An Atheist’s Experience in Des Moines Leading Up to the Caucuses

This is an article by Sean Faircloth. Sean is author of Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It. Faircloth served ten years in the Maine legislature and is now Director of Strategy & Policy with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, US.

Des Moines has a beautiful retro bar called “High Life Lounge” decked out like a 1971 man cave: shag carpets from out of Scooby-Doo, fantastic old neon beer signs, a phone with rotary dial! — and a black and white TV behind the bar with an actual knob to turn the channel. The Zombie themed restaurant is also a hoot. Iowans — boasting gay marriage justices and Norman Borlaug (wiki him) — are an interesting and intelligent bunch. One such intelligent Iowan is Dr. Alan Koslow, my host, who, on an average day, seems to go to every political event in Iowa, regardless of party, while leading numerous civic organizations and throwing in a surgery or two somewhere along the way.

Under Dr. Koslow’s relentless wing I attended several campaign events in Iowa’s biggest city.

We’ve all heard about Santorum surging from behind. It seems like it should have happened earlier. Santorum is the reasonably handsome, reasonably youngish looking ideologically pure right-winger — made to order for Republican primary voters. When someone compares gay sexuality to sex with dogs, you know you’ve found a true believer, not some pantywaist flip-flopper! — but Santorum in the flesh is another matter. He spoke before the senior class at Iowa’s largest high school. His speech was correctly tailored with a dash of immigrant story for zest, but the now famous sleeveless grandpa sweater accenting his incipient Gingrich middle is, well, awkward. Santorum lacks the central casting presidential presence that Romney offers in spades (on a visual level anyway). Santorum brings Eddie Munster to mind. Someone with my Irish skin won’t blame anyone for being pale, but when the Santorum family is trotted out before the high school assembly, awkward is the word again. One Santorum daughter looks like she just licked a lemon. I don’t blame the girl for her expression. For whatever reason, it does not look like much fun. Indeed humor or wit is just not a factor in this race.

At the same high school event Michele Bachmann tells teenagers they should aspire to be like Gates and Jobs, then says how difficult it is to do business in the country of Gates and Jobs.

It’s not fair to judge the applause these two get from a student audience, but Romney’s sons, when their turn comes, offer an almost presidential presence — and got a better cheer. The Romney sons are handsome, intelligent, and remote. One son made the best concise case (dad fixes things: businesses, the Olympics, a state deficit), then he describes dad’s “character.” First point: dad is cheap — and had the sons help build a fence to stop road noise from getting to their house. Compassion is, like humor, not present or even simulated. Our inspiration is to well up from a frugal decision to block road noise. The son also emphasizes his father’s long marriage. This is implicitly in contrast to Gingrich whose surge Romney’s negative stealth ads have eviscerated. Gingrich implicit message is his soft underbelly: 1. Impeaching Clinton for infidelity while committing infidelity must be forgiven, because I’m Catholic now; 2. I have more ideas than anyone even if many of my ideas are insane. Romney has many bad ideas, but Romney also chooses the conventional bad ideas. That’s much more presidential. In any case, Romney’s money has made Gingrich yesterday’s worry (at least until the Bloviator in Chief’s next debate).

The wiry gold-obsessed Ron Paul has the most enthusiastic and youthful following. Attending a Ron Paul rally was the most convincing event of my visit. His crowd includes younger people, more hip (not visually unlike an Obama audience) –- a group apparently determined to ignore racist newsletters and his advocacy of top-down big-government theocratic impositions on their sex life. His implicit message generates the most enthusiasm: “Hey young people, for decades I’ve been a bug-nutty racist tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist and theocrat -– but when I’m president you can smoke dope and not get shot in some war.”

But even the relative enthusiasm for Ron Paul reveals an unsettling truth for Republicans. Excluding the reporters jammed into the not-big room, (reporters from Japan and Barcalona etc -– Des Moines is one fun show!), Paul’s supporters number in the very low three figures. A notch over a hundred actual supporters? On the day before a caucus people have been awaiting for a full year?

For contrast, hear the Obama rally behind me in Bangor for the Maine caucuses in 2008:

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Maine’s caucus is never as important as Iowa’s, Bangor is smaller than Des Moines, and Bangor is remote from Maine’s largest city. Yet the crowd for Obama is vast. People waited outside in the bitter cold, not able to enter the standing room only auditorium.

But the bloom is off that rose, and Romney is the central casting president.

As I walked into Romney’s event, I heard this country lyric “Momma gets her rocks off Watching Desperate Housewives”. I casually asked a staffer if he knew the name of the song. The clean cut ram rod straight young man responded formally, handing me his card and, with polite efficient blandness, informed me I could send an email and the Romney campaign would provide the song title.

