There are three things everyone from Iowa does: detassel, attend the Iowa State Fair and go to the caucus.
But Iowa is also a home for high-tech, with the success of its tech startup poster child Dwolla encouraging a budding startup scene. This just isn’t San Francisco’s idea of high-tech.
“[In the midwest], agriculture becomes part of your DNA,” says Jordan Lampe, director of communications and policy at Dwolla.
Dwolla builds software for faster payments and has seen success in signing up merchants, and several Des Moines government agencies. Now, they’re trying to get in the ring as the US develops a national interbank faster payments system.
But, as Lampe says, agricultural technology is still the focus in the Midwest.
Which brings us back to the first thing all Iowans do, detasseling, stripping corn of the pollen-producing tassel at the top and placing it on the ground to re-pollinate the land.
Agtech is an interesting market, one that Lampe wouldn’t mind moving into at some point, but it’s also challenging. Farmers like practicality, he says. For instance, you wouldn’t see a farmer using Instagram to increase his business.
“And when farmers hear ‘startup,’ that doesn’t sound pragmatic to them,” he says.
But whether they like it or not, startups in Des Moines are building products and services for them. And the momentum is so strong that after one co-working space closed its doors, another opened in its place. The new space, Gravitate is home to about 45 startups or sections of startups, usually the developer staff.
Like gamification platform, Bunchball developer, Jeff, who lives in Iowa but goes back and forth to San Francisco regularly. For Jeff, it’s great, because he gets to live in a house, close to family, in an area with a lower cost of living, and he doesn’t have to deal with the traffic and crowds in San Francisco.
But his choice does come with some stigma.
“The people in San Francisco think you’re not good [as a developer] because if you were you would already live in San Francisco,” he says.
The sentiment isn’t unique to the Bay Area.
“When people talk about the Midwest they equate it with being boring or less sophisticated,” says Geoff Wood, the founder and community builder at Gravitate.
Isn’t that the truth. Hailing from Missouri, I’m often offended by pretentious comments from people that have never stepped foot in the Midwest.
This kind of thinking is reinforced online. According to Urban Dictionary (the second entry), the Midwest is “a massed region that is thought to be full of hicks and more conservative people with dull, boring accents. These are bigotted, narrow-minded people from other regions who say this. The Midwest isn’t a bad place at all.”
Not to split hairs, but bigoted is spelled wrong, there isn’t proper punctuation for quotes and this is just a poorly written paragraph… But for all the dumbass things I hear about the Midwest, many times I’m left wondering, ‘Can I blame them?’
For many towns and cities throughout the Midwest, Fox News is on 24/7, racial tension is high and religious morality holds sway over politics. When conservatives in the Midwest support Donald J. Trump with “he just says it like it is,” this definitely doesn’t help. Racism should not be “like it is.”
It’s hard not to find yourself in the political debate in the Midwest. The region’s people thrive on being the new underdog, vehement that the country isn’t great because we’re trying to support the whole instead of relying on our rugged individuality, the everyone for themselves mindset, which forks into the complete dissipation of the US government into the hands of private entities.
And that expectation of America’s Heartland had me thinking Iowa would be littered with Republicans.
But I’m surprised stepping into Raygun, a printing and clothing store in Des Moines that specializes in parodying fly-over state stereotypes with car decals that say ‘Captive’ inside a particular Midwestern state’s outline, buttons that tout ‘I support the crazy one’ and shirts exhorting, ‘Iowa State Fair: Where Presidential Candidates Deepthroat Hot Dogs.’
In Iowa City I’m having a whiskey and ginger waiting for a friend when I start up a conversation with Joseph, an older man with a white ponytail.
He’s reading printed out news articles, but they’re not the kind I expect. It soon comes out that he’s a Democratic Socialist.
“Where the hell do the conservatives hang out?” I ask.
Sure, I have a septum piercing, a green peek-a-boo and find myself in hipster bars, so maybe I’m not the first person a Republican would walk up to, but I’m having trouble finding them anywhere.
Joseph explains it’s because we’re in a university town. Plus Iowa isn’t overly conservative in the first place, with a partisan split as of 2014 of 32-31, leaning only slightly Republican.
“If I was a senator or something I’d start with campaign finance reform; no one person could give over $200,” he says. “And politicians, every time they spoke, would be hooked up to a lie detector. And going further, they’d be hooked up to an electrode that shocked them every time they lied.”
I know he was sort of joking, but there’s something deeper in his sentiment. I think of Donald Trump and Fox News, the use of facts, out of context, how we all use facts out of context to support our own agendas.
Maybe they know the counterargument, maybe we know the counterargument and distort the facts on purpose, or maybe it’s a simple mistake.
Misinformation is the great American by-product, evaporating off the inflexible partisan politics that define the country today.
*And here’s another roadtripper, Stephen Marche with White Man Pathology in The Guardian, on the fandom of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders:
“Bernie Sanders wants a revolution to overthrow casino capitalism but the problem, or maybe just the first problem, is that the American people love casinos. They can’t build them fast enough. On the road from Iowa, I passed at least a dozen, a dozen Fun Cities of various shapes and sizes, enduring various conversations about Trump and Sanders. The highways of Illinois are a unique vision of the workings of human desire – a nearly limitless marketplace for addiction and its cure. Strip clubs or fried chicken or gambling or church or rehab or cancer treatment. The I-94 spoke right to the unwounded body – the promise of processed sugar and pussy, or salvation from them.”