Democracy Under the Oaks

Downtown Micanopy, Florida. Photo: The author.

This column is not about small-town elections.

March 14 was election day in Micanopy, Florida, (population 647). Four candidates contested two open seats for Town Commission. The campaign lasted exactly three weeks. Candidates knocked on doors – all of them – posted yard signs, held meet-and-greets, sent out emails and posted policy positions on local Facebook pages. Nobody spent more than about $1,000 for their campaigns – folks in town contributed so the candidates weren’t significantly out of pocket for expenses.

Everything went without a hitch. On election day, a tall, distinguished gentleman – he reminded me of movie butlers played by Arthur Treacher — greeted voters at the door of Town Hall (once a school) and directed them into the commission chamber (a former classroom) where election workers checked their names in a big ledger books and handed out ballots. Voting ended at 7 pm sharp. There were no delays and no disruptions. Nobody challenged the election results. (A hand recount would only have taken a couple of hours.) Nobody stormed Town Hall with QAnon flags. Nobody threatened to hang the vice-mayor.

The swearing in of the two new commissioners, Kevin Putansu and Ken Wessberg, took place 20 minutes following announcement of the election results. Soon after, the five commissioners determined who among them would be mayor and mayor pro tem: they voted unanimously for Jiana Williams and Judy Galloway. Jiana is the first Black woman mayor of Micanopy. Judy may one day be the second. That’s worth mentioning because the town is more than 90 white. After that, the commission conducted its regular, monthly meeting. The main topic of discussion was what to do about the clouds of mosquitos at the kids’ ballfield. 40 or so townspeople were in attendance, and about a dozen asked questions or made comments. (Mosquito traps near the dugouts is the plan – no spraying.)

The election was somewhat of a changing of the guard. Though our municipal elections are officially non-partisan, everybody knew the party affiliation of the candidates: the two elected were Democrats. (Though Wessberg is registered as an Independent, his positions are in line with the Democrats.) Because all five commission seats are now held by Democrats or their allies, I’m expecting wags in town to start talking about the People’s Republic of Micanopy.

The defeated candidates, Mike Roberts and Tim Parker are Republicans. They served for a long time and were pretty good commissioners, but they lost by a lot. The probable reason is that folks decided they needed fresh faces and ideas in the Town Commission. There is ongoing concern about water quality, fair administration of town ordinances, poor internet service, and the absence of a grocery store — and citizens have been getting more organized in recent years. It may also be that any affiliation with the Republican Party is unwelcome in a town where amity is prized above all. Donald Trump may have lost this election more than Mike and Tim.

Established in 1821, Micanopy is the oldest town in inland Florida. I won’t go into its tangled early history – which included a Spanish land grant, Jewish utopians, Seminole warriors, and traders and thieves like the ones described in Peter Matthiessen’s novel Killing Mr. Watson. What characterizes the town today is its friendly residents, historic downtown, cafes, and profusion of magnificent live oaks, whose limbs, laden with Spanish Moss and Resurrection Fern, drape the streets like flags on the 4th of July – which by the way, is celebrated each year with a big parade. It’s the trees that make the town, and on Election Day, they made me reflect upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract and the current, sorry state of American democracy.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”

Rousseau was a botanist as well as political philosopher, but his Social Contract (1762) isn’t about trees. It’s about how to break the chains forged by tyranny and establish a democratic political community or “contract” between citizens. I use the word democratic here a bit loosely. In fact, Rousseau doubted that true democracy could ever exist: “It’s against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed.” A pure democracy, he added, is unfeasible; it would require the whole population to be in continuous meetings to administer the state. And if the people instead set up committees for the purpose, it would no longer be a democracy!

Instead of a pure democracy, Rousseau supported popular sovereignty — governance by “the general will”, as described in Book 1, Part 7 of The Social Contract. When people follow laws, they themselves have legislated, they are acceding to the general will. That’s true even when they violate the law and receive a punishment:

“To protect the social compact from being a mere empty formula, therefore, it silently includes the undertaking that anyone who refuses to obey the general will is to be compelled to do so by the whole body. This single item in the compact can give power to all the other items. It means nothing less than that every individual will be forced to be free.”

