I don’t know who in rural America thinks American democracy is working. Country people who grew up trying their best and playing by the rules have seen jobs go away, schools and post offices close, poverty and addiction encroach into daily life. Though small towns do not live in perpetual despair, more and more I get a sense of, “I plucked my eyebrows and shaved my legs for this?” But maybe democracy is something we can fix.
Growing up in East Kentucky, politics made a difference. Like in a lot of poor communities, the right party, the right friend in office could get you a job when you were down on your luck. That was local democracy, and of course the right to vote early and often. I started working elections before I could drive: keeping party headquarters open, handing out candidate cards on election day. I worked for Republicans at first, then Democrats. I listened to stories of stuffing ballot boxes, buying votes, strange bedfellows, and convenient political assignations. I loved the story my Uncle Don told about how he and Ray Gene Johnson were supposed to hand out half pints on election day for police judge Farmer Johnson, Ray Gene’s dad. They filched a case of the whiskey and lit out on a three-day bender hiding from the judge. What they did wasn’t strictly legal, but it was a crime for which the aggrieved could not bring charges in his own court. Don said his head hurt for a week.
When I got older I kept a day job but had a side business with my pals of making political ads for candidates. Often the candidates were reformers, though sometimes they were just the better option. We made TV and radio spots, gave wise counsel, and got more good people beat than elected. Politics is not beanbag. The best ones paid you, and full disclosure, the profit we made from a heartbreakingly narrow defeat in a Magoffin County Commonwealth’s Attorney race gave us the seed money to start the Center for Rural Strategies 19 years ago. My current employment.
Now the country is a mess. Millions are sick and tens of thousands are dying. More people are out of work than we’ve ever counted. Each night in quarantine we watch videos of the actual murders of Black men killed by police and by those the legal system has tried to shield. If this democratic system was fraying at the hems before the sickness, we are tattered now. Whenever things went south before, we knew we could vote in a better police judge, or senator, or president. But this moment is telling us the old remedies aren’t working. There is more to do than elect one for reform or toss out one who wants to stay the course.
For the last couple of years, I have served on the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. It is a bipartisan group of 35 scholars, journalists, office holders, and activists charged with the job of naming what would fix this system, a democracy that we care about and despair for. We have all signed on to a set of recommendations that we think would make a fundamental difference. Not everybody is going to like everything, but democracy is not beanbag. Thirty percent of Americans under 40 now don’t think living in a democracy makes a difference. That’s discouraging. It also is an indicator that we are on the clock.
Some of the recommendations are to make voting easier, like holding elections on a national holiday like Veterans Day, early voting, and no-excuse vote by mail. Other recommendations are to make elections more representative of who we are and what we hope. That includes no gerrymandering and expanding the House to give us more representation per citizen and to make the Electoral College fairer. One change is rank-choice voting so primaries are less of one-plurality-fits-all. Another set of reforms covers ways to tamp down the way big money looms and intimidates every time we go to the polls.
To that point my favorite recommendation is that everybody votes. If you register, you have to cast a ballot, even if it is none of the above. This is what they do in other democracies like Australia and Switzerland, and if we can change that here, it fixes a lot quickly. I know from my media days that about half of what campaigns raise to get elected is spent on media buys. So if a candidate for president in 2020 spends a billion dollars, likely half of that will go to media. What makes that anti-democratic is that the primary purpose of most political media is vilification, pushing voters to sour on their own candidates. The task is to disgust Americans in the middle so they will throw up their hands and say a pox on both houses, I’m staying home. At least with half-pints you had to show up. The same media that depresses turnout also depresses voters who want something better. You watch much of that stuff on TV, and you want a shower. If voters are going to show up anyway, it’s pointless to simply discourage voters, so the messages change.
This is our moment. This is a good time to do something. Don’t think it can’t get worse. And don’t think you can’t make it better. The other day I went to the Whitesburg courthouse. Our town sign says home of 1,534 friendly people and two grouches. We may be 97% white, but 200 assembled in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and others exhausted with injustice. Those gathered, and I knew enough of them even in their masks, have never much been to cities like Minneapolis or Houston, but they chanted George Floyd’s name just the same. “Momma, Momma, I can’t breathe.” And our town’s chanting was echoed in other rural coalfield communities up and down the ridge: Hazard, Harlan, Norton, Pikeville, Prestonsburg, Paintsville. Democracy may look different from one part of the country to the next, but people know a mess when they see it. And if we own it together, maybe we can clean it up.
Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He is a member of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship and (full disclosure) was born on the Fourth of July.