Iowa Senator Zach Wahls

“I’m a registered Democrat, but am not opposed to voting for intellectually honest Republicans. My biggest frustration with politicians is not about specific policies, usually, but about whether or not the politicians are being honest about what those policies will do, why they are presenting those policies, etc. Way too much of our policy making is about emotionally-charged and intellectually dishonest claims instead of real world problem solving. Any politician with the courage to put forward solutions–that actually solve problems, even if they’re unpopular–is worth consideration in my book.”
~Zach Wahls (from an interview by Michael Hulshof-Schmidt)

My fellow Iowa Citian Zach Wahls was elected to the Iowa Senate. I don’t know him personally, but I know of his family. The church he grew up in and remains a member of, the local Unitarian Universalist, I attended for a period of time back in the early Aughts. He was was a young kid at the time, having been born in 1991. I’m sure I saw him and his family around the place and around the community, as it is a fairly small town. He still is young for a politician, at 27 years old.

This particular upbringing surely shaped his worldview. He was raised by two mothers, that likely being a major reason his family went to the UU church, as it is well known as a bastion of liberalism. Unitarian Universalism, along with closely related deism, has its roots in Enlightenment thought and was originally popularized in the United States by a number of revolutionaries and founders. In 1822, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian.” He was a bit off in his prediction. But as Zach Wahls election demonstrates, this religious tradition remains a force within American society.

Senator Wahls first became politically involved by writing for his high school newspaper and continued his journalistic interests later on through a local newspaper. On a large stage, he first came to political and public attention in 2011 through a speech he gave on the Iowa House Judiciary Committee. It was in defense of same sex marriage, and interestingly was an expression of a uniquely Iowan attitude that emphasizes community and citizenship, hard work and family values but not in the sense of the fundamentalist culture wars. That speech went viral and was widely reported in the mainstream media. He was interviewed on some popular shows. That opened doors for him. He gave another speech at the 2012 Democrat National Convention and he was a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

So, his being in the limelight began not that many years ago. His mother, Dr. Terry Wahls, initially was more well known than him. She wrote some books over the past decade about how she reversed the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in herself, in her patients and in the subjects of clinical studies; with her initial book having been published in 2010, a short while before her son’s first major speech. Although a mainstream medical doctor, she is popular in the field of alternative diet and health. She is among a growing number of doctors, researchers, and experts who have challenged the problems and failures of our present healthcare system. It is unsurprising that her son while campaigning for the Iowa Senate seat promised, among other things, to reform healthcare.

It remains to be seen what kind of politician he will be. As with Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez, he is fresh blood from a generation just now entering the political arena. But he grew up ensconced in a liberal class bubble and appears to fall prey to some of its biases. It doesn’t go without notice that he was such a major supporter of Hillary Clinton, rather than Bernie Sanders, not that I know he ever attacked or spoke badly of Sanders. Still, he comes across as a fairly mainstream Democrat with some mild progressive leanings. He might be ahead of the game, though.

Clinton and Obama didn’t support same sex marriage until recent years, long after they had built their political careers, and long after the majority of Americans were already in favor of same sex marriage. Those old Democrats are used to playing it safe by making sure to remain to the right of public opinion and inching left only when public demand forces them to. Zach Wahls, on the other hand, grew up with same sex marriage as the norm of his entire reality. He began defending it in articles published in his high school newspaper. The old school Blue Dog Democrats have roots in Southern conservatism, established by the Southern Evangelical Jimmy Carter and more fully entrenched by Bill Clinton who also was a born-and-bred Southerner. Senator Wahls, however, formed his worldview in the heart of liberal progressivism, situated in a Northern town alien to Southern culture and politics. He takes the political left for granted as the starting point and so, even as part of mainstream politics, he is pushing the Overton window further back to the left again.

Young and idealistic, Senator Wahls enters the political fray right at the moment when the American public is being radicalized and reform is in the air. This might elicit the better angels of his nature. It might be easier for reform to take hold now when the majority of Americans are behind it. More importantly, he is bringing with him genuine knowledge of the issues, knowledge built on personal experience and so with personal stakes. The civil rights angle is important, whether in terms of same sex marriage or other things. But to my mind, more important is healthcare reform, as it touches on the nerve of populism. His mother, if she hadn’t turned to alternative health to treat her multiple sclerosis, would now at best be wheelchair-bound and at worst already dead. She did this after conventional medicine was unable to help her. So, Senator Wahls understands the failure of the system in an intimate way and he understands the kinds of concrete changes that need to happen.

As an Iowan, I’ll be watching him closely. The more infamous Iowa politician, Steve King, appears to be on the decline in his position within the Washington establishment. The older generation is losing its grip on power and the younger generation is clamoring to replace them. Senator Wahls, in particular, seems like a new breed of Democrat. I wish him well.