FAIRFIELD, Iowa—Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have accused him of promising pie-in-the-sky solutions to America’s problems like “Medicare for All” and free college tuition that, they say, can never become reality.
But in a small southeastern Iowa town that was put on the map by a New Age faith movement that aims to create world peace with the power of silent meditation, Sanders’ proposals seem downright practical.
In his remarks attempting to woo caucus-goers to support Andrew Yang, the businessman’s precinct captain told the audience that when he had met Yang, he’d been “able to give him some books on TM, hopefully to turn him on to it.” The precinct captain for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said that when he met the Hawaii congresswoman, they had discussed how those advocating for world peace might not make as much money as military contractors, but would receive greater rewards in a “different realm.”
“She’s the one taking on the military-industrial complex, talking about it, coming back from service and against war,” the Gabbard precinct captain said, calling on the 274 people here to align with Gabbard “for world peace.”
Unique among the rural counties to the north, south, east, and west, Fairfield is the Midwest epicenter of the Transcendental Meditation technique, or “TM,” a movement founded in the 1970s by the eponymous Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that popularized silent mantra meditation in the West in part by cultivating world-famous practitioners like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
In Maharishi Vedic City, whose founding constitution vows to “protect, nourish, and satisfy everyone, upholding the different social, cultural, and religious traditions while maintaining the integrity and progress of the city as a whole,” locals congregate twice a day under a pair of gilded domes to meditate in the hopes that their brain waves, once synchronized, can prevent various global catastrophes.
“Almost everybody you see here is TM,” said Claudia Edwards, a San Francisco native visiting the precinct here as an observer, told The Daily Beast. “They’ve got their hands in everything here—it’s sort of saved the town, depending on your view.”
The movement, which boasts practitioners including Ivanka Trump, Katy Perry, and David Lynch, has faced criticism for attempting to sell would-be meditators on expensive programs that promise devoted (and deep-pocketed) practitioners quasi-magic powers, including the ability to levitate, called “yogic flying.”
But beyond its more baroque offerings, the culture of peace-seeking and global community has fostered in this small Iowa town a sense of duty to making the world a more peaceful place—whether while sitting in the lotus position or while caucusing for a presidential candidate.
In Fairfield, as in other caucus sites across the state, the question of a candidate’s electability outranked questions of their policy proposals (and, here, spiritual fitness): neither Gabbard nor Yang met the threshold of 42 supporters in the first alignment, leaving their supporters scrambling for another candidate.
In fact, only two candidates survived the first alignment as viable: Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Over the course of more than two hours that, in some ways, mirrored the reporting delays happening statewide on Monday night, the precinct initially had to re-tally the supporters in the first round, before extending a ten-minute persuasion period for the remaining non-viable candidates to realign.
Some supporters of Sanders and Warren, apparently thinking that they had done their duty, left early, further delaying the process of assigning delegates; meanwhile, supporters of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden desperately clamored to gain the dozen additional caucusgoers they each needed to cross the viability threshold. Buttigieg gained an upper hand, and for a tense few minutes only needed a single person to reach the threshold.
“Come on, Dad! Please!” one Buttigieg supporter shouted at his father, who staunchly refused to leave the Biden corner of the room.
Buttigieg eventually crossed into the viability threshold with Warren and Sanders—but the Vermont senator had both groups beaten in a walk. The delegate totals would not be reported for hours more, but Sanders appeared ready to take the lion’s share.
“The TM community is highly educated—they’re very clued-in to politics,” Edwards told The Daily Beast. Her brother, who was caucusing for Yang, is the area’s only neurologist, and has been affiliated with the Transcendental Meditation movement for decades. The movement’s practitioners, Edwards said, take TM’s emphasis on peace very seriously—which can be helpful following two hours of tense political debate.
“I don’t know how in a small town everybody gets together and hugs and kisses afterward, so I’m amazed,” Edwards said. “It’s really hard to grasp, especially nowadays.”
Like Hawaii or the Bay Area, Jefferson County has for decades been a center of gravity for people with a willingness to take a chance on unconventional paths to self-fulfillment, political or personal. As a result, Jefferson County voters have been critical to the campaigns of non-traditional candidates for years.
In 2016, the county gave Sanders his biggest win in all of Iowa last cycle, with a whopping 72.7 percent to Clinton’s 27.3 percent. In comparison, Clinton won the all six of the surrounding counties by an average of 11 points that year. Rep. Ron Paul carried Jefferson County in 2008 and 2012; in his first run, it was the sole county he won. In 2004, Rep. Dennis Kucinich came in a strong second place with 29 percent of the vote, despite winning a mere 1 percent statewide. He was defeated in Jefferson County by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who himself won only one additional county that year.
More recently, 2020 presidential hopefuls who might be dubbed “curiosity candidates” have made Fairfield and its famously open-minded citizenry a required stop on the campaign trail. Gabbard, who like the Maharishi himself is a practicing Hindu, has appeared in the town. Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru whose semi-ironic fans dubbed themselves the “Orb Gang” and who ran on the platform of fomenting a “revolution of consciousness,” made seven stops in the county during her Quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination in 2019.
During one of those events, held on the International Day of Peace in September, Politico reported, Williamson led an audience in a ten-minute “guided meditation,” in which she called on practitioners to “look to the creative force from whence peace comes.”
After she dropped out, Williamson announced that she would appear alongside Andrew Yang in Fairfield to endorse him, “because I know the institutional obstructions to his candidacy and I want to see him continue in the race past Iowa.”
But the frequent talk of peace obscures some harsher reality of life in a town where many people can spend themselves into debt in order to reach the highest levels of TM.
“Lots of them end up broke at the end of their lives,” Edwards said. “There’s a dark side to that moon.”
But with their votes, Sanders-supporting caucus-goers here indicated that they’re confident in the movements that they’ve joined—both of them.