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Remember these lyrics in “The Music Man,” that famous Iowa-based musical from the ‘50s by Meredith Wilson?

“We can be cold as our falling thermometer in December, if you ask about our weather in July. And we’re so by God stubborn, we can stand touchin’ noses for a week at a time, and never see eye to eye.

“But we’ll give you our shirt and a back to go with it, if your crops should happen to die. So what the heck? You’re welcome; glad to have you with us – even though we may not ever mention it again.”

In another great line, Harold Hill asks, “What do you folks do here for excitement?” A frowny-faced funeral parlor attendant answers, while looking down his nose, “Mind our business!”

Nothing could better summarize why I’m starting this new progressive publication, The Real MainStream. The goal is to buck “Iowa Stubborn” and bring forth the Iowa open-minded. No standing around at odds with unspoken resentments; we aim to get people talking.

And what we do for kicks? Time to pull those out of the shadows, too, and open up about the cutting-edge, nontraditional things people do in Iowa to stay happy and find community.


Iowa’s history of outdated conservatism

Iowa is so much more than the bastion of outdated conservatism that many are starting to associate with us in the Trump era. We were the first state to desegregate our schools. Iowa’s also been a leader, historically, in LGBTQ rights and religious sanctuary.

But Iowa remains a source of shame to progressives and liberals, and often the butt of the collective joke. When you want a wholesome, hetero, straight-laced foil, mention Iowa. Right, Matthew McConaghey? (It was a dorm room full of long-haired Iowa girls that fawned over his every move in “EdTV”).

Our throne of progressive shame still stands: we re-elected hate speaker Steve King to Congress again, albeit narrowly. And we are now even more entwined in Trumpism because we nursed the great jacuzzi-selling mind of our super-conservative acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, a U of I grad.
This scene from “The Music Man” epitomizes the cold side of “Iowa nice.”

As someone who grew up in northern and eastern Iowa, I went through a time when I couldn’t wait to leave. The heavy emphasis on religion, the passive-aggressiveness of “Iowa nice,” the seeming invisibility of other lesbians or gay people …. It all combined to send me high-tailing for about 20 years.

When I returned in late 2016, Iowa City’s progressive bubble warmed my heart; it was an Iowa I didn’t know existed while a child and teen-ager in the Mason City and Quad-City areas.

But trips throughout rural Iowa still have the opposite effect, just as they did when I was younger. The state of living for farm animals, the lack of skin color, the churches, churches and churches, and the long faces like that doorman’s, almost always plunge me into depression.

I don’t want Iowa to bear that burden anymore, the cold of isolation and close-mindedness. It leaves us vulnerable to Trump again. He has not stopped campaigning since being elected – and 2020 is coming so fast.

This leaves Iowa in the nonstop national spotlight — and in the bulls-eye of the Trump propaganda machine.


To be ready this time, we can’t just bolster the progressive bubbles of Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Or just hammer away with vitriolic and/or personally dramatic social media posts; hold more pop-up rallies; come up with more clever signs for those rallies; or add more drag to them. These are all wonderful expressions – but they are preaching to the choir.

Real change will happen when we reach beyond the warm, blue progressive bubble and into the expansive, icy, red areas. We’re trying to achieve this through  a holistic approach, taking a “progressive” (progress-oriented) approach to all aspects of life. Our hope is that we will not only fill a hunger among people who are already progressives – but will also build bridges with those who aren’t yet.

TRM print covers
This collage shows all the covers of The Real MainStream in print, before we transitioned to all-online in March 2020.

Crises among progressives, too

There’s another over-arching reason why we’re starting this publication, and it’s a harder one to swallow. Burn-out, disillusionment and infighting are eating away at the progressive movement.  Progressives are struggling to keep the faith. They’re skeptical of each other, and sometimes too quick to snark and project frustration on each other.

They’ve lost faith in a lot of their colleagues and community members, and sometimes wonder what it will take to find a sense of progressive community – even inside the bubble, let alone throughout the rest of the state.

And even if they have not lost faith, they’ve tuned out – especially our younger adults. Many have grown up in the “self-esteem” era defined by nonstop feigned positivity through social media. Many have decided pre-Trump that bad news in general is not worth their time, and they just don’t pay attention – not with any depth, at least.

So we aim to revive both hope, and depth. We aim to generate a prevailing stream of thought that places progress above partisanship, fosters authentic collaboration, and aspires for a greater Iowa that does better for everyone, especially marginalized people.

It’s past time, finally, to leave the ‘50s era “Music Man” mentality behind. It’s time to leverage everything that makes Iowans special – our open-mindedness, intelligence, generosity, resourcefulness, compassion, creativity, and diligence – for a better future. Join the ‘Stream.