Can a culture be tyrannical, even in a nation with a democratic political process?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

For as long as the U.S. has existed, one cultural divide has riven the politics of this nation: rural culture vs. urbane culture. The question is, does the dominance of either of those cultures over the other amount to tyranny?

At the beginning of this nation’s history, rural culture held sway. Very quickly, however, wherever large cities grew, urbane culture began to develop and assert itself. Urbane culture in America primarily expressed itself initially as sympathy for business enterprise as opposed to agrarianism. [In his Banking and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, which I am a currently rereading for the third time, Bray Hammond explicitly addresses how that cultural divide has informed so much of this nation’s politics.]

Back then, people who despised urbane culture could flee with relative ease to places unaffected by that culture. Today that is no longer the case. Now our nation — the entire world, for that matter — is dominated by urbane culture. It is expressed most thoroughly in the entertainment/marketing complex (which, as predicted by Guy DeBord in The Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, has even captured ‘the news’: that has become entertainment at the same time that entertainment has become newsworthy — and entertainers have become ‘voices of authority’).

It is hugely ironic that rural culture eventually became politically allied with capitalism. Up until the Civil War an antipathy to business, i.e., ‘money-making’, was an integral aspect of rural culture. Capitalism (i.e., the mass production of goods and services for sales in geographically extended markets) is money-making on steroids. In allying itself politically with capitalism, rural culture has nurtured the very culture that now dominates this nation at the expense of rural culture. (That alliance did develop before the entertainment/marketing complex existed.)

Undoubtedly, the possibility of making agriculture into a large-scale money-making enterprise — without slavery, via large, expensive machinery provided by capitalists for their own profit — accounts for that, but any individual farmer who is still blind to the irony of his or her position (economically as well as more broadly) is a person with a damned big log in his or her eye. Politically, in their alliance with capitalism farmers have always been left with the hind teat. (The same can be said for owners of small businesses.)

At first blush it is equally ironic how lacking in sympathy for the self-interest of business urbane culture now is in its political orientation. The remaining connection between business and urbane culture is that, for business, money is the ‘great equalizer’: the desire for money transcends ‘race’, gender (and any issue related to it), creed, and national origin. Politically, urbane culture wants a society in which any effects of such distinctions are obliterated. Other than that ongoing commonality, powerful as it is, urbane culture has diverged from the self-interest of capitalists.

[Capitalism, most definitely including the entertainment/marketing complex, now stands in this nation as its own political force, playing rural and urbane culture, its allies and its enemies against one another for the sake of the self-interest of capitalists (which can be summed up thusly: socializing as much as possible the costs of producing goods and services on a mass scale while keeping profits privatized as much as possible).]

For the issue at hand, though, it isn’t a question of which culture is dominant. The question is whether cultural dominance is of itself tyrannical, even in a nation with a democratic political process.

It is.

At least, a dominant culture is tyrannical to the extent that it seeks to control how all people in society conduct themselves even when not acting illegally. I write that as someone who largely shares the societal values expressed in urbane culture.

It is not sufficient to say that people can choose to withstand the influences of urbane culture. Whether a tyranny is actually effective is not what determines whether it is a tyranny. Besides, the last thing any ‘warrior’ on behalf of any culture is interested in is for anyone to be able to withstand it.

Moreover, children cannot withstand those influences. The reach of urbane culture is so pervasive and so strong that parents who do not approve of that culture feel, with justification, that their families are under attack. (That is why they are seeing public education as the final stand they must make in, as they see it, preserving their children from that culture.)

On the other hand, for our nation, cultural orientation seems to be an either/or proposition. Either the one culture will be dominant or the other culture will be. For either culture to be dominant is for those who oppose it to suffer under a tyranny.

What is tyranny? It is to be subject, without recourse, to rule that is arbitrary. Whether the culture is rural or urbane, its values are based on beliefs (whether sacral or secular). From the point of view of all other people, everyone’s beliefs are completely arbitrary. So, for one’s life to be ruled by a culture one cannot abide, based on beliefs one does not share, is to suffer tyrannical rule.

What is the answer? The only answer I can see is for society to be governed by an overriding respect for our democratic political process that it deserves, as the only just form that process can take.

In governing society by that value — which, after all, is justice as everyone already knows it to be—no beliefs would be placed in a privileged position. Combined with that, it would be made crystal clear that in this country people are free to do (including speech acts) whatever is not illegal: anything that had not been made illegal, people would be free to do or say, without harassment, intimidation, protest, etc.

People would be free to comment publicly about anything, but we would be barred from confronting people who were exercising their liberty. For instance, if one group had a permit for a march or a rally, no one would be allowed to interfere in any way with that activity. People opposing the reason for that march or rally could schedule their own march or rally for another day, also free from confrontation.

Laws are outcomes of the political process. The only illegitimate law would be one that violated the rights and freedoms that are integral to having a democratic political process. (The existence of our Constitution does add a layer of complexity to that proposition.)

To live in a society dominated by a culture (based on values based on beliefs) one disavows is to suffer under a tyranny, even if that society has a democratic political process. The only solution is a society governed by a democratic political process coupled with an absolute understanding that people are free to do or say anything that has not been made illegal within that process.