Yeoman citizens: the country life association and the reinvention of democratic legitimacy.

Author:Motter, Jeff

Democracy is an attitude rather than a right or political system. It is won, not on the battlefield or at the ballot-box, but in the change of the personal attitudes of those who have toward those who have not. (Sanderson, 1938, p. 5)

For scholars familiar with agrarian traditions in America, it is no surprise that the above epigraph was written by an American farmer. Dwight Sanderson's view of democracy came from his experiences farming during the 1920s and 1930s, two decades that were equally devastating for those who lived on the land (Phillips, 2007, p. 36). His view of democracy as an attitude of equality "of those who have toward those who have not" was indicative of rural folk's belief that equality was the ground upon which democracy could grow (Sanderson, 1938, p. 5). Sanderson was but one voice among thousands of farmers in the American Country Life Association working "at the grass roots" of society (Taylor, 1930, p. 6).

The American Country Life Association was formally organized in 1919 as a collection of rural folk concerned with their declining economic, environmental, social, and political position. While most of its membership and leadership were farmers and ranchers, the association also consisted of educators, clergy, merchants, and others living in rural America. In short, country lifers were composed of those concerned with the increasing marginalization of those who live from the land. The American Country Life Association published a monthly magazine, Rural America, held state and national conferences, and disseminated these conference proceedings and magazines to its membership. Rural America addressed a rural audience and covered topics ranging from methods of planting and harvesting to political problems facing their domestic and international counterparts. From the beginning, African Americans, Jewish Americans, and Mexican Americans were important members, as were the women who served in leadership. Articles arguing for and against domestic rural policies were common and farmers, both male and female, were the magazine's reporters. The American Country Life Association's conferences were held in every region of the country and the proceedings consisted of published speeches and committee minutes delivered to conference attendees, often numbering in the thousands.

With the end of World War I, farmers were in a position far worse than at the end of the nineteenth century and mired in an economic depression due to oppressive debt accumulation prompted by the federal government's assertion that farmers had a moral duty to expand production to feed the U.S. and its allies. Sarah Phillips (2007) observes, "Besieged by this postwar contraction, farmers found themselves caught between the low prices they received for farm products and the high prices they paid for nonfarm items" (p. 36). The debt farmers accrued from wartime expansion of their operations could not be settled with low post-war prices and farmers were left destitute. For example, in 1919, wheat cost $2.19 per bushel but fell to $1.05 by 1929, plummeting even further after the stock market crashed in October (Danbom, 2006, p. 187). According to R. Douglas Hurt (2002), "By 1920, European recovery, international competition from Australia, Argentina, and Canada for the beef and wheat trade, and high American surplus production caused prices to fall precipitously" (p. 221). Farm tenancy had dramatically increased, bankruptcies were at an all- time high, and commodity prices were at their lowest level in more than a decade. Low prices coupled with war-time debt accumulation created a situation that, for country lifers, appeared irreversible.

The American Country Life Association began to publicly question how the state could so quickly turn its back on the very citizens it had praised just a few years earlier by challenging the legitimacy of the state's authority. Country lifers believed that any democratic state must work for the benefit of all citizens, not just the privileged few. Country lifers challenged the state's public authority by questioning its legitimacy as a democratic government for and by citizens. Domestically, they questioned democratic legitimacy on the grounds that rural citizens had moved from yeomen to peasants in one generation. Internationally, they recognized and advocated for any reform or revolutionary movement that gave equal opportunities to all citizens. From a country lifer's perspective, the legitimacy of a state to govern relied on how well it preserved and promoted citizen equality. The American Country Life Association demonstrates the importance of unraveling webs of citizen-state interaction by examining the symbolic import of the legitimation process in specific contexts. A focus on publics as generating norms of democratic culture shifts scholars' emphasis from mapping the means of institutional exclusion to the inventive rhetorical work being done by those engaged in practices of resistance. The American Country Life Association offers a compelling case of how a satellite public invents strategies that simultaneously challenges the legitimacy of public authority and generates civic rhetorical practices.


Studies of publics are often accompanied by theories of democracy that elucidate the relationship between citizens and the state. Jurgen Habermas' account of the structural transformation of the public sphere has served as the starting point for many of these studies and continues to provide a basis from which theories of publics and public spheres are affirmed and contested. Publics confront public authority and, according to Craig Calhoun (1992), this particular kind of authority is unique because it is both state- related and "constituted as an impersonal locus of authority" (p. 8). Thus, public authority is a kind of impersonal state authority. A public consists of citizens who contest public authority, while counterpublics are, according to Nancy Fraser (1990), "parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (p. 67). In short, publics have the ability to exercise their rights as citizens in public spheres while counterpublics are unable to exercise those rights. The relationship of publics and counterpublics to public authority is positional: publics contest from within, while counterpublics contest from without.

Both publics and counterpublics challenge exclusion yet are different due to their position vis-a-vis public authority. In some cases, however, neither of these critical categories sufficiently explains how a group challenges public authority. Squires' (2002) notion of satellite publics provides a third kind of public that emphasizes the inventive rhetorical work a public can do when it exercises its rights as citizens yet is excluded from decision- making mechanisms. Squires suggests that satellite publics "desire to be separate from other publics" and "aim to maintain a solid group identity and build independent institutions" (p. 463). These publics blur the binary attributed to publics and counterpublics because "[s]atellite publics can emerge from dominant or marginalized groups" in order to engage in "wider public debates when there is a clear convergence of their interests with those of other publics or when their particular institutions or practices cause friction or controversies with wider publics" (Squires, 2002, p. 463). Neither dominant nor marginalized, satellite publics step into a discursive space of communicative engagement that invents argumentative strategies that challenge the legitimacy of public authority and generate civic rhetorical practices.

Country lifers questioned the legitimacy of the state because of the spatial and participatory separation between the federal government and rural folk. At its most basic level, according to Habermas (1991), "Legitimacy means a political order's worthiness to be recognized" (p. 178). Habermas's (1991) normative definition of legitimacy is citizen- centered because legitimacy is performed by public authority in front of citizens as "good arguments for a political order's claim to be recognized as right and just; a legitimate order deserves recognition" (p. 178). Cohen (1996) contends that "the authorization to exercise state power must arise from the collective decisions of the members of a society who are governed by that power" (p. 95). Benhabib (1996) suggests that a society where legitimacy is not seen as a public good will inevitably be thrown into crisis and, more importantly, "legitimacy in complex democratic societies must be thought to result from the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all about matters of common concern ... is essential to the legitimacy of democratic institutions" (p. 68). Habermas, Cohen, and Benhabib position citizens as the exclusive grantors of democratic legitimacy. Shabani (2003) asserts, "Habermas believes . . . that in today's pluralist societies social norms are valid only if the subjects they govern see themselves also as the authors of the norms" (p. 124). In short, democratic legitimacy is granted by citizens to public authority.

Democratic legitimacy is never permanent and public authority must continually prove its worthiness before citizens. Habermas (1991) explains that a legitimation crisis most of often occurs when the actions of a political order are challenged. The political order and those challenging that order are involved in a constant back and forth that demand the order constantly demonstrate its legitimacy to rule (p. 178-179). When the legitimation process reverses and citizens must now demonstrate their worthiness to be recognized by the state, publics emerge to challenge this reversal and engage in generating civic...

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