Efficient blandness is everywhere as were clean cut Romney staffers. Romney has the best staging money can buy, including a beautiful “Believe in America” poster backdrop, replete with enough flags to infuse several campaigns with patriotism (rumor is there’s some guy in the White House who doesn’t believe in America).

Romney now wears jeans to go with his country music — but Romney is as folksy as Nixon was sexy.

Romney, about to introduce some supporting dignitaries, requested that the audience hold its applause until all were introduced. After the first dignitary is named there was a small smattering of polite applause. Romney feels compelled to remind the audience that there will be no applause until introductions end. Now I think Romney was making his best attempt at good humor — yet his face still bore a seemingly perplexed expression (the audience hadn’t followed his “rule” like they did back at Bain Capital). In any event Romney’s line falls flat. I’ve had lines fall flat on the stump, so no big deal, but the plastic pumping through Romney’s veins is even more apparent in the flesh. The audience is distinctly less enthusiastic (also smaller) than Ron Paul’s more youthful crowd.

I had about as many supporters show up for the kickoff of a state senate campaign as showed up for Romney — on the very morning of the leading candidate’s first caucus in the race to lead the free world. I’m not saying my state senate crowd was big. That’s the point. It wasn’t that big — just comparable to the number of actual Romney supporters at a rally on presidential caucus day. But who can blame Republican Iowans for lacking passion?

Romney’s speech includes his unintentionally hilarious interpretation of the song “America the Beautiful.” Romney explains to Iowans that “amber waves of grain” could include corn and thus, he explains, this song could pertain to Iowa. That’s right. Stop the presses: Corn could include grain — and therefore “America the Beautiful” could pertain to Iowa. They say at Harvard Business and Harvard Law the intelligent Romney always focused on the mechanics of every task — and you can almost see the Romney brain check the “personal connection” box with… Iowa corn.

Then Romney checked the “America is great” box with equal eloquence and passion.

Romney then checked the “I’ve slept with the same woman for 42 years” box. While I’m sure he loves his family, even his family introductions are stilted. We learn that Ann Romney, check the “humble good-humored spouse” box, is the key person Romney listens to, so of course, we get to hear from the top advisor to the future most powerful man on earth. Ann: “Isn’t this a great country we live in?” And: “This country is a country blessed by God and we need to keep that in mind.” Phew. Glad we settled that.

Mitt Romney reminds us that we are “One Nation Under God.” As far as actual issues he says we need to cut spending — a lot. Specifically? Big Bird will have to start doing ads. I’m no mathematician, but I’m guessing whacking Big Bird is not going to balance the budget nor close the national debt.

When Romney is done, ironically consistent with his earlier instruction, there is little more than dutiful clapping, certainly not the genuine enthusiasm I saw for Ron Paul — and both are miles away from the jet engine roar that met Obama so many times in 2008.

Unrelated to my job, I personally will support Obama just as I did in 2008, but lest you think I’ve not noticed, let me state it openly. If there is plastic coursing through Romney’s veins, I’m wondering sometimes when we will see some 2008 red blood pumping through the President. We can all remember speeches from the presidencies of FDR and JFK that stir emotions to this day, and, more importantly, stirred action during their presidencies. What we remember from Obama is what we remember from his inauguration and his campaign.

Personalities are nowhere near as important as policies (thus my unwavering support for Obama given the alternative) but if I were a Republican, I do have to wonder what it might be like if a Mike Huckabee or someone who seems actually human were in the race. The prospect of two men, Romney and Obama (one who never seems to have had any blood and the other who seems drained of his), makes us long for some restoration of passion. Somewhere. Please.

Meanwhile, we will have to settle for plastic passion like the Toby Keith song (“Momma gets her rocks off watching Desperate Housewives”). Until recently Romney used the old rock schlock “Eye of the Tiger” but that was a short-lived theme song. It was ridiculed for being the opposite of flip-flopping, thus not plausible for Romney. Naturally, the Romney campaign quickly flip-flopped and went country. The Keith song “American Ride” is a perfect theme song:

“Don’t get busted for singing Christmas carols.” Here we have the majority playing victim to a fictional war on Christmas.

“Spill a cup of coffee. Make a million dollars” In truth McDonald’s specifically planned that a large number of people would be terribly injured by unnecessarily hot coffee and decided to go ahead anyway (just a cost of doing business).

Romney may still win with this plastic fake culture war and corporate sycophancy. His theme song embodies his pandering to two groups that are willing to fund a lot of campaign ads -– but it won’t be pretty, or funny, or even human.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    Romney’s speech includes his unintentionally hilarious interpretation of the song “America the Beautiful.” Romney explains to Iowans that “amber waves of grain” could include corn and thus, he explains, this song could pertain to Iowa.

