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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.