Political Discourse and Participatory Democracy: From Feed Mills and Barbershops to Attack Ads

Democracy used to take time-time that citizens are no longer willing to spend. Now, influencing public policy takes money-money that corporations are more than willing to spend to buy political influence. The little people used to have a big say and needed no money to say it. Now the Supreme Court has given big corporations the same rights as individual citizens. With unlimited money to make sure everyone hears the corporate perspective–over and over again–the “big say” has gone corporate.

In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned long-standing federal laws that had limited the financial influence of corporations in political discourse. The 5 to 4 opinion gave corporations the same “free speech” rights that citizens enjoy under the First Amendment. Ironically, the case was brought by a front group that called themselves “Citizens United”–the label now attached to the Supreme Court ruling. As a result, massive amounts of corporate money poured into the 2010 elections. Most of the contributions were used to support conservative candidates although not channeled through a political party. In that way, nasty attack ads could be run without the Party having to own up to them or have the sponsors identified.

In the first two centuries of American participatory democracy, men gathered in various venues to discuss the future of the young nation. There were strong differences of opinion-in the vast hinterlands and in the highest councils of government. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton articulated very different visions for the beloved country in grand Capital speeches and formal written position documents.

In the vast hinterland, farmers gathered at the feed mill and talked while they waited for their grain to be slowly ground by waterpower from the local millpond. The first settlers got the best land, were likely of New England (Yankee) or German ethnicity, tended to be Republicans, and typically joined the Farm Bureau. They ascribed to the communal culture of the era, but also epitomized nascent capitalism–hard work and re-investment in their private enterprises. Later immigrants from Scandinavia, Ireland and Poland worked smaller farms with poorer soils, tended to be Democrats, usually joined the Farmer’s Union and worried about the general future of agriculture. Some farmers joined The Grange because it provided a broad social context for its members in the rural community. To collectively buy their fertilizers and fuel at lower prices and sell their milk and grain at higher prices, many farmers, including some conservative Germans, joined agricultural cooperatives.

Farmers often continued their feed mill debate at the corner tavern. A cold beer was a big treat. Except for Sunday morning worship, farmers only got to town once or twice a month. Some farmers would hone an idea for days, or even weeks, in preparation for a political debate at the next visit to the feed mill. They had diverse political perspectives but they understood that they had a common destiny. In the best traditions of political discourse, they debated vigorously across decades about the best way forward toward that common destiny. It was Jefferson’s vision of participatory democracy by yeomen farmers.

The farmers didn’t patronize the barbershop. The Farm Bureau types could afford a fancy town hair cut but they felt the money would be better used to buy more land, more livestock or more modern farm equipment. The Farmers Union types couldn’t afford a barber’s fee. Most all farmers had their hair cut by their wives or another relative.

The barbershop was the venue for political discourse by town folk. Main Street businessmen gathered and debated while they waited their turn for a haircut. Often they would stay on after they had been trimmed just to continue the political discourse. The barber strung the conversation along from one set of customers to the next. By the time I was in high school, I was making enough money raising pigs to go to a barber for a haircut. My barber, Jack Ware, would “incite” his Republican customers into a political discussion by telling them that he planned to wait until the Chicago Tribune (which usually endorsed the Republican candidate) endorsed a candidate. On that basis he would then vote for the other guy, who Jack figured would be more likely to care about ordinary people.

While businessmen leaned Republican, clerks and other laborers in town leaned Democratic. Their kids went to the same public schools and inevitably mixed marriages resulted. Both had a sense of a common destiny and took the time to think, and then to talk, and then to think again, about the alternative ways to mold the future they would share.

While men dominated political discourse in the 18th and 19th centuries, women had their own places and organizations to affect political and social change. They pursued causes such as ending slavery, extending suffrage (right to vote) to women, prohibiting consumption of alcohol and opposing war. Increasingly in the 20th century men and women debated issues in the same time and place-especially on college campuses where women were rapidly catching up to men in enrollment numbers.

Except for Senator McCarthy’s Red-Baiting (falsely accusing liberals of being domestic Communists and probably spies for the Soviet Union), the country took a break from social problem solving after the exhausting Great Depression and WWII. The big issues that had been ignored in the 1950s ruptured in the 1960s: civil rights for Blacks and women, poverty in the Appalachians and the inner cities, the Vietnam War, and environmental degradation. Sit-ins, teach-ins, class boycotts, demonstrations, protest marches and other forms of political activism became a central part of a college education in the 1960s. A college student without a cause was a social outcast!

