Demagogue: (noun) a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.
Two years ago, Congressman Steve King made headlines for saying that undocumented immigrants had calves the size of cantaloupes from trafficking drugs from Mexico. The leading candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination has received tremendous attention for claiming undocumented immigrants are murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. In addition, multiple candidates for president call for amending the Constitution in order to revoke the citizenship of babies born in this country to undocumented immigrants.
Then on Aug. 17, popular local radio host Jan Mickelson proposed enslaving undocumented immigrants. It is appalling to believe that the following proposal was broadcast on WHO Radio: “Anyone who is in the state of Iowa, who is not here legally and who cannot demonstrate their legal status to the satisfaction of the local and state authorities here in the state of Iowa, become property of the state of Iowa.” Mickelson defended his proposal with the following remark: “Well, what’s wrong with slavery?”
This week, we joined with other Iowans appalled by Mickelson’s rhetoric in filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. People who would make insulting comments like those referenced above fail to see the humanity in all of us and are not worthy of serious discussion in our public arenas. Worse yet, they do so only to appeal to the prejudices and insecurities of people worried about a changing world where work pays less and communities feel less safe and welcoming.
But that FCC complaint is not enough.
As Iowans, we have a responsibility to hold our elected officials and civic leaders to a higher standard. Politics is an opportunity to lift up the weak and the marginalized among us through a government focused on expanding opportunity for all. The best public servants do so because they see the humanity in all of us. Iowans should tune out the demagoguery and remember our shared history of standing up for the disenfranchised far before it was popular or politically convenient.
On Independence Day 1839, in the first decision handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court, justices ruled that Ralph Montgomery, a black man in forced bondage, was not anyone’s property.
In 1869, Iowa became the first state to admit a woman to the practice of law.
And in 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples did indeed have the right to marry.
These are just three of many examples of Iowa’s better angels shining through.
We love our state and our shared Latino heritage, so we humbly offer one more example. We founded the Latino Political Network to educate and empower Latinos to run for public office. Out of 7,400 Iowa elective offices, fewer than 20 are held by Latinos. There just aren’t enough elected, empowered Latinos to counter the demagogues. We’re proud that three participants — Rocio Hermosillo, Edgar Ortiz, and Juanita Zavala — are all on the ballot for the first time this September to serve on the Des Moines and Ottumwa school boards.
People like Edgar, Rocio, and Juanita, as well as the thousands of other Iowans who offer themselves up to serve their communities, add class, dignity, and compassion to our democracy. They are the legacy of Iowa’s progressive, inclusive history.
So today we’re asking all Iowans to make a choice. We can embrace demagogues and the reality tv-ization of American politics that preys on the weak and voiceless among us for attention and cheap political gain. Or we can stand with those who are committed to the real, hard work of using government and political dialogue to make our state a better place. That is our shared Iowa heritage. That is our choice.