How democracy (power-sharing) and authoritarianism (power-stealing and hoarding) function on an everyday level is actually quite simple, even though lots of folks have a stake in keeping it complicated.
Power-sharers are open, they turn toward others, they share accurate information, and they are transparent: their words connect directly to what they do in the world so everyone can see the connections. They support and nourish those around them, lifting them as they lift themselves. They create safe spaces where creativity and innovation thrive. They live democratically.
Power-stealers and hoarders are closed off; they turn away from others, stealing their power to connect and engage. They also steal power by offering inaccurate information intentionally, stealing others’ power to see and understand fully. Power-stealers’ words are often not connected in any identifiable way to their actions, and that lack of transparency steals power from others to know with whom they are connecting. Power-hoarders gain resources and stolen power, then lock out access to those who might participate and also benefit. They live as everyday authoritarians, undermining power-sharing practices and norms in our democratic country.
Try this today: as you move through your world, note the power-sharers in your world. And, who are the power-stealers? How do those different interactions affect your ability to confidently drive your forward momentum?
Project Vision: To build, fuel, and drive a social change vehicle prototype that can open up closed U.S. rural cultures to democratic practices and norms by supporting the diverse rural residents and newcomers in their navigation of non-democratic practices and normsin rural cultures.
Open cultures create the conditions that feed and grow democratic norms, which are embodied in human practices: what individual humans say to one another and what we do in relation with each other. Democratic practices in a culture create trust, make space for vulnerability, nurture creativity, and foster expression—all necessary conditions to grow power-sharing (democratic) norms. Democratic norms are open and inclusive: they “turn-toward” and seek out and embrace diversity in all its forms, including race and ethnicity. Democracies thrive when those committed to power-sharing via systems and processes contribute novel and creative cultural ideas and practices. Democratic ecosystems are most healthy and abundant when the social soil in which they grow—the cumulative cultural effect of individual communicative practices and norms–is also healthy.
Each individual democratic communicative practice—each granular act of relational power-sharing–counts in a culture to outpace and outnumber non-democratic practices. The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is in the human commitment to share power in everyday practices, and the more power-sharing practices that can be created in a culture, the more open it becomes to forming patterns of democratic norms.
In our current climate, U.S. rural cultures are often closed and disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information puddles of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation. As a result, many of those citizens live in a world of conspiracy theories and threats of imminent race wars, the fear of which is spread in relational communication patterns. White militias are a symptom of closed U.S. rural cultures drowning in mass propaganda created by those who benefit from the rural-urban divide. The rural purge of all rural television programming in the 1970s began the rural closing off process. Since then, U.S. rural citizens have had virtually no representation in urban cultures, leaving them without the cultural reflection necessary to create their existence. Decades long internalization and pain created by that invisibility left rural Americans vulnerable to those with political ambitions pretending to hear and see them only to later exploit them. Those with political ambitions continue to direct rural citizens’ pain at non-white, urban targets, who seem to be the cause of their pain (confirmed by television brought to them by Sinclair, often the only option).
Closed rural cultures reproduce poisonous communication patterns directed at newcomers and other marginalized residents: smiles become stoic, blank faces; waves are ignored or dismissed; and, eye contact is intentionally elusive. There is little trust between newcomers and “oldtimers” or “insiders” in closed rural cultures–inaccurate information intentionally offered over and over create severe trust deficits. Fierce passive aggression protects little patches of power that have been staked out by those few–in a power-scare environment–who know how to steal power from the newcomers and other marginalized residents.
Those newcomers and other marginalized residents from whom power is stolen adapt, sometimes with passive aggression of their own, or by disrupting or supplicating—all attempts to take back their power. Self-medication to numb the pain of power-scarcity is common in closed rural cultures: drugs, food, television, alcohol, and violence are all used and abused to feel better or to avoid feeling altogether. Power-hoarders who capture community resources lock down access to newcomers and other marginalized residents who might take a turn at participating in the decision-making about and distribution of those rural resources. Fear is used as a weapon, often projected onto newcomers and marginalized residents, creating confused funhouse mirror reflections of twisted intentions and motives, which further poisons the social soil in which all other activity takes place.
