, Salem, MA


October 27, 2012

Shribman: Making hay in Iowa


The result is the unpredictability in Iowa politics that we are seeing this autumn.

In 1962, Harold Hughes, with a history of alcoholism, was elected governor on a platform of liquor by the drink. He was only the second Democratic governor in a quarter-century. In three terms he brought what James Larew in his history of the Iowa Democratic Party described as “‘Great Society’ attitudes toward taxes and social services.” Later, Republican Terry Branstad served four consecutive terms as governor and then returned to office last year for a fifth after a dozen years of Democratic rule.

Though many pioneers settled here, Iowa was marked by great waves of migration, first by Native Americans who roamed south and west from the Great Lakes, and then by whites — Irish, Scots, Swedes, Germans and Dutch, even Danes — who traveled east across prairie grass that often was higher than the wheels of the wagons carrying their provisions.

Immigration peaked in the 1890s, but a 21st-century wave is breaking over Iowa, drawn to the state by its reputation for civility, its celebration of education and its small industries, with the new Iowans more likely to settle in small cities than in rural crossroads. There are, to be sure, migrant workers here, though Iowa today is shaped more by permanent settlers employed in meat-packing. Iowa no longer is a state only of “corn, cattle and contentment,” the sardonic description Ray Stannard Baker applied in a late 19th-century article in Harper’s Weekly.

The state boasts a unique political character, where voters meet candidates easily and casually but study their positions slowly and seriously. Its political culture is grounded in the land — steak frys and hog-judging contests, debates about prize roosters, pictures in front of the annual butter cow — and in the personal ties that flourish in a small state with a rural culture.

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