Enlivening Democracy in Rural America

UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, 2016 (photo credit: cathy b glenn @dr.cbg @just.trees.yo @etsy.dreamlightimages)

The rural-urban divide—represented in broken politics, predatory capitalism, and propagandist media—continues to stoke racial divisions in this country. Rural areas cover 97% of land mass in the United States, and 60 million human beings live there. Although the humans in these areas impact the rest of the country—indeed, the rest of the world—outsiders know very little about the cultural norms in which these U.S. citizens live and grow. Indeed, most non-rural U.S. citizens know only what they read or hear in the media, and currently those representations are dictated primarily by those interested in generating clicks, revenue, and controversy, not understanding. Moreover, the scant U.S. rural academic research focuses primarily on top-down, abstract economic and political analyses. The research–framed in capitalist terms and missing a grounded analysis of power–obliterate any understanding of the actuality of the everyday lives of rural human beings.

What is sorely missing is a first-hand methodical understanding of the cultural norms and practices in which U.S. rural citizens live and grow. Since the rural purge in the 1970s, rural citizens have had virtually no representation in urban cultures, leaving them without the cultural reflection necessary to create their existence. Decades long internalization of that invisibility left rural Americans vulnerable to those with influence pretending to hear and see them only to later exploit them.

Rural cultures are becoming more diverse as immigrants, non-white urban residents, and young people move out of urban centers. Many newcomers find themselves ignored and marginalized by rural norms and practices, the social soil of which locks down their agency and stalls efforts at change. Rural cultures are often disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information ponds of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation.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, both of which generate fear and grow white militias.

These cultural factors add up to relational communication practices that create the rural social soil in which all other activity–political, economic, or mediated–is planted and grown. When that social soil is poisoned by non-democratic human relations, it undermines the enabling conditions for healthy democratic (power-sharing) relations and practices.

In a democratic culture like ours in the United States, sharing power via systems and processes is a taken-for-granted cultural norm. When those top-level systems struggle, our focus must turn to enlivening relational cultural norms and practices.

Democratic practices–how humans do power-sharing–occurs between humans, in our relations with one another. Democratic policies are implemented via those communicative processes, but democracy is not in the systems or processes. The heart of any democratic culture is the human commitment to share power, via systems and processes, and that commitment (of lack of it) can be observed in communicative processes and everyday practices.

The conditions for the possibility of our current political climate were grown in rural America. It is time to turn toward rural cultures to understand how to enliven the foundation of our democracy, and re-animate the commitment to share power, relationally and via our democratic systems and processes.

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First Rural Portal Project edition anticipated January 20, 2020 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies is an Accelerate Publishing project. Accelerate: A Niche Publishing & Communications Consulting Co.,–est. in 2015–is a socially just for-profit small business in California.