Outrage is a powerful emotional tool. It can cause us to say things and do things we wouldn’t ordinarily say or do if we weren’t so worked up.
But is it an effective political tool? We’ve experienced outrage nationally on many different fronts over the years. The civil rights horrors in the south in the 1950s and '60s had been going for quite a while but gained momentum when hundreds of northerners saw graphic images of blacks in the South being beaten or killed, churches burned to the ground and protesters having fire hoses turned on them to knock them down.
Similarly, images of the Vietnam War caused outrage among many Americans, leading to public anti-war demonstrations throughout the country and, ultimately, the decision of President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election.
Outrage doesn’t always work. It often dissipates or becomes just noise when it meets with political opposition or indifference. The latest outrage is over the many mass shootings we’ve experienced in the U.S., the same outrage that has occurred after every mass shooting for the past 20 years. Perhaps this time, the outrage will produce meaningful results. But perhaps not.
In Iowa, we know a little something about outrage becoming a political force. In 2010, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the judicial principle of equal protection under the law, its decision legalized gay marriage in the state. Bob VanderPlaats, a conservative Christian who was outraged by the decision, mobilized others who were similarly outraged. They mounted a campaign that resulted in three of the justices being defeated when their terms were up for retention.
There’s always another side to the story. In the case of the Iowa Supreme Court decision, it is entirely possible that all six judges opposed gay marriage personally but were duty-bound to uphold the standard of equal protection under the law. Many believe that in the judicial elections, outrage won and the law lost.
Now comes another sense of outrage, this one in Cerro Gordo County in which a woman charged with child endangerment of a young child was given a suspended sentence and probation by District Judge Rustin Davenport.
Many were outraged by the decision including Cerro Gordo County Republican Chairwoman Barbara Hovland who is calling for the impeachment of Davenport. She has formed a movement called “Justice for Our Iowa Children," and, in a Facebook message, references “stories of injustice in the Cerro Gordo County attorney’s office and courts.”
Her outburst has prompted some questions from Herman “Chip” Folkers, a retired attorney who served as Mason City’s city attorney for many years. In an email to me, he asks “whether the chair is claiming any basis for impeachment other than her disapproval of this particular ruling.”
Folkers points out that a sentencing judge has access to pre-sentence investigation reports, hears statements of witnesses and recommendations of both prosecuting and defense attorneys and is privy to information that an outraged public does not have.
“For any political leader to publicly call for the impeachment of a respected jurist based on nothing more than a sense of outrage (on one ruling) would be, in my opinion, short sighted and irresponsible,” he wrote.
The irony of his comments is that Folkers, in his own way, was expressing outrage – but his views do represent another side of a complicated, emotionally-charged story.
John Skipper retired from the Globe Gazette in February 2018 after 52 years in newspapers, most of that in Mason City covering North Iowa government and politics.