I worked for 19 months, post-11.6.16, fully immersed in ethnographic study of cultural norms and power relations in poverty-ravaged, deep-red rural Josephine County, Oregon, and my data confirms the conditions described above. My second full immersion immediately afterward into rural Sea Ranch, California, for another 19 months, adds further ethnographic support to the description of non-democratic conditions.
In particular, the study’s findings identify normal everyday authoritarian practices–relational power-stealing and -hoarding–in both rural cultures. The findings also point to a generational “orientation” embodied by members of the two rural cultures whose normal relational practices function to support state-level authoritarianism, while undermining local democratic practices and norms.
As a newcomer at the bottom of both rural cultures, I experienced first-hand the non-democratic practices and norms. It didn’t matter than I’m white, educated, a professional, and wasn’t poor: in these two (and similar) closed rural cultures, anyone who’s not an “old timer” or an “insider” is excluded, marginalized, and invisible. Exercising agency in these conditions–speaking up, dissenting, and generating forward momentum–is actively undermined, and everyday democratic practices discouraged or simply impractical.
The non-democratic cultural conditions in increasingly diverse rural America have not been acknowledged in any literature or research. Currently, no academic, business, religious, political, or nonprofit educational or cultural work effort is underway to address the cultural conditions in rural America that grew the possibility of the 45th POTUS and the white nationalists making policy at the top levels of the U.S. government.
When those top-level democratic systems and processes struggle or break down, reanimating “bottom-level” everyday democratic practices must be prioritized to bring about change. To address non-democratic rural cultural conditions, rural America needs to be more open, and the route in is up through the bottom. This project proposes opening up U.S. rural cultures by supporting the increasingly diverse newcomers who are moving into rural areas all over the United States and who find themselves at the bottom of rural petri dishes immersed in poisonous social soil. To begin that work, the prototype of a democratic change vehicle that can travel into and out of closed rural cultures needs to be built, fueled, and tested. This project will do that work.
Change in U.S. rural cultures has historically been driven by economic “development,” and that body of literature reflects the development approach in its language and focus on creating change. Previously, social and communication scientists relied on development approaches that framed research in terms of “development problems,” which were primarily associated with developing nations’ rural cultures, not U.S. rural cultures. In each case, the starting point was at the top: in economic analyses that rendered economic approaches and solutions while excluding or ignoring the social and communicative conditions within which those solutions were planted.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2012, development communication (devcom) researchers described how “development” is now understood more broadly as “social change” in current research. Recognizing that economics is only one factor in nurturing healthy rural human beings, the CMC (Communication for Social Change) approach allows change agents to also focus on a broad range of issues that impact increasingly diverse rural residents: the right to communicate; environmental sustainability; food security; empowerment of women, girls, and senior citizens; access to digital media; poverty reduction; and, access to health care.
Communication researchers acknowledge that “there is a consensus in the early 21st century on the need for grassroots participation in bringing about change at both social and individual levels.” Healthy, democratic communication practices—those that are open, transparent, and accurate—are the “enabling conditions” (the healthy social soil) that grows the strongest grassroots for supporting top-level democratic processes and systems. And, the grassroots is precisely where newcomers and other marginalized rural residents are located.
Cave Junction, Oregon was the site of my first full immersion, and like everyone else, I landed as an outsider at the bottom. From there, I learned how to protect myself from the poison in the rural social soil by fully embodying my role as an ethnographer. The little bit of distance that role required separated and lifted me above or around the relentless power projections so that I could experience, observe, note, and let go. The documentation process—notes, recordings, photos, etc.—helped me understand the relational environment so I could navigate it more or less safely.
