selecting a president.

The funny thing about this debate is Bloom has a deep affection for Iowa. People don’t move to Iowa and stay 20 years because they hate the place.

He can be snarky, but mostly Bloom tries to engage the mind. Sometimes it takes someone coming from an outside environment to have the perspective to make certain observations. Those who grew up in Iowa are most likely too close to this argument, which causes a loss of objectivity by letting emotion take over.

Previously it would have been the Des Moines Register’s domain to make a statement such as the one in Bloom’s essay, but that paper was gutted to a shell of its former self – like most papers around the country.

It mainly churns out puff pieces, which are quick and easy, on how warm and fuzzy Iowa can be, since the paper has neither the time or the staff to take on many substantive issues.

But talk to health care professionals, law enforcement or social workers and they give a more accurate portrayal of the true Iowa.

* * * * *

There’s a certain romanticism associated with the comments I see criticizing Bloom’s essay, that imply Iowa is this pastoral Norman Rockwell-esque painting put into motion.

It’s questionable if this idyllic take on Iowa ever existed, but is particularly reckless when the statistics don’t back up this wishful thinking.

Iowa has been on the defensive for several years now from states moving up their nominating contests in an attempt to usurp its first in the nation status.

I think the better question here is why is Iowa worrying so much about how Bloom characterized the state. The demographics, societal ills and stats mentioned are real and damning.

Now there is something to worry about.

What I would like to see is enough incentives put in place to keep Iowa’s young talent at home, but this requires job opportunities to be created and competitive salaries to be paid.

In 2011, Iowa graduated over 88 percent of its high school students. That’s insanely high.

In 2009, the top ranked state in the country for average SAT scores per student was Iowa, and its consistently top three in states for ACT and SAT scores.

This is an amazing foundation to build upon.

Iowa, unlike many larger states, can fix what ails it. With a population base of only 3 million people, the state government and residents can still get their collective arms around these problems.

In the aftermath of Bloom’s story being published, he and his family have received death threats. The Cedar Rapids Gazette and Iowa City Press-Citizen filed an open records request to view e-mails from his university account, and numerous newspaper stories have detailed and refuted at length the items Bloom asserted about Iowa.

My advice to those critics, worry more about solving what is wrong with Iowa than about outside perception and presidential caucuses.

There’s a lot to like here. Iowa has plenty of room to grow, the land is rich, the state is number two nationally in wind energy, and it’s full of smart kids.

Play to your strengths and adapt.

With some attention, Iowa could be a beacon in the Midwest, if not nationally, and that’s something that can’t be overlooked.

Prof. Bloom expects a lot from his students, and I imagine he expects a lot from Iowa as well. While his words may have stung, that’s how tough love usually works.

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3 Responses to Iowa professor scorches earth beneath his feet

  1. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I think it’s sort of a straw-man premise that Iowa doesn’t represent an accurate cross-section of the nation, and therefore it’s early caucus is a bad idea. I don’t know where the idea that these two things are related came from. Iowa is not representative of the whole nation, but which state is? Averageohio?

    As an Iowan I hold the position that the Iowa being the first caucus state is unnecessary. The nomination process is the most broken part of our electoral system, but that has nothing to do with Iowa.

    Many of Blooms statements in that article are true (some have pointed out the false ones), but as an Iowa City resident his failure to point out the positive was laughable. If you walk your dog down Summit street (near where the professor lives, a really nice part of town) People won’t ask you if you hunt with the dog, they will ask you to compare where to buy the best organic dog food.

    Iowa, like all states, has lots of problems. Let’s help each other out and try to solve them instead of insulting us lowlife hicks.

    • Nathan,

      Thanks for your commment. I agree, the nominating process is broken, and there is way too much emphasis put on the “first in the nation” status. Regardless, Iowa City is a beautiful university town, full of enlightened thought and creativity. There are many positives to Iowa, and Prof. Bloom should have counterbalanced his argument with at least a few examples. I am surprised by the hightened anger that has come his way. That is unlike Iowa, and unproductive. It only helps prove the accentuated characterizations Bloom made in his essay. Work the problems – it’s much more constructive.


  2. Given Bloom’s waffling as to his intent – first it was “hard journalism shining a light on hidden problems” – then, when myriad factual errors, oversights and outright fabrications were revealed in his work, he changed his tune to “clearly it was a satire, it’s not my fault you didn’t ‘get it'” he has little to no credibility other than as someone who was being intentionally provocative in order to gin up controversy and, by proxy, attention for himself and the inevitable book he’ll no doubt write about the response to his article.

    Shortly after his piece was first published I had on a panel of native Iowans on our show to discuss their take on Bloom’s “observations.”

    It’s online here:

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