Iowa 2012: Political Showbiz on Wheels

The backdrop for this post is the University of Iowa Libraries' award-winning Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century exhibit, also featured in part at the Library of Congress. A version of this post is crossposted to Oh Crap, I Have A Crush on Sarah Palin.

Who knows what Sarah Palin was really thinking, rolling her party-crashing act into Ames, Iowa on Friday. "I was quite sure that [soon-to-be-favorite Rick Perry -OC] wasn’t going to run because he was adamant until I think about four months ago that he wasn’t going to run, so it surprised me," she said, clutching her pearls in the rarest of rare forms. Needs more drama coach. Nobody believes that any more than these guys believed Harold Hill:


And when the man dances, certainly boys, What else? The piper pays him!
Well yesterday, the piper paid Palin's friend Michele Bachmann with a 29% win, in the infamous straw poll that has thrown the GOP's last five election seasons into full swing.

The Palin Traveling Roadshow of Political Pandering isn't the only, er, vehicle, that's in circulation these days. Consider also the New Progressive Alliance Silly Bus, so ably taken apart by Imani of Angry Black Lady.

Last week, Tavis Smiley the talker and Dr. Cornel West, NPA Headliner, engaged a weeklong roadshow of their own, called the Poverty Tour. Condemned by comedian Steve Harvey and chastised by Miami Herald analyst Joy Reid at The Reid Report, hey were also run out on a rail from Detroit last week, under suspicion as an egregious, self-promoting pandering effort (h/t again: ABL.)

President Barack Obama isn't above getting on the bus for a few days, either; yes, with two stops in Iowa. Though, I suspect that as president, he'll be greeted with somewhat less cynicism. Well, at least by those not on the whackjob right and crankodoodle left, who are undoubtedly preparing their cries of who's going to be thrown under it, as I write this.


Traveling entertainment and Protestant Evangelical circuits aren't new in the US. Neither is the whistlestop. Everyone knows of local and intra-state variety circuits like vaudeville, circues and burlesque. American innovations in Evangelicalism, such as 18th century Wesleyan/Methodist (and also Catholic) iteneracy, also brought us the revival and camp meeting circuit. Ethnic circuits included the Borscht Belt, the Chitlin' or Theatre Owner's Booking Agency (TOBA) Circuits. Then, there was Chautauqua, one of American entertainment's greatest innovations. If you're a fan of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), yet (another circuit that taps into enterprise and social media as the basis for its networking principle, though it doesn't bill itself that way) you already understand something about how Chautauqua worked.

Based in part on the Lyceum Movement/Circuit of the 19th century, Chautauqua began in 1870s upstate New York and after decades of national expansion, came to a close in the Depression years. Its tent meeting Circuit partnered with religious organizations, educational institutions, and private sector commercial interests to promote cultural literacy. It brought together family-oriented concerts such as Jubilee Singers, theatre performers, and religious and secular orators of its day. The midwestern circuits were coordinated primarily by Redpath Lyceum Bureau, a booking agency centered in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Redpath Lyceum adThe influence of Chautauqua is still felt in various forms. The original Chautauqua Institution is still going strong. On my blog, I've had fun in the past comparing Sarah Palin to other famous circuit riders like Aimee Semple MacPherson and William Jennings Bryan, who made his mark as a featured Chautauqua orator (not to mention 3-time DNC presidential nominee and Secretary of State.) I'm not the only one to notice, either. For some additional reading, compare this Weekly Standard hagiography with that of Robert McElvanie of University of Chicago Divinity School.

Through the person of the Nebraska politician and other innovators, the Chautauqua Movement is also part of the legacy of self-identified progressives, helping to circulate progressive ideals, warts and all; the Movement was also successful in promoting Prohibition, one of progressivism's greatest failures.

Bryan's legacy is so notorious, every politician with White House aspirations, regardless of how they match up with his politics wishing to reach "the people" have to study Bryan's successes and failures. Recall that during the 2008 election season, rightwingers from John McCain to The Spectator magazine used Bryan as a smear agent against candidate Barack Obama. David Frum -- who has famously "gone RINO" since McCain/Palin -- had this to say:
Bryan stands - or should stand - in American political history as an object lesson in the dangers of choosing politicians without records of accomplishment on the basis of fine phrases alone. If Obama loses in 2008 - or (at least as possible) wins, and then goes on to fail as president - I wonder if many Democrats will not be haunted by the warning that Hillary Clinton gave earlier in this cycle: There is a big difference between making speeches and making change. Deval Patrick and Barack Obama jointly deny it. Bryan's career suggests that the former first lady will likely be proved right.
These days, he sounds more like us supposed Obots, fangirls, and apologists than anything. What a difference three years makes.



Palin and her peers, including two in particular we've been watching over the past few months in the runup to today's Ames poll, do share Bryan's and Chautauqua's conservative social/moralist leanings, however, and seem to have learned quite a bit about about how to ride the circuits. Michele Bachmann, being a product of Oral Roberts University (Roberts himself started out in tent meeting circuits in the 1930s-40s), is a direct beneficiary of today's iteration of those networks. Rick Perry made some waves and alarmed some people on the left last week by heading up The Response, which finds its roots in the neo-Pentecostal, Latter Rain Movement, and Charismatic sets. Yes, more networks. Evangelicals of every political stripe are masters at it.

Let's not make the mistake of laughing off their staying power like the left has done with their every iteration in the recent past, e.g., the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, values voters, and now the social conservatives in the tea party. And don't be afraid of them, either. After all, as influential as Iowa is on our political culture, only losers win Ames straw polls, anyway.

Edited for formatting, 8-15-11 11:46A