I developed other coping strategies in both hostile research environments, all creative and connected to the earth. And, I found individual ways to speak up, reframe non-democratic relations, and embody democratic practices (none of which involved politics, just everyday mundane tasks). I observed that those actions in that context modeled that behavior, and others copied parts of that behavior later. I began to see the possibility of ethnographers– who were also cultural workers–immersed at the bottom of rural cultures around the nation—using the prototype from my experiences—creating the conditions for the possibility of rural democratic practices and norms.
Instead of immersing other ethnographers, however, this project proposes working with newcomers and other marginalized rural residents to develop and train citizen researchers in southern Josephine county, Oregon. Citizen researchers (CR) are non-professionals who devote dedicated time to methodological understanding of pressing cultural problems and are unaffiliated with religious, business, academic, or political organizations.
For this project, the focus is observing and noting everyday mundane interactions in relations—all those communicative practices that happen outside family, friends, lovers, and mentors. Many newcomers to rural areas are isolated, and this social soil is where they live. Training newcomers to recognize power-stealing in all its communicative forms and modeling power-sharing in that process creates the conditions for making healthier social soil in which democratic norms might grow. When newcomers are able to observe and note power-stealing practices, they can also understand how to reframe those relations in democratic terms.
In the context of the racial justice field, this work provides something unique and urgently needed: a way into the very conditions that continue to exacerbate racial divides in this country, and a vehicle for social change.
Near the end of a two-year sabbatical, and two weeks before the earth shifted on its axis 11.6.2016, I drove away from my Richmond, California home the day it closed escrow and two days later, took possession of my new property in Cave Junction, Oregon. Cave Junction is in Southern Josephine County, which is in the Southwest part of Oregon about 20 minutes north of the California border. It is one of many red rural counties in Oregon, and the poverty is like nothing most urban dwellers in the United States have ever personally experienced, except to drive through. (It took months for my urban orientation to adjust enough to really see and understand–to feel–this kind of poverty.)
Josephine county is also deeply authoritarian: power is stolen and hoarded by those few who claim authority, forcing those with less or very little power to adapt to that power scarcity and comply or face punishment in some form, the threat of which is directly expressed or implied. I’m confident I’d win a wager that no one like me—an active San Francisco Bay Area researcher whose areas of expertise are culture, power, and change–has ever actually lived in and studied a culture like the one growing in Josephine county. Frankly, I was not prepared for the profundity of unfamiliarity—or the totalizing effect of isolation–in this nearby rural world.
I assumed before moving out of California that the presidential election outcome would be different. I assumed I would have a front-row seat to witness the white supremacists and militia freak out in Josephine county after the first woman occupied the Office of the President. (At least a dozen more assumptions I held turned out to be dead wrong.) I assumed I could experience those events, write about them, and share, offering what knowledge might be useful to address the cultural conditions that produce such violent racist phenomena. On November 7, 2016, the day after the unimaginable occurred, I began methodically documenting relational power aspects of the rural culture in which I was immersed.
I’d moved to Josephine county to write and learn, and I did. I’d researched the politics of the place before moving to Cave Junction, but I took them about as seriously as I’d taken them in a lifetime of cynicism and democratic privilege as a SF Bay Area resident. For me, the politics didn’t matter. I wasn’t there for politics. I was there to live a life I’d imagined: experiencing the natural beauty of the place, participating in the culture, and showing what was normal in the culture I documented, through words and images. Except for an 8-week unavoidable foray into activism, my time in Josephine county did not include talking about, researching, or participating in politics.
Instead, my ethnographic documentation extends into every aspect of creating and living a basic life in the Southern part of this poverty-ravaged rural county: I interacted with, observed, and noted relational interactions between folks in the local health care system, the grocery stores, the post office, the adult learning center, the vet, the mechanic, the pharmacy, the hardware stores, and with contractors and tree guys and those who called themselves activists.
