I’ve seen, experienced first-hand, and documented everyday authoritarianism in U.S. rural cultures that no other researcher or scholar writing about authoritarianism has noticed or addressed. How is that possible? A few reasons.
First, it’s because none of them have any actual experience in authoritarian cultures. Most are privileged humans who have always lived in power’s comfortable confines, and unless you’ve felt powerlessness consistently and had to adapt to that power-scarcity to keep living, you’ll always assume everyone else can just stand up and be powerful. It’s nowhere near that simple, but their projections onto what they don’t understand—and its reflection back to them in their published words–create the impression their work is accurate and complete. It is a dangerously uninformed position from which to make any claims about authoritarianism, particularly when everyday authoritarian practices are growing right under our democratic foundation. The “experts” just don’t have the experience to understand.
It’s also because the already existing body of literature (all of it) begins with the assumption that authoritarianism is in systems and in men-at-the-top, and those systems and men-at-the-top are where all the power resides. Scholars focus their analysis where they assume change can be made, but they can’t see that changing the power relation happens at the bottom, never at the top. With their unexamined assumption up front blocking their view, scholars can never understand the locked down power at the bottom, can never appreciate that power-stealing (everyday authoritarianism) is stopped dead when there is no one from whom to steal power. Indeed, they can’t even know that they don’t know, so they begin where everyone else has started: in unexamined assumptions that continuously reproduce radically incomplete rural knowledge–mostly framed in capitalist terms and without a grounded analysis of power–they then present as authoritative.
It’s also because there is simply no body of scholarship about U.S. rural cultures, let alone one that might have noticed the power-stealing patterns of practices that constitute everyday authoritarianism and that support state-level men-at-the-top and the systems they’ve hijacked. U.S. academics have ignored U.S. rural cultures so they could study “exotic” foreign cultures. Other scholars have followed in the steps of the body of literature addressing so-called “third-world” rural problems, and those frameworks have kept them locked down into particular lines of analysis. There is simply no existing framework within which to make sense of everyday authoritarianism (power-stealing and hoarding) in power-scarce, resource-scarce, and reliable, accurate information-scarce U.S. rural cultures.
It’s also because most academics live in a world of words and abstractions, and that point of view “raises” their thought processes above emotions, above feeling. Such a move is valorized in their world: rationality without emotion is the sine qua non of the straight, white, male scholar, the standard in academia. It is also a serious mistake: all beings experience the world first in emotion, then abstract up from it. When scholars stay in the abstract without an actual connection—some experience—back to the phenomena they describe, analyze, and argue endlessly about, they blindly erase the everyday ravages of authoritarianism in favor of obsessing over authoritarian personalities and oppressive state apparatus. They forget the humans and the locked down power and potential at the bottom in favor of analysis, argumentation, publications, book tours, and vitae lines.
It’s also because most academics, like the rest of us, have had little to no exposure to accurate representations of our rural neighbors. In the 1970s, U.S. television executives canceled en masse every rural television program. Nothing was broadcast to rural populations that reflected them: they did not exist in worlds where television was the authoritative voice, which was everywhere. The few representations consistently made fun of rural people, and those were the only images the rest of the country saw of our rural neighbors. If there are no representations of a population in our culture, they do not exist, for anyone, academic or not. You can’t see connections to something that doesn’t exist.
The “experts” about authoritarianism are wrong. They are all looking in the wrong direction–up to politics, media, capitalism–for answers and solutions. They need to be looking “down” to the basis of everything: relational power patterns between humans and how to reorient toward personal power-sharing practices. All of those little, granular interactions between humans create the social soil in which people and policy are planted. If it is poison, people and policy are dysfunctional and unhealthy. The U.S. authoritarian knowledge scarcity is why The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies exists.
And the last three years’ ethnographic work has shown me that we do not have time to fuck around with bad knowledge about authoritarianism.
Other scholars who’ve researched or commented on everyday authoritarianism outside the U.S.