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.

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