One of the things I learned while immersed in ethnographic study of conservative mostly white rural cultures is that those old people never give up. Rich or poor, it’s a badge of honor to stand steady in one place, gritty, never giving ground, doggedly defying all the inevitable processes of change.
It doesn’t matter if they know they’re dead wrong: they willfully turn away from that knowledge and keep forcing. Doesn’t matter that they know their time has passed and the world has moved on: they ignore that actuality and just dig their heels in deeper. It does not matter that they know they are blowtorching their children’s and the planet’s future: that vision of armageddon does not move them.
Conservative white boomers cannot change, and they know it, so they grind on, destroying everything and everyone in their path, as they stubbornly cling to and enable the toxic, violent embodiment of a white capitalist vision of America.
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Fortunately, it’s nearly impossible for these authoritarian white boomers — the 45th and his GOP-enabled “team”— to overturn a free and fair American election at this point. Not legally, anyway. And not without a significant show of force. That is not forthcoming:
The country’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, has said bluntly that the military would have no role in the matter. Milley’s office referred queries on the transition of power to a recent NPR interview: “There’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there.”
What should be a relief — that the U.S. will not be blown apart by a white conservative boomer-instigated civil war resulting in the overthrow of the U.S. government — is a distraction. The more pressing problem is this: after 4 years of fertilizing and tilling, the authoritarian cultural conditions that created the possibility of the 45th POTUS have grown. And “winning” for his supporters means total annihilation of the “other” side, in hand-to-hand business and professional combat, if necessary.
On the Ground in Rural America
A health clinic front-desk staff member whose longtime discriminatory gatekeeping practices continue to kill the most vulnerable. A water utility in a small town whose chair (elected by 100%) retaliates against community members he doesn’t like by shutting water service without notice. A California contractor exploiting the most vulnerable with fraudulent business practices and intimidation while visiting his second, Southern Oregon home where he pays scant property taxes. An HR manager for a major university whose relationally discriminatory gatekeeping steals the power to speak up from new, vulnerable employees. The president of a local artists group who sits in her position (elected by 100%) for more than 50 years, never letting anyone else lead.
These are just a few examples of conservative white boomers’ everyday authoritarian (power-stealing and hoarding) business and professional practices I experienced, observed, and documented on the ground in one conservative Rural American Culture (RAC). Each severely imbalanced power relation — embodied in a practice — functions to slow, stagger, or stop dead the forward momentum of those humans subject to it.
American racism is a form of authoritarianism. So is classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism. Each has as its core feature an imbalanced power relation. Each imbalanced relation functions in (racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist) practices that are entrenched in systems and processes and also present relationally between individual human beings.
The body of power-stealing practices that constitute American relational authoritarianism in this and similar RAC is much more than a collection of “mean,” “rude,” or “insensitive” behaviors. When relational power-stealing practices like those described above outnumber and outpace power-sharing (democratic) practices in a culture, they also crowd out the development of democratic norms (patterns of practices). Put simply, authoritarian business and professional practices make democratic cultural norms impossible.
This relational orientation for understanding how authoritarianism functions between human beings is a perspective you’ve likely never encountered in your reading. Because most journalists and academics focus on authoritarianism-as-regime, have no firsthand actual experience with authoritarianism, and have never lived in and studied rural American cultural conditions, their analysis remains at the secondhand, abstract intellectual level, which is mired in theory and locked tight into those frames.
From that insulated, detached, and limiting point of view, most journalists and academics cannot see, feel, recognize, or understand the cultural conditions and connections— the cumulative effect of actual power relations — that create the possibility of support for tyrants and authoritarian regimes.
Instead, when power relations are the starting place and data from the RAC field is firsthand and verified, the everyday patterns of human practices (the cultural norms) become glaringly apparent, especially if you’re as well-trained with sophisticated sense-making tools as I am. Not only does this firsthand field perspective allow a researcher to see and experience both the power relations and the regime, but also accessible are the connections between those, the vulnerabilities and strengths of the cultural in relation with regime, and how the cultural and the regime function in relation, each mutually impacting the other.
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The data show that each relational practice described above is protected by capitalist norms that — in an authoritarian culture — no one openly questions, for very good reason. Similar to findings in rural Nova Scotian cultures, speaking up in Rural American Cultures invites inevitable retaliation, banishment (marginalization), or invisibility. Open dissent can mean the loss of a job or a home, on-going harassment and intimidation, or the infliction of bruises and breaks. Sometimes “talking back” will cost you your life.