With no internet access (like most of my neighbors) for the first 8 months, socially and geographically isolated with only my two kittens, and with power relations that mirrored my authoritarian family culture background—what occurred was a 19-month, fundamentally life- and identity-changing experience. And, I saw the connections light up: from the power relations in my authoritarian family culture background, to power relations in this rural world, and up to power relations dominating broader worlds.
As an outsider, especially one from California, I entered the culture at the very bottom, unknowingly. The thousands in the bank, my education, my plans, and my intellect were unexpectedly invisible in this culture, as was my role as a researcher. What existed about me online was inaccessible to nearly everyone with whom I interacted in the culture, either by choice or (mostly) a lack of access. Even though I shared, in the beginning, what I was doing, it didn’t matter: I was invisible and marginalized by power relations that annihilated my very existence. It was a completely foreign experience—and a deeply painful and humbling one–for someone like me, who’d been accustomed to being recognized and known, even before stepping into a room; someone used to having her power reflected back to her. (I’ve found that neither people or power exist except in reflection back.)
When I was able to record and process enough to see past my own pain, I saw that everyone in the culture had been and continued to be negatively impacted by the non-democratic power relations, including those few who embodied authority. The social soil being created in which we were all living was poisonous, and it was slowly destroying every single very basic aspect of being a healthy human: a sense of safety, a sense of trust, and a sense of well-being.
Those relations also kill conditions that nurture healthy change: they imprison human agency. They chain the ability—the power–to push back, to resist, to say, “no,” to even know that resisting is an option (especially in a closed, information-scarce culture). The imbalanced power relations also stop the forward momentum of those simply trying to live a basic life. The shame of white rural poverty lives in the practices that marginalize and annihilate all of those human beings born or replanted in social soil they did not make, and that poisons them, daily, as they live and grow.
Being white, educated, and financially solvent carried absolutely no cultural value for me whatsoever in Cave Junction. My whiteness was taken for granted, my education unfathomable, and my assumed financial status–“rich” by CJ standards–prompted disgust or suspicion. This unexpected vantage point—without the power of status and privilege, or the distractions of technology for 8 months–provided a profoundly unimpeded immersed perspective up into this culture’s power relations. It was an extraordinarily dense, personal paradigm-shifting set of new experiences.
After meeting my 1-year ethnographic immersion mark, I put the Cave Junction property on the market, representing myself, and at the 19-month mark, it closed escrow (June 6, 2018). On June 7th, I drove out of Josephine county and home to California, rich with data and a deep, first-hand, methodical understanding of a culture I could never have imagined had I not lived at the very bottom of it. Or grown up in one with the same power relations.
I landed in The Sea Ranch, a seemingly wealthy Northern California rural coastal development of mostly vacation homes and rentals. As the homeowner’s association website narrates it, The Sea Ranch dream began in the 1960s as a utopian experiment in “Living Lightly on the Land.” My imagination–nourished by the online Sea Ranch narrative–painted a picture of extraordinary ethnographic possibilities: Sea Ranch would be the perfect deep-blue contrast to deep-red Cave Junction.
The possibility of immersing myself for a year in this little-known culture—a San Francisco Bay Area rural resource most only visit for a few days—was just too attractive to ignore. So, instead of heading all the way home to the East Bay after emerging from Cave Junction, I spent 4 months living in 7 short-term vacation rentals waiting for the one run-down cottage in the entire development into which I could move my work, my Sparkles, and my own things to live and research (what I expected would be) a contrasting culture for a year. From day one–June 7, 2018–I began documenting my experiences with power relations in the rural Sea Ranch culture.
Although I still live in the Sea Ranch cottage, I completed the formal aspects of my ethnographic data collection on September 1, 2019. My findings floored me. My experiences in Sea Ranch blindsided me. I was not prepared to find power relations—outright power-stealing and -hoarding practices—in a rural California culture like Sea Ranch. Nothing in the online narrative suggested the findings; indeed, the study’s ethnographic findings directly challenge The Sea Ranch online narrative’s “utopian” (“live lightly on the land”) message.