    Well, you can’t blame the guy for a little off the cuff humor. Oh wait

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      Also, Santorum - a frothy mix indeed!

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Has anyone else noticed that Gingrich’s wife looks like she’s been taken hostage? I saw her on TV the other day with the guy, and I could’ve sworn she was blinking SOS in morse code.

  • http://twitter.com/notlobau John

    Watching the Republicans trying to find  a viable candidate  for President is nothing short of a badly produced soap opera.
    A nation which has produced some of the worlds greatest achievers from the greatest institutions, and the best the GOP can offer is a bunch religious zealots.
    These people have zero to offer in the way of a vision for the country, their solution is  ban abortion and gay marriage and force religion on everyone and all will be ok.
    Santorum in particular appears more retarded in his plans than even Bachmann, his slogan “faith family & freedom is meaningless, if he were able to implement any of these “ideas” the result would be utter chaos.
    Don’t be duped  by these evangelical gangsters you deserve better

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    We gave my 14 year-old son the Rocky dvd box set for Christmas and we have been watching the movies. They all follow the same theme of setback, finding the “eye of the tiger”, and then winning. I predict we will see Obama catch his eye of the tiger come his summer.

  • Sage

    Ron Paul 2012.

    • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

      Is he dead? if so, you left off the year of birth

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JTBMQYMFVZMKNCXIMISICQ3Z6E Anonymous

      Seriously?? *shakes head*

      In a December 2003 article entitled “Christmas in Secular America”, Paul wrote: “The notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers. On the contrary, our Founders’ political views were strongly informed by their religious beliefs. Certainly the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both replete with references to God, would be aghast at the federal government’s hostility to religion. The establishment clause of the First Amendment was simply intended to forbid the creation of an official state church like the Church of England, not to drive religion out of public life. The Founding Fathers envisioned a robustly Christian yet religiously tolerant America, with churches serving as vital institutions that would eclipse the state in importance. Throughout our nation’s history, churches have done what no government can ever do, namely teach morality and civility. Moral and civil individuals are largely governed by their own sense of right and wrong, and hence have little need for external government. This is the real reason the collectivist Left hates religion: Churches as institutions compete with the state for the people’s allegiance, and many devout people put their faith in God before putting their faith in the state. Knowing this, the secularists wage an ongoing war against religion, chipping away bit by bit at our nation’s Christian heritage. Christmas itself may soon be a casualty of that war.”

      and then there’s this…

      His comments on the Lawrence vs. Texas decision, where the Supreme Court ruled Texas’sodomy laws unconstitutional, express his views most clearly: The Court determined that Texas had no right to establish its own standards for private sexual conduct, because gay sodomy is somehow protected under the 14th amendment “right to privacy”. Ridiculous as sodomy laws may be, there clearly is no right to privacy nor sodomy found anywhere in the Constitution. There are, however, states’ rights – rights plainly affirmed in the Ninth and Tenth amendments. Under those amendments, the State of Texas has the right to decide for itself how to regulate social matters like sex, using its own local standards. 

      In other words, he’s not for individual liberties… he just wants the FEDERAL government to quit telling the STATES what they can ban or not ban.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    (Ron Paul) … and his advocacy of top-down big-government theocratic impositions on their sex life.

    This is not true. Ron Paul opposes big government. He wants the top-down theocratic impositions on their sex life to come from medium and small government.

  • Anonymous

    I just wish there were a secularism-friendly candidate who was also as anti-TSA as Paul.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    Check out this census data for Iowa in 1895. About 70% nonbelievers (if you count the kids) on two consecutive pages. Seems people had a lot of time to philosophize back then while tending the farms. http://goo.gl/r4O3x

  • Trace

    Silly resolutions :)

  • Anonymous

    This was deliciously-written!

    • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

       “We’ve all heard about Santorum surging from behind.”

      Uh… deliciously…?

      • Jflcroft

        That most of all ;)

  • Newavocation

    So will Mitt run the office of the president like Bain Capital? Think you are poor now???

  • http://twitter.com/Skepacabra Skepacabra

    I love how Ron Paul disciples shriek in utter horror every time anyone anywhere says anything remotely not 100% positive about Ron Paul. But hey, if you hate women, Mexicans, the Emancipation Proclamation & Civil Rights Act, science, and 200 years of progress as much as you hate war, then boy is Ron Paul the candidate for you! 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Romney is like a pitch for a bad sci fi movie:  It’s Stepford Wives meets the Manchurian Candidate. The Stepford Candidate!  Apparently the software they wrote for him just hasn’t quite got the subtleties of human interaction down yet, so Romney the Robot doesn’t appeal to flesh-and-blooders.

    I hope Obama can find his mojo again. Maybe he can get it back from Dr. Evil.


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