Too frequently the protests became violent and vulgar. Several anti-war students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago turned ugly. Draftees returning from Vietnam were treated shamefully. Some joined the protesters as Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Others became bitter. Others suffered from exposure to Agent Orange-a defoliant that American forces used to clear the Vietnamese jungle. Others (55,000) came home in flag-draped coffins. In contrast, President Kennedy’s Peace Corps remained an honorable way to serve humanity.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, a tide of affluence washed over America. “Better” came to mean “bigger”–more stuff. Materialism replaced democracy as the core of the American Dream. Discussions of investing in the commonwealth, sharing a common destiny and nurturing a community spirit, if they occurred at all, evolved around community adaptation to the new economic order-a social system that fostered accumulation of wealth, a liberated life style and new levels of individual freedom. The big issues in the lives of citizens became personal issues of success and status. For young people, delayed gratification was being shortened to an almost meaningless concept. Even middle class kids expected a car for their sixteen birthday-kids from higher status families got fancy new cars. Newlyweds expected to move into a nice home right after returning from their honeymoon if not before they got married. Even among older citizens, a sense of entitlement was growing. The automatic response to whatever social benefit society could provide was: “I deserve it.”

Meanwhile, back in the countryside, status and success was achieved through cannibalism. As big farmers bought out retiring farmers, most feed mills closed because the big farmers bought their supplies directly from wholesalers and sold their products on the futures market rather than wasting their time and money at the local feed mill. When I started farming in 1980, I had the choice of four feed mills within ten miles. By 2005 my closest feed mill was over thirty miles away. Small towns, whose economy was based on agriculture, withered. Rural school systems consolidated for lack of students.

Instead of “chewing the fat” at the barbershop, both men and women began making appointments to have their hair “done” and thus increase everyone’s time efficiency. Attendants were instructed not to talk politics with clients and discussion between customers simply did not occur. It was unusual to strike up a conversation and outright weird to stay after an appointment to continue a political discourse. The connection between the barbershop and participatory democracy had been severed.

Instead of spending time in the feed mill and barbershop, both men and women turned increasingly to individual pursuits. Year after year for three generations, more electronic gadgets lounged under the Christmas tree, and year after year, Americans of all ages spent more and more time under AC (electricity) and DC (battery) life assist. Watching TV became an almost universal default activity. Fifty years later, interactive electronic gadgets swallowed huge bites of the 168-hour week. Each year young people spent more time on video games, cell phones with amazing apps (applications), email, Web surfing, and social networking (Facebook/My Space/Twitter for Me and My friends).

Social networks on the Internet provided a new forum for political discourse especially during dangerous and chaotic events such as the protests that toppled dictators during Arab Spring 2011. To some extent the Internet democratized the media. However, the Internet also had severe limitations as the new “feed mill and barbershop” sanctuary for political discourse and participatory democracy. There was no accountability on the Internet. Facts were simply fabricated. People were quoted out of context or out of thin air. With computer graphics, damming photographs were created by cutting and reassembling, and then instantaneously distributing on the World Wide Web.

Of course, lies were told at the feed mill and barbershops too. However, it was difficult to lie face-to-face to someone you are likely to see again in a few days at church or perhaps even later the same day at the tavern. It was much easier to lie to an anonymous blog reader, a distant email correspondent, or a cold digital image on Facebook.

With the demise of daily newspapers and their opposing editorials, and without face-to-face venues, serious political discourse diminished. From campaign appearances to news hour commentary to prime time presidential debates, political discourse degenerated into trivial slogans, mud slinging and shouting matches. Each candidate, or their surrogate, tried to talk all the time-playing a blistering offense rather than responding to the arguments of the opposition or defending their own position. The “responsibility to listen” was one of the many responsibilities that was jettisoned by the juggernaut of individual freedom.

Political ads, always of dubious education value, became engines of misinformation–contributing less than nothing to democratic dialogue. Like cock fights or pit bull face-offs, everybody came out of the experience exhausted and in bloody shreds.