The second ethnographic immersion into Sea Ranch included what I learned being immersed the first time in Cave Junction, and the cultural norms were much easier to see, navigate, and understand in Sea Ranch. This second comparative ethnographic study —without the obscenities of white rural poverty—supports the claim that, at least in these cases, capitalism (jobs and money) will not solve for what ails rural America: its mostly unchallenged everyday authoritarian practices.
The Private Principal Investigator‘s immersion protocols emerged from field experience in what can accurately be described as “extreme ethnographic conditions” or “hostile field environments.” I organized similar ethnographic experience characteristics from my immersion in each rural culture into the following categories of methodological protocols:
Sarah takes the clipboard and paperwork the desk attendant abruptly hands her, walks to a seat in the waiting room, and breathes slowly, trying to calm her heartrate. She has dreaded this visit. She looks around, hoping to connect with someone friendly here, but no one makes eye contact with her. Sarah’s new in town, and her body’s been telling her that her blood pressure’s been far too high since she moved here.
She settles into a seat in the waiting room and looks down at the first sheet on the stack of papers she’s been asked to complete. First set of questions is about drug use. Huh. She flips the page. Second set of questions is about alcohol use. Really? Flip the page again, and the third set of questions is about her mental health history. All before you get to any questions about her name, her address, or the reason for her visit. She puts the pages with the screening questions unanswered under the rest of the paperwork. The seemingly constant fear of punishment here sits acidly in her gut. She begins filling out the other, more familiar forms.
“The doctor said I need to take two of these in the morning without food.” Sarah looks up and sees the slightly slumped back of a male patient standing at the front desk. He’s talking to the woman seated behind the desk.
“I don’t think you understood your doctor. He wants you to eat before you take the medication.” The woman’s voice is hard with authority, forcing attention. Everyone in the waiting room can hear this exchange.
The patient quietly responds, “I think the nurse told me the doctor said I need to take them on an empty stomach.”
The desk attendant’s hard tone gets loud and final: “You don’t understand. Do as I say: comply, and you’ll be fine.”
The patient tries one last time: “I think that might be wrong.”
The front desk woman has begun looking at papers in front of her and ignores this response. The patient waits a beat, ready for acknowledgement of his concern about the drug protocol. The woman at the desk looks up, avoids eye contact with the patient, looks past him, and spits “Next,” to the ceiling and to no one waiting in line.
The patient, slumped over from the beginning of the interaction, shrinks even smaller and walks away toward the exit door. Sarah notices many in the waiting room share that slump. When the door closes behind the departing patient, the room is silent except for the copy machine on the corner of the front desk sliding out replicas.
Sarah finishes her paperwork, puts on a smile, and walks to the front desk.
“Hi! Thank you for fitting me in! Not too busy today?” she offers, making small talk to connect.
The front desk woman takes Sarah’s clipboard. She doesn’t make eye contact with Sarah. She ignores the small talk, and Sarah watches as it splats, lifeless, on the desk between them. (It is only one of thousands of little deaths of human connection she’ll experience in this culture.)
The gatekeeper begins looking at the forms Sarah’s filled out on top. She flips through to the blank drug use, alcohol use, and mental health forms at the bottom. Sarah feels the grip of anxiety, making her stomach clench again. (It is a familiar feeling that has not left her body since she moved to this rural place.) She is painfully aware that this is her only health care option.
The woman seated behind the desk looks up at Sarah, openly apprises her physically, and decides to ignore the noncompleted forms.
“We don’t have a doctor on staff who can help you, but you can see the day nurse. Take a seat and we’ll call you when he’s ready,” she states with finality.
Sarah sits, breathes again, trying to calm her body. Her heart is starting to race with the feeling that her health is in hands that keep all the power for themselves. She feels like she’s not safe here; that her well-being is not the objective like it was for her back home. She’s used to office staff, nurses, and doctors who talk to her, who put her concerns at the center of their practices; who respect her and value her privacy. She is used to professionals who share their power with her by making her good health the objective of the interaction. She’s used to professional communication structures that focus the interaction on that goal. That’s normal for her. She is blindsided, finding these unhealthy power relations in a health clinic. Being blindsided in this culture is becoming routine for Sarah.
