Courtney Ball

The Iowa Caucus Mob

There is a phrase in Latin, mobile vulgus, which means “the fickle crowd”. Mobile vulgus is where we get the English word “mob”. In ancient Rome, the mob became a dangerous political force which Emperors learned to pacify with free food and circuses.

Every four years in my home state of Iowa, the circus comes to us as we gear up for the Presidential caucus season. It’s a little taste of power and limelight in an otherwise ignored state as would-be Emperors (well, technically would-be Presidents) test their skills at playing to the fickle crowd.

Donald Trump proved himself to be rather good at it for a while. The brash, irreverent, attention addict knew how to make a big splash among Iowa’s most impulsive crowd of voters. But it couldn’t last. When you start out that loud, people turn their heads at first but eventually have to tune you out.

Ben Carson’s soft-spoken faith is a little easier on the ears. Now that the starting horns have blared and the chariot-race has begun, Iowa voters are beginning to remember that this election is a marathon. We’ve still got three months of this circus left just to get to the first caucus. We might appreciate some time away from the lions and gladiators. It’s sort of like when we leave the carnival rides of the midway during the Iowa State Fair and amble through the Ag Building to check out the Butter Cow and some prize-winning produce. It’s nice to feel a little homey and nostalgic for a while.

We see the same thing happening in the Democratic race. Lightning rod Bernie Sanders has energized the left with his fiery rhetoric and given Hillary a run for her money in the early race. But already it’s becoming harder for him to hold the public’s attention.

It must be maddening as a Presidential candidate to try to judge what the Iowa Circus Mob will decide to think next. Iowans employ a frustrating level of whimsy when choosing who they might caucus for. Sure, you’ve got your die-hard fans like in any sport–the people who get really upset when their team doesn’t win–but most of us in Iowa have grown a little too used to the hype to give the process much weight. We like the attention we get when the candidates and the cameras pause for long enough to focus on us, but most of us know it’s not real. We’re just as cynical and weary of it all as the rest of the country; maybe more so.

We can’t take the process too seriously just yet. Like most of the country, even with all the hoopla here, we won’t really tune in until next year, most of us well after caucus-time. We’ll let some of these hot-burning meteors flame out and then see which candidates have enough staying power to garner our serious consideration.

But in the meantime, it’s an entertaining show and good for our economy, especially those in the media business. For example, here in Cedar Rapids where I live, our local TV station was purchased this year for $100 million, a crazy amount of money for a local station. Why? Because the buyers wanted to own a top-ranked television station during a presidential election cycle. They want to sell ads.

Since I live here and have written for Ministry Matters before, they asked me to offer some reflections on the Iowa Caucuses over the next few months. Future articles might focus on how different candidates talk about faith, or how their policies have been influenced by their religious beliefs. For now, however, I have to say that like many Iowans, I just don’t believe it’s all that fruitful to analyze the circus or the mob it attracts just yet.

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Courtney Ball

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • You write very well, Mr. From the Past! There’s so much to encourage cynicism in our elections! I can get stuck on “Think how many starving people this money would help”

    You and your beautiful family are stuck in my head from your early pastoral years at FUMC. Two things are clear memories: Your leaving to walk with God into a VERY uncertain future and taking the family with you and my threatening you if those beautiful girls went hungry–I know your brown UPS suit helped prevent that, but also the support of your great family who respected God’s will for your life.

    I also remember so clearly your realization that however motivated you were, you could not cover CRC and be at Staff Meetings on any given Wed am and asking me to be a surrogate delegate to CRC. Which opened incredible vistas to me but also prompted an older established FUMCer to query “How did YOU become our delegate to CRC?.” My fantasy is that your ability to delegate became useful in your work in Cedar Rapids.

    I am 80–lived for 14 mos w/my wonderful San Jose son. The four year in the making plan was for me to stay there but it didn’t work our for my Chinese daughter-in-law, so I am now living indefinitely with my VT daughter. I still have my condo in IC but it is working out so well for my younger daughter to live there. I have found a small, warm, inspired UM church in Essex Center, VT and hope to gently work my way into usefuln ess there.

    You remain in my prayers. It has been a blessing to follow your work. Sally Jablonski

    • Sally,

      It’s so nice to get this note from you! One of my earliest memories as a pastor is you walking up to me after one of my first sermons and asking, “Salvific? Is that even a word?”

      Taken aback, I said, “I think so.”

      “Well, I’m going to have to check my dictionary, because I’ve never heard that one before.”

      And, of course, a favorite part of my week at FUMC was talking with you and the other wise, opinionated women during Brown Bag Bible Study on Tuesdays.

      I can’t believe you’re 80! But then again I can’t believe my daughter is in high school now. In a little over a year I’ll be 40. Time moves quickly.

      I hope life is good to you in VT. They’re lucky to have you there.

      Thanks again for getting in touch.


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