Why? Why in a world of double digit unemployment and more underemployment? Why in a world where meals came in paper bags from McDonald’s and Styrofoam “doggie bags” from the restaurant the previous night? Why in a world full of machines to wash dishes, wash clothes, clip the lawn, compact the trash, brush the teeth, trim the hedges and slice the potatoes? Why in that world full of labor saving devices, could we not have found the time to discuss the kind of world we wanted to live in and the kind of world we wanted to leave to you–our collective grandchildren?

In a cruel twist of consumerism, our labor saving machines actually cost us more time rather than it saved–both spouses have to work to pay for them. Then after working so hard, we tried to reward ourselves by living in starter castles, dining out regularly and playing hard (expensively). We forced ourselves to work even harder and worry even more about our finances because we bought even more stuff. So much stuff that we had to rent off-premise spaces for storage. The life style was dubbed a “Rat Race.” Imagine rats in a cage turning on a wheel that they can climb half way up. At that point they have to run with all their might to stay on the wheel but they can never quite get to the top of it and get off to a place of rest and serenity.

By the dawn of the 21st century, we were shopping for stuff every day of the week (really easy with the Internet), every week of the year, every year of our lives from age 6-90. We used quantity rather than quality to measure our lives. We diminished civil society by simply not taking time to nurture the culture of participatory democracy we inherited. Instead, some of us worked 50-60 hour weeks until we almost dropped and then we literally shopped until we dropped to reward ourselves. Others could find no work and the sight of frantic shoppers (especially during the Holiday shopping spree) added to their pain.

For thousands of years women went to the market every day to buy fresh bread, vegetables and meat. Without refrigeration, meat/fish had to butchered/caught and eaten the same day. In the 20th century the number of food shopping trips declined. Food shopping was concentrated to once a week because freezers and refrigerators kept meat, milk, bread, vegetables, salads, and fruit fresh for at least a week. By the turn of the 21st century, the old pattern re-emerged. Shopping once again became part of everyday life. A typical week for a typical family included several trips super market for groceries, several trips to the mall or big box stores for other things, several trips to the computer to make on-line purchases, several trips for fast food meals (usually drive through) and a Friday and/or Saturday dinner out.

We viewed our work as the means to an end. The “end” was consumption. To achieve that goal, we absolutely had to go shopping. Everyday–but especially on Sunday. Sunday had been the Day of Rest since Biblical Creation. Sunday had been the Day of Worship since the first Easter. Sunday had been the Day when stores were closed by custom or law in Christian countries for nearly two millennia. At the turn of the millennium, The Netherlands, arguably the most socially liberal country in the world, still prohibited shopping on Sunday. In my lifetime in America, Sunday became the prime Shopping Day-the day to seek out sales rather than sit in a pew or spend time with loved ones in a “bonding setting”.

We could have sustained participatory democracy if we had spent one hour a week shopping for ideas to sustain our society and its democratic ideals and one hour less shopping for things. One hour a week-a small fraction of the time spent buying (or looking to buy) stuff at the store or on the Internet. One hour a week-a small fraction of the time spent watching TV. One hour a week-a small fraction of the time spent surfing the Internet. One hour a week-a small fraction of the time spent texting to Facebook “friends”. One hour a week-a small fraction of the time spent tethered by our cell phones umbilical cord to cyberspace. (The word “cell” used to refer to the basic building block of biological life. By the turn of the millennium, the word “cell” referred to the basic building block of social life.)

However, shopping, watching TV, computer games and interactive electronic communications were not the central causes of the demise of serious political discourse about the future. They were symptoms rather than causes. Truth is: we became lazy. We didn’t want to think. We didn’t want to be bothered with seriousness. We wanted to eat, drink, and be merry. Praise God, we were able to watch NFL (National Football League) games several times on Sunday, on Monday night, on Thursday night, and several college football games on Saturday. There were so many wonderful opportunities to be a couch potato with a bottle of beer in one hand and a high-fat salty snack in the other. Add a cheesehead hat for Green Bay Packer fans.

We have a myriad of expensive toys; little ones that fit in our pockets, medium sized ones that fit on our shelves, big ones (boats, snowmobiles, motor homes) that fit in our rented storage units and second homes that fit in another community.

