Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin speaks at a forum on civility in politics at Grand View University in Des Moines.
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin speaks at a forum on civility in politics at Grand View University in Des Moines.

November 7, 2016

Des Moines

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin brought 1990 campaign literature from his opponent — then Republican Congressman Tom Tauke — to a Grand View University forum recently.

Harkin read parts of the pamphlet and marveled at its focus on issues. Nothing personal. No demonization of the Iowa Democrat.

“We had collegiality,” Harkin said of Republicans and Democrats in past generations. “We got along. We did things together.”

Harkin noted that in 1984 no Democratic senators would campaign for him against U.S. Sen. Roger Jepsen, the sitting Republican.

Republicans and Democrats knew they had to work together so they operated under what Harkin called “an unwritten rule” against attacking colleagues in their home states.

But today, thanks to the emergence of a more polarized partisan atmosphere, those cross-party friendships are less common, Harkin said.

“Social media has divided us into sects — tribes almost —  in this country,” Harkin said.

At the Grand View event in Des Moines, Harkin joined former GOP Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and State Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan, a former Republican who switched to a no-party affiliation as a result of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Iowa Cubs president Michael Gartner moderated the panel.

There is some good news where civility is concerned, Paulsen said. For the most part, candidates at the local level can still control their own campaigns, keeping interest groups and their negatives ads limited.

Like Harkin, Paulsen said the presence of cellphone cameras and instant reporting — from anyone, not just members of the media — can make it challenging to work with members of the other party. Angry Republicans in a legislator’s district will see the photos and within minutes blast GOP elected officials for even having a conversation with a Democrat, he said.

“There’s more time spent looking over your shoulder,” Paulsen said.

Setting up lunches and other events with Republicans and Democrats — no-phone, no-camera gatherings — could be a good way to break the ice, Paulsen suggested.

Harkin had doubts about any return to old-school civility.

“I think the social fabric is already ripped very badly,” Harkin said.

More teaching of basic civics at the K-12 level could be a start, though, he said.

Harkin also said the presence of earmarks, congressionally directed spending that, for example, had a big impact on animal research at Iowa State University, played a role in bringing Iowa Democrats and Republicans together for projects. Earmarks are now gone.

“I’m proud of every earmark I’ve ever gotten,” Harkin said.

Johnson said he left the Republican Party because of issues that surfaced with Trump’s campaign.

“It’s bigotry, misogyny, racism,” Johnson said.

In reality, though, Johnson said, the party left him.

“I haven’t changed my values,” Johnson said. “I haven’t changed my views.”

For the sake of Iowa, the parties, and rural and urban interests, need to find solutions to water-quality concerns, Johnson said.

“I’m not there to occupy a seat,” Johnson said.