Grassroots Democracy-Building in Iowa


As Henrik Ibsen said: “You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”

Democracy is never given to us, but has to be won through constant struggle against the elites who keep scheming to siphon ever more of society’s money and power into their own hands. A Woody Guthrie song about outlaws tells this story in one stanza: “As through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen.”

American democracy is the gritty story of workaday folks who get fed up with the fountain pens, get organized and get moving to stop the thievery. Indeed, not only does such gutsy grassroots confrontation work; it is the only thing that really succeeds in reclaiming, maintaining and advancing our democratic values.

To see an uplifting example of organized people-power in action, look to the heartland, where a coalition called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has had its democracy-building work clothes on since 1975, uniting and empowering people of all ethnic backgrounds to push back against the avarice and arrogance of big-money corporations. With more than 3,000 dues-paying, activist members, CCI is organized in every county in Iowa. They’ve rallied thousands of other Iowans to join their local and statewide actions, including winning battles against factory-farm manure polluters, corporate wage thieves that prey on low-wage workers, payday lenders that trap poor people in cycles of debt with 300 percent interest rates, gas and electric companies that gouge customers and banking interests that were either foreclosing on or refusing to lend to good farmers.

In the process, CCI has become a national model of direct, non-partisan civic action to re-establish some measure of America’s highest moral ideals: (1) government of, by, and for the people — not just big-money corporations and (2) economic fairness and prosperity that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.

Another great songwriter and activist, Patti Smith, has a song that brings all three of her talents into a single refrain: “People have the power / To dream / To rule / To wrestle the world from fools.”Some people wring their hands at the perverse ethic of inequality and the rise of plutocratic rule that have invaded our America, hoping in vain that some golden-haired politician will ride in to save them. They might as well trust their last pork chop to a coyote.

For “people power” to be more than a cliche shouted out at rallies, it has to do something — such as dream, wrestle and rule. That pretty well defines this remarkable, grassroots group of people-power doers who’ve come together under the principled banner of CCI. These feisty farmers, conservationists, workers, students, consumers and other everyday Iowa people have strategized, organized and mobilized to take on bankers, bosses, big shots, bastards and BSers in battle after battle for economic, environmental, social and political justice.

The members of CCI have joined hands with the people of Iowa and beyond to wrestle their world from the greedheads and boneheads who feel entitled to fool around with ordinary people’s lives. That scrappy democratic spirit is what we need to bring about change in today’s political process.

Years ago, I came across a small moving company consisting only of two guys and one truck. But they had a big, can-do attitude that was summed up in their advertising slogan: “If we can get it loose, we can move it.” That’s the operating model offered by CCI — get democracy loose at the grassroots level, and the people themselves will move it forward. For information and inspiration about people taking charge, go to


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