When I was a student at the University of Iowa back in the 1980s, I was a member of a radical leftist group called the New Wave. New Wave was at the forefront of many protests back then, including opposing CIA recruitment on campus, supporting gay rights, and speaking out against US intervention in Central America.
At first, I liked being a member, but then I started to become weary of the Maoist leaning of some of the most influential leaders of the group. Finally, due to several personal issues I was struggling with, along with disagreements with some of the members, we went our separate ways. It was a nasty split, with consequences that lasted for several years. But looking back, the experience did teach me about the dangers of political dogma, both on the Left and Right. As much as I wanted to fight for change, I had to accept that following the teaching of a 19th revolutionary and his followers was not for me. I had to find my own path. The one I did find lead me to the skeptical movement, and eventually to Freethought Blogs.
So, many years later, when I happened to stumble upon the 2011 article about New Wave, written by an undergraduate for the Iowa Historical Review, I decided to check it out. I opened it expecting a somewhat thorough history of the group. Instead,I found an article that tried to predict the future of the Tea Party movement by selectively citing New Wave’s history.
The author, Greg Branson, summed up his thesis this way: “What can the story of the New Wave Party tell us about similar reactionary groups like the Tea Party? Simply put, success will likely be their downfall.”
However, the history of New Wave can’t be used that way. The Tea Party was an Astroturf campaign mostly funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. New Wave started as a UI student senate political party that later transitioned into an activist group. While New Wave folks became members of the Progressive Student Network, (PSN) it was nothing like the Tea Party. PSN mainly shared information from progressive groups from around the country, while the Tea Party had a coordinated national strategy.
New Wave dissolved in 1992, but it wasn’t “because of the success of the group.” It’s demise can be attributed more to internal conflicts, the sudden departure of the group’s main thought leaders, the backlash against anti-war protesters during the first gulf war, and the community’s souring attitude toward New Wave’s tactics.
One of the major turning points for New Wave, in my opinion, was their “Intifada USA” rally on April 26, 1990. It was loosely a call for the then Daily Iowan Editor Jay Casini, a very conservative person at the time, to resign. Each co-sponsoring group had a representative give a speech for their cause. The overall message of the rally and eventual sit-in came across as “the world is terrible. Let’s march on the Daily Iowan!” The biggest problem with the protest was that Casini’s term as editor was about to end, and the Student Publications Board had already elected a new editor. The protest was therefore pointless and made New Wave members look like fools.
Since I was a contributor to the Daily Iowan’s Arts and Entertainment section at the time, I think I had the distinction of being someone who had marched with New Wave, yet was later protested by New Wave. Furthermore, New Wave never reached out to the liberal members of the DI’s staff who might have been sympathetic to them. Instead of building alliances, they alienated potential supporters.
While New Wave’s demise in 1992 correlated with the election of President Bill Clinton, it was not the cause.
Branson’s article should have focused more on the actual history of New Wave. He only cites the UI Library’s collection of old internal documents from New Wave, and even then, it seems like he only skimmed them. He could have cited the many newspaper articles and editorials about New Wave by New Wave members. He could have reached out to former New Wave members. He might not have found me, but there were other alumni that would have been easier to find.
In the end, I found the article to be a wasted opportunity, with a thesis that turned out to be false. You can’t always judge a political movement by the number of protests it stages. The Tea Party didn’t fade away when their protests. Arguably, they became the Republican Party. Their tactics are still used today, only now they’re used to fight mask mandates, and intimidate school boards. Conversely, California Governor Gavin Newsome fought off a recall effort thanks to strong turnout by Democrats in an off-year special election.
In one of my last journalism classes, I wrote a paper arguing that the trend in media was towards consolidation. My professor felt that my argument was too linear and I should have been open to more ambiguities, instead of trying to force all the facts to support my argument. Looking back, he was right. On the one hand, media companies continue to consolidate, but at the same time, more people now have the potential to reach large audiences through the Internet. Sometimes the answers aren’t so clean cut. It was a very valuable lesson, and unfortunately, a lesson that Branson hadn’t learned when he wrote this paper. I hope he did later on.
Overall, it felt odd that part of my life became a published article, even if the author never reached out to me. While the article wasn’t accurate, I can’t feel too bad, because my life isn’t over, and I still have more things to do. Maybe one of those things will result in a better article.