Many of us spent part or all of the winter in a sunny paradise far from our cold home community. The sum of our divided loyalties added up to less than our previous commitment to our sole community. We no longer wanted to do the hard work required to organize a modern equivalent venue to the feed mill or the barbershop. And, if we were absent for months at a time, we would not be likely have been very successful. We couldn’t share ideas we had not spent the time to develop. We didn’t do much serious thinking while flying in an airplane or lying on a beach.

On top of laziness, political correctness suppressed political discourse. In many places discussing politics is considered out of place-a taboo in polite company. Politics joined religion as an inappropriate topic to discuss with someone of a different persuasion. Such discussions might have exposed fault lines that somehow were considered less dangerous if left unexposed. Thus, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for those fault lines to be crossed or closed.

The farmers in the feed mill and their town counterparts in the barbershop and the ladies in the Ladies Aid and the Garden Club enjoyed talking about politics and religion and took time for both. They carried those conversations to other venues, especially town halls and city council chambers. Discussion of such topics was not just permitted-it was expected. First such discourse lost expectation. Then it lost permission.

As it became impolite to expose political differences, the art of political discourse withered. There was no motivation to prepare for a debate that was not likely to happen. In the days of feed mills and barbershops, men looked forward to the verbal challenge that would likely await them there. Often they thought about their talking points all week or all month. It was part of the preparation for going to town or to the barber.

Eventually, there was no point to hone political arguments any more! Really, was there any point to even think about politics if there was no opportunity to sway another stubborn sod buster your way or, per chance, learn something from him?

Our fore fathers spent 200 years, and our fore mothers worked even harder in later years through the Sufferance Movement and the League of Women Voters, to perfect a young democracy. Great strides were made in the middle of the 19th century and again in the later part of the 20th century. We improved participatory democracy by expanding who could participate. At first, it was only White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASPS) male freeholders who could vote. Over time voting booths and elected offices of our young democracy were opened to Jews and Catholics, Blacks and Women. We made it easier to vote by removing property owning prerequisites and poll taxes. Progress was uneven and occasionally we backslid, e.g. when Japanese Americans were put in camps during WWII. Martin Luther King Jr. and some of his followers died for their dreams in the 1960s. (I got shot at in Mississippi and violated a curfew in Nashville, Tennessee to board a bus to attend King’s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia in 1968.) Still the momentum was positive; a more perfect union-a more perfect democracy was still the goal.

Then, in the space of a few decades, we lost more than momentum. We lost almost all civility in our political discourse. Compromise became a dirty word. Tea Party extremists, (self-named after the rebels in Boston Harbor at the beginning of the Revolutionary War) grid-locked Congress with their absolute adherence to their pledge not to raise taxes. Even ending a subsidy was considered a tax increase because the government would have more money. Unlike the conservative absolutists that hijacked the country in 2010, the partisans in the feed mills and barbershops understood that compromise was essential to democracy. They understood that the winner of an election would set the agenda, but out of good will and the recognition that the electoral tables would inevitably turn, they respected the members of the minority party and were proud of bipartisan legislation.

Jefferson believed that yeoman farmers would be the pillars of a democratic society because farmers made a lifelong commitment to their farm–and by extension to the community. During the first century of its existence the United States was an overwhelming rural nation. It was still a predominantly rural at the beginning of the 20th Century. In just a couple of generations the population moved from mostly agrarian to overwhelmingly urban and urban focused (suburbanites and exurbanites with city careers and urban culture). Urban folks were, not only more numerous, they were more mobile-moving to wherever the next job or promotion dictated. Thus ties to the community diminished with urbanization and a national job market after WWII. Did those demographic changes, that Hamilton foresaw, damage political discourse and participatory democracy? Perhaps.

Women entered the labor force during WWII, dropped out of the labor force to make way for GIs returning from WWII and raised their children–the Baby Boomers. After 1970, women entered the labor force in large numbers and many became professionals often working 50-60 hour weeks at the office while still carrying the roles of mother and wife. Before women entered the labor force, the meetings of women’s organizations, especially the League of Women Voters, had partially replaced the feed mill and barbershop as venues for political discourse. Did the entry of women into the work force damage political discourse and participatory democracy? Probably.