These on-the-ground cultural conditions in this and similar RAC are currently mirrored by and support U.S. regime-level practices:
As [the 45th] continues his vain attempt to overturn his election defeat, Republicans who refuse to go along are being hit with a coordinated campaign of intimidation, retaliation and threats.
Our stories about authoritarianism have been and continue to be radically incomplete and dangerous because they are abstract, focused on regime, and tend toward complicity in the construction of the very phenomena they inaccurately describe. Our narratives about rural America need to be connected to actual field conditions so they no longer function to obscure our view of a way forward from the cultural level: by generating and maintaining balance in our power relations with one another through everyday democratic practices.
We need to be on the ground in the actual cultural conditions of American authoritarianism to do that work.
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Millions are at Risk
Even though SCOTUS dismissed the Texas case seeking to change electoral votes in 4 battleground states, each of the 17 states’ legal and media efforts now functionally enable an armed, regime-level authoritarian effort to silence and erase — at the cultural level — the Democratic voters in their states who cast ballots for the 46th President- and Vice President-Elect. These are the popular vote numbers for Biden-Harris in those states:
Missouri: 1,253,014; Alabama: 849,648; Arkansas: 423,932; Florida: 5,297,045; Indiana: 1,242,495; Kansas: 570,323; Louisiana: 856,034; Mississippi: 539,398; Montana: 244,786; Nebraska: 374,583; North Dakota: 114,902; Oklahoma: 503,890; South Carolina: 1,091,541; South Dakota: 150,471; Tennessee: 1,143,711; Utah: 560,282; and, West Virginia: 235,984.
That’s 15,452,039 radically disempowered Biden-Harris voters on the ground who are now held hostage in what can easily be described as a hostile cultural environment. All the pieces of entire lives — homes, family, friends, education, work, play, etc. — are trapped in states now dominated by authoritarians who are actively ignoring the legitimate outcome of the 2020 U.S. electoral process. That is not abstract intellectual bullshit. Those conditions actually destroy lives while annihilating the relations between those human beings.
On the other side of the relation are the empowered, misinformed, and bribed voters for the 45th. They are white, proud, and they don’t cede ground — especially when a white father figure commands them to hold the line. They are decidedly relationally authoritarian: they actively steal and hoard power from other humans in their everyday practices. They also sympathize and enable — and supply resources and direction — to white nationalists (many via their memberships in the NRA).
These humans, however, are not the fringe authoritarian few standing down with automatic weapons. Most conservative whites — men, women, and neglected children — in rural America are inundated with propaganda and living in worlds where reliable, accurate information is unavailable and/or inaccessible. (A little like North Korea, whose leader considers the 45th his father figure.) These Americans — who barely existed to those living in urban places until the 2016 election — are now being used as tools to destroy urban cultures and dismantle democratic systems and processes.
These exploited Americans in the middle are functionally trapped between the alt-right cultural and political fringe and a world on the left they literally cannot understand and by whom they are instantly reviled or all but invisible. Children in RAC are extremely vulnerable to power-stealing and hoarding practices in the form of sexual assault, violence, and exploitation. Safe spaces for expression, creativity, warmth, and connection are rare for children in RAC, and dissent is actively punished.
Those who believe that rural Americans who voted for the 45th made that choice freely miss an important aspect of Rural American Culture: “choice” is very different in an isolated remote rural world that offers few or no options for moving forward:
Choosing to agree with authority so you don’t get beaten is not a choice. Choosing to supplicate — because to dissent earns a black eye and bloody nose — is not a choice. Choosing to live on your knees — because to stand means to starve — is not a choice. Choosing to cover your ears and try to ignore the screams from the bedroom — because to acknowledge and challenge means being homeless — is not a choice. Choosing to resist arrest — because to be taken into custody means an unspeakable life in a private prison — is not a choice. Choosing to numb your body and emotions so you don’t feel the gut-churning agony of enduring a life you know won’t get any better is not a fucking choice.
There’s a scene in the movie Lone Plains Drifter where men with whips surround an unarmed man in the middle of a rural town. It’s nighttime, and all the townspeople are in their homes, silently looking out their windows. As they watch, the surrounded man screams while he is slowly whipped to death. No one comes out of their houses. No one yells, “stop!” No one tries to divert attention. No one does anything to help. This is the actuality for millions of young and marginalized people in Rural American Cultures.
Next in the Series: “Growing a Radically Democratic U.S. Relational Culture”
Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for The Relational Democracy Project. She spent 5 years functionally outside capitalist demands, and it changed her fundamentally as a human being.