It is Thanksgiving week of what has been one of the most intense years in our lives. Not only were we tasked with removing the worst president ever from office in an election that saw incredible voter suppression of many styles, but we had to do so during one of the worst and deadliest pandemics that the world had seen in a long time. This was not an easy lift.
Iowa Democrats did not distinguish themselves in this election. Going in it felt like we had a great set up for the year. We had great candidates from the highest levels – Biden and Harris for the top slots – Theresa Greenfield with a great story for US Senate facing a weak Joni Ernst who called for cutting Social Security in an older state and also had no idea what the price of soy beans is – great candidates at the US House level with incumbents Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne with Rita Hart in the 2nd district with a great story as a teacher and farmer. The only weak spot seemed to be the 4th district where the Republicans removed their anchor, Steve King, and greatly improved their chances.
At the state house and state senate levels we had some stellar candidates with great stories of community involvement and lifetimes of leadership. The only real glitch in the campaigns seemed to be pulling back on door-knocking where candidates can get to know the electorate face to face. Maybe it was a mistake to pull back on the door-knocking, but the reasoning behind it was sound. When a pandemic is raging, do what you can not to spread it. That caution did not seem to concern Republicans.
So what happened? I have been seeing a few post-mortem analyses posted. Most seem to focus on some party structure problems and do fault the door-knocking decision as costly. Most seem to ask the question “Why do democrats have such problems in rural areas?” Our policies have always been better for small communities and rural areas. Yet for some reason we don’t seem to connect. While no one has said this, the gap seems to get wider every year.
While I am just an average worker bee in the party like most of you, I would like to offer a reason that I never hear discussed anywhere. That reason is rural media. To be more specific, local radio.
As has been written multiple times here on blogforiowa.com, Iowa’s media is very right wing. Even in the day of access to world media through cell phones and car radios. In the small towns and rural areas of Iowa local media, especially the local radio station is still king. Working in the field or driving to town it is nice to have that companionship of the local station to listen to. As people shop in the local grocery or hardware store, the local radio is the background music to the activities in town.
Nowadays on a lot of the local radio stations the voice of the local announcer has been replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and many lesser lights, but the message they deliver is a consistent extreme right wing message. For many folks the radio sort of becomes a subliminal message deliverer. While people may not be actively listening they are getting the message. And they stay tuned because the local station has local news, weather, sports, commercials and of course commodity prices which keeps them tuned in.
This acts as an underlayment for the Republican message of whatever election or issue of the day is being pushed. Democrats or the left have no such infrastructure in the rural areas. Actually in Iowa they simply have no infrastructure like this anywhere. When a Republican shows up at a rural door, they are preceded by months and years of their talking points having been disseminated before they got there. When they are at the door, the terms they talk in have been woven into the fabric of conversations long before they showed up.
When a Democrat shows up at the same door, they are having to use the framing on issues that the Republicans developed and that were disseminated by the local radio. Even the attitudes and beliefs about Democrats have been shaped by local radio long before a Democrat comes to the door.
So it seems to me that when Democrats compete in rural areas they are not only competing against a single opponent for whatever office they are running for, they are also competing against decades of attitudes and beliefs about Democratic ideas that have been formed and inculcated through decades of incessant propaganda.
It feels like by the time the election comes around the game is already in the fourth quarter and we re two touchdown behind. Our records and achievements and honesty doesn’t really compete against constant propaganda delivered on the local radio.
All of Iowa’s major radio stations (eg, WHO, WOC, WMT, KXEL etc. etc.) are right wing stations as are many of the low power stations in the small towns.
When the local radio sets the table for what the conversations will be, we really need to have some presence setting that table. Even after 100 years, radio is still a very personal medium. A local radio with some local personalities is like a close friend out in rural areas. Not having a presence in a medium that is so personal to voters is in my opinion a major omission.
Large sums of money spent in huge batches in a short time don’t overcome years of what is essentially brainwashing. In my humble opinion the billionaires who really want to help level the playing field would do well to study the right’s media set up, especially their radio propaganda, and emulate or better it in a long term commitment.
Mine is just an opinion formed over many years of observation and many years of changing radio stations. Oh, and by the way, NPR is not in any way left wing radio. Long ago it was cowed into submission by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.