Radio brought news, including political news, to more people faster. Television allowed millions to watch presidential candidates debate. So far so good. Then most of the air time regarding politics became ads which promoted the candidate with the most money. Then the ads became part of smear and fear strategies to discredit the opponents. Good people decided not to run for office because they didn’t want to put themselves and their families though the mud slinging. Did the entry of big money and negative ads damage political discourse and participatory democracy? Definitely!

Voter turnout in America is low in comparison to other democracies, while consumerism is the highest in the world. Those statistics lead Governor Lamm of Colorado to articulate a generic life cycle of societies about 1980. The cycle began in the “bondage stage.” Military and economic bondage to England was followed by freedom–achieved against all odds by the Revolutionary War. The freedom of Independence released a burst of energy and enthusiasm which lead to high productivity which lead to abundance which lead to apathy which lead the US back to bondage.

The “freedom stage” that began after the Revolutionary War lasted about a century. The country from 13 fragile Atlantic colonies to the Pacific Ocean, laid wide-gauge transcontinental rails and narrow- gauge (logging and mining) rails, set the stage for world class cities and flooded the patent office.

The “productivity stage” began with development of agriculture. Farming was the biggest occupation for most of the history of the country. The ability of millions of small farmers to dramatically increase their productivity had the broadest impact on U.S. society-bar none. Mechanization of agriculture allowed a farm family to feed 5 other families, then 10, then 20, then 50. American farmers grew more grain than the rest of the world could even conceive of. With productive farmers able to feed many families, workers were available for smelter ore into steel, make more modern farm equipment, start an automobile industry and pursue a host of other manufacturing and service sector endeavors. Fortunately the U.S. was in high (although latent during the Great Depression) productivity mode when it had to fight the Great War. WWII brought productivity, especially in manufacturing, to a zenith. In the wake of the Great Depression and the Great War, the Great Generation maintained high standards of frugality and work ethic through the 1950s and 1960s.

After a transition period during the 1970s, the “abundance stage” held sway in the 1980s and 1990s-the Golden Era of peace and prosperity. We had incredible amounts of everything: children and adult toys of every conceivable function, McMansions for homes, money enough to eat out at our pleasure, energy enough to guzzle through tens of thousands of miles per year with multiple automobiles per family and travel fever enough to fly to distant continents for a long list of excuses. We consumed many times our share of international resources and wasted without regret.

In less than a few decades the “abundance stage” in the US evolved to the “apathy stage”. Citizens claimed they had no time to get involved in politics. No time to attend a political event featuring a speech by a candidate in the flesh. Many citizens even excused themselves for missing elections because they had no time to vote. College students, who had the lowest voter turnout statistics, spent only a fraction as much time studying as students did in 1960. Most of their time was spent socializing and recreating-most of it at the end of a digital tether. As digital opportunities perfected individualism, the civic organizations that did the hard work of nurturing democratic institutions ran out of volunteers. Did abundance and apathy damage political discourse and participatory democracy? Absolutely!

The life cycle of American society began edging back around to the “bondage stage” when it tried to support a military presence in 130 counties and fight two long-term distant wars against evasive insurgents. Americans were not saving enough to support either internal investment or military adventures. In some years, savings rates were actually negative. Thus, the bondage that emerged in the early years of the 21st century was economic bondage to China. The U.S. borrowed the ~$1,000,000,000,000 to pay for 2001-2014 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from China. Instead of asking Americans to pay for his wars, President Bush cut taxes–twice. To pay for previous wars, Americans were asked to sacrifice by paying higher taxes. By 2011, such a self-sufficiency policy was no longer a political option in Congress where many Congressmen had signed a “No New Taxes” pledge; reversing the Bush tax cuts was deemed a tax increase.

Thus, the first life cycle of the young United States of America was completed. American society will continue to revolve as others have. Over thousands of years, China has gone through the cycle several times. In the latest life cycle of Chinese society, the bondage of imperialism and colonialism was broken in 1949 and the bondage of domestic central planning was broken three decades later. New found economic freedom unleashed a bonanza of entrepreneurship, national energy and societal enthusiasm. Then in a whisper of time, Chinese productivity blossomed into the second largest economy in the world.

The life cycle of societies is not new. Shakespeare understood that attitudes toward work, commitment and sacrifice would soften as material well being increased, when he said. “The hungry lion hunts best!”