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John V. Santore

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Democracy in Clinton, Iowa

Posted: 11/18/11 12:02 AM ET

(The following is an excerpt from an article I recently wrote on the nature of democratic participation in Clinton, Iowa, including the strength of the presidential primary campaigns there.)

And so, sitting in the passenger seat in Clinton, Iowa, overlooking the calm of Lake Clinton, the widest point on the Missisippi River according to Gary Herrity, former middle school teacher and principal, now local historian and (by his own description) professional retired golfer who is driving me around on day one at 20 miles per hour, rarely more, sometimes far less, so as to be sure that he has adequate time to draw upon over one hundred and fifty years of history to illuminate what we see around us, such as this lake, "one of the most beautiful spots in America." Or the fact that four hundred people were not killed by the flood of November 11, 1940, as he was told confidently by another Clintonian. It was actually just two people, stranded for twenty hours, both rescued. These facts were easily established by reviewing the appropriate day's edition of the Clinton Herald newspaper at the Clinton Public Library, which Herrity did (and his associate had not), the front page of which was lacking in any reference to a tragedy which, had it unfolded, would have undoubtedly been "one of the top stories of Clinton history."

Recounting the conversation rhetorically, he asks, "You going to believe your microfiche twenty feet away from you, or me, city historian, or you going to believe someone who told you? Someone who told me has a lot more impact."

A friend of mine, a sociologist by training, told me that whatever I chose to write about Clinton would be a lie, that no conclusions could be drawn that weren't the witting or unwitting result of bias or ignorance or simply not having the whole story. I think that's probably right, both for those reasons mentioned, and because it's impossible to honestly tell a singular tale about something like a city, regardless of how relatively small it might be.

It is dishonest to say Clinton represents an America that no longer exists, one whose obsolescence is threatening to drag the town into memory with it -- though that's partially true, as many people here partially acknowledge. Nor is it accurate to say that Clinton's residents have given up, that they've turned their backs on politics and politicians -- though many evoke such disappointment with both that even the effusively optimistic 26-year-old Jacob Couppee (who this fall took some time away from his Masters degree and unpaid internship with the Regional Development Corporation to run for City Council) told me flatly as we sat in an ice cream parlor (soon to close for the winter) that as things stand, "Hope is beginning to fade."

If we apply such a prismatic reality to the national presidential primaries playing out here, we on one level find Clinton enmeshed in a cycle which has again made it, right on schedule, a link in the nerve center of the American political universe, a place where it determinedly remained even after the maneuverings of Florida governor Rick Scott, who flaunted Republican party rules and moved his state's primary to January 31, forcing South Carolina and Nevada and New Hampshire to move up too, meaning that Iowan authorities jettisoned their original plan of caucusing on February 6th and yanked their proceedings up over a month to January 3, a date which (I assume) everyone had agreed was simply too early for comfort last time around.

Why? Because those campaigns and Iowa's spot on the calendar have once again pulled in curiosity seekers like me, who visit and shell out our cash and attention, and allow the state to serve as the first and arguably greatest individual prize of presidential electoral politics (besides winning the whole thing, of course), the televised and cinematic portrayals of which obsessively scrutinize in dramatic detail each and every move of our national figures, such that "politics" itself eventually becomes a series of high-level machinations and counter-machinations executed by elegantly dressed, sharp-tongued staffers in or around either the first-class cabins of chartered jets or the lush, well-appointed chambers of the Capitol and White House. And for month after month during this first stage of the campaign season, so much of it is (at least in theory) done for small Iowan communities like Clinton, which in the subtext of the established narrative exist to preserve iconic American values, places that tie our country to its agrarian and democratic roots, from whose discerning voters and their quaint caucuses our now behemoth nation can draw inspiration, towns which every four years sit with grim and sage determination at the procedural core of the process that helps set in motion an epochal chain of events which will determine the ultimate occupants of those rooms and jets and the fate of everyone else in the balance.

Which is why it's worthwhile to contrast this tale with the fact that during the month of October that I spent in Clinton, with less than a dozen precious weeks to go before caucus day, there was, with a mere handful of exceptions, no tangible sign of an ongoing presidential contest at all.

It's also worthwhile to reflect on what there was plenty of, namely local variants of three of the more pervasive trends in contemporary American politics. The first is a widespread conviction, one uniting those on the left and right (though to different effect) that many of those in power are unaccountable, that they're making decisions in secret, without the knowledge or consent of the public. The second is a related belief that those decisions are often wrong, that at some level, those in charge having been screwing up for a long time, and while their behavior may have been the result of greed or ineptitude or ideological confusion, what matters is that things simply have to change, because Clinton and communities like it throughout the country are hurt, they're on the ropes, and whether or not they're going to be able to survive the round isn't a melodramatic question because the answer is entirely debatable.

And third, in spite of the unprecedented energy unleashed during the two year election campaign from 2007 through 2008, replete with all of its rhetoric related to a renewed degree of democratic participation and civic activism, in Clinton, sustained activism is fragile, and organized party politics remains the concern of the few, and in many ways democracy itself is a thesis waiting to be proven.

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