She’s called back to meet with Dan, the day nurse, in a private room. This is Dan’s second to last day. He seems unfocused and very hyper.
“Hey, okay, we need to take your blood pressure!”
“Yes! Thank you so much! I think it’s been really high. I’ve been waking up with a racing heart at 3:30-4 o’clock in the morning every day. I need a blood pressure read and to discuss my meds with the doctor. I’m new here, so I definitely need to get set up with the doc.” She hears her voice pretending to be in a safe place, trying to create that safety out of thin air and desire.
“We’ve got a pediatrician in back who can’t see you, but he gives me advice. Here, let’s do this. Follow me.”
Sarah has no idea what any of that actually means, but she is without her own blood pressure monitor, and she needs a reading from the one here. She has no choice. She follows Dan back.
She was right: her blood pressure reading is 228/118. Dan starts shouting. His face and bulk are about 2 inches above and in front of Sarah’s face as she sits in a chair below him.
“Oh, hell! Your blood pressure is so high! We have to get you out of here! You need to go into the city, to the hospital! You could get a brain hemorrhage! And if you’re here, we’re liable! We need to get you out of here, now!”
Her brain is frozen. Her whole body feels frozen. In a flat voice she has never heard before, she tells Dan to try to calm down, to remember who the patient is, that she’s here because her blood pressure is 228/118 because of stress. Sarah tells him that his freaking out isn’t helping lower her stress. He’s backed up a little from her and has stopped yelling.
Sarah hears the voice of the man who must be the pediatrician shout from a back room; he calls for Dan, and Dan seems annoyed. He stalks out of the room. During the 3 minutes or so he’s gone, Sarah weights her options. If she has to go to the hospital, what will she do about the kittens? Will she be able to drive herself home? What if they find something worse, what then? She is socially isolated here and has no one to call who could help. She is very aware she is breathing harder and beginning to panic a little.
When Dan returns, he’s calmed slightly, and he has a Clonidine tab in hand. He stands too close to her again.
“Okay, you need to calm down,” he starts.
She almost laughs, but stifles it knowing it’s going to sound a little unhinged. She also knows that she has no choice but to put her life in these hands. She has no choice. And laughing at Dan will only make this worse.
“Take this, lay back, and breathe. I’m going to turn off the lights. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
She holds out the palm of her hand and he drops the little peach pill onto it. Dan says nothing, turns, walks to the door, flips the light switch, and closes the door. Sarah feels around on the floor for her water bottle, knocks it over, finds it again, and swallows the pill with a long draught. She didn’t realize how dehydrated she had become. She also takes 10 very deep slow breaths, each settling her into this new rural health care reality.
Maybe the stories were true, she thinks as she lays on the crinkly white paper in the dark room, in a world an eternity away from home. Maybe the whispered stories–about how the health clinic in this town is killing people–were accurate.
Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. In political literature, democracy is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, dictatorship is democracy’s opposite.
Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. In political literature, authoritarianism is both an ideology and a structure. In politically abstract terms, “personal liberty” is authoritarianism’s opposite.
Everyday authoritarianism, however, is different than an abstract political theory. It exists in human relations, and you can see it in the everyday interactions and the mundane tasks. Living everyday authoritarianism means stealing power from other humans, on a relational level, and hoarding it. Its opposite is agency.
When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those benefits
When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life.
When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.
When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.
Living democratically every day means sharing power. Living a democratic ethic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.
Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions, we can understand fully, we are able to spend our time on our purposes; we can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with self-esteem; we are able to engage fully, effectively assess situations, live without fear of poisonous ideas. Living democratically means being able to confidently drive our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”
Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.
Other scholars who have studied or commented on everyday authoritarian practices