Open Cultures Grow Democratic Norms
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, support difference, and foster expression — all necessary conditions to grow power-sharing (democratic) practices. Democratic practices are open and inclusive: they “turn-toward” and seek out and embrace diversity in all its forms.
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 relational practices— is also healthy.
Each individual democratic relation 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, create the norms that 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 power-sharing practices, or democratic norms.
Rural American Cultures are Closed, but Becoming More Diverse
Rural American Cultures are often closed and disconnected, creating stagnant, poisonous information puddles of outdated mediated knowledge and misinformation.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 human relational practices.
White militias are a symptom of closed Rural American 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.
Invisibility bred exploitation. Decades long internalization and pain created by cultural invisibility left rural Americans vulnerable to those with political ambitions pretending to hear and see them only to later exploit them. Currently, white nationalists set policy from the highest offices of the U.S. government and direct rural citizens’ pain at non-white, mostly urban targets, who seem to be the cause of their pain. Sinclair Broadcasting and Fox News confirm that messaging, and in closed cultures, those are primary sources of information.
At the same time, Rural American Cultures are becoming more diverse than ever as immigrants, non-white urban residents, and young people move out of urban centers and join existing marginalized communities, like rural LGBTQ+ people. Now, the new face of “rural America” is no longer only white: 19% of rural residents are people of color. With the overall rural population at 60 million, that is 11.4 million U.S. citizens. Newcomers find themselves ignored and marginalized by rural practices and norms, the social soil of which steals power: it slows, staggers, and or stops dead forward momentum.
Closed rural cultures produce and 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-scarce environment — who know how to steal power from the newcomers and other marginalized residents.
Those newcomers and other marginalized residents adapt to the stolen power 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 fully immersed in ethnographic study of power relations and cultural norms in poverty-ravaged, deep-red rural Josephine County, Oregon*, and the 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 destroying natural resources and undermining nascent democratic practices and norms.
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 enabling conditions in Rural American Cultures that grew the possibility of the 45th POTUS and the white nationalists making policy at the top levels of the U.S. government.
When 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 to the grassroots.
Changing Grassroots Communication Patterns Changes Cultural Norms
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. Capitalist interests in agriculture research ignored and excluded the relational basis of change: the social and communicative conditions within which 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.
*I developed 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.
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