Those final four words have been subject to considerable head scratching. At the very least, they are paradoxical. How can one be “forced to be free”? Rousseau explains later in his book that by helping to bring the laws into existence, society’s miscreants contributed to the general will to which they are now subject. Even if imprisoned, they are free since their own will was followed. Rousseau here assumes that everyone in his nation shares the same values, possesses equal wealth, has similar interests, and voted in favor of all the laws by which they are bound. That’s difficult, Rousseau understands, in a large, modern state with a diverse population. And that’s where oak trees, like the ones in Micanopy, come in.

Small size matters

After recounting, at the end of Book 3, the circumstances in which a government may be legitimately overthrown or a state dissolved, Rousseau describes his democratic ideal: a small community in which people gather as a “single body” with a “single will.” Here, the “common good” is always clear. Alluding to his native Geneva, Rousseau then writes:

“When among the world’s happiest people, we see a group of peasants gathered under an oak to regulate the state’s affairs, and always acting wisely, can we help scorning the sophistication of other nations, which put so much skill and so much mystery into making themselves illustrious and wretched?”

At these village gatherings, the “general will” of the entire community is so “manifestly evident,” Rousseau says, “that only common sense is needed to discern it.” In a small state, in other words, people meet regularly and come to know and feel empathy for each other. They enact laws with full knowledge of the impact they have on themselves and others. And they govern in the certainty that criminals will understand that the laws they are violating are ones for which they are responsible. Rousseau’s ideal small state is autarchic, that is, largely self-sufficient, and neither very rich nor very poor. If it were poor, it would be tempted to invade its neighbors and seize their wealth; if it were rich, it would be a target for invasion. Either way, peace would be destroyed and chaos reign.

Exactly how big should Rousseau’s ideal state be? He doesn’t say, but the since the Pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur) beneath which his Swiss peasants gathered may have a canopy as large as a half-acre, we can establish an upper limit of between five and ten thousand people. (A standing person occupies 1.5 sf; a sitting one twice that – you can do the math.) Geneva therefore couldn’t literally have been Rousseau’s ideal political community. It had a population of more than 20,000 at that time. In addition, it was governed by an oligarchy that consistently raised taxes and enacted laws in defiance of the general will. Rousseau’s idealization of the city was thus a ploy to gain favor with city notables, a rare bit of sucking up from a man who made enemies everywhere he went and whose books were banned across most of Europe – including Geneva.


Mature, Southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana), the majestic trees of Micanopy, are impressive for their size. They can rise 80 feet in the air and spread their branches up to 120 feet. Sometimes, branches extend so far and are so thick that they rest on the ground, and can do so for generations, unaffected by moisture or insects, protected by thick bark. Because of their deep and wide-spreading roots, live oaks are extremely resistant to high winds, even hurricanes. If you could turn an oak upside down, it would look almost the same as right-side up. Only a badly diseased tree in super saturated ground will be uprooted by a storm.

Live oaks will grow in almost any soil and in a wide range of hydrologic conditions. They can withstand flooding of short duration as well as extended periods of drought. Moderate to large specimens can also survive fires, so long as their crowns are tall enough to be unaffected, which is usually the case because few grasses and shrubs grow in their understory, limiting fire intensity. Live oaks offer habitat for up to 4,000 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects, more than any other southern tree. Frequent visitors include scrub jays, turkeys, woodpeckers, crows, and blackbirds, as well as deer, squirrels, raccoons, bears, rattlesnakes, black racers, and hundreds of butterflies, moths, and beetles. My wife Harriet and I often see birds of prey, including red shouldered and red-tailed hawks in our own live oak. On Hunter Avenue in Micanopy, I once saw a bald eagle swoop down from an oak tree and seize a chicken. It was an impressive but gruesome sight.

Oak trees have played a profound role in stories and myths. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the golden bough that allows Aeneus access to the underworld, is from an oak. The British artist J.M.W. Turner represented the bough – it looks more like a twig – in the hands of the angelic figure in the middle-left of his celebrated painting of the subject. At the ancient sanctuary of Dodona, J.G Frazer writes in his epic study of myth The Golden Bough, “the voice of Zeus was heard alike in the rustling of the oak leaves and in the crash of thunder.” In the medieval Icelandic Völsungs Saga, a tall, one-eyed man appears at the court of the king and thrusts a sword into a mighty oak, the Barnstokkr. The man who pulls it out is Sigmund, the hero who later appears in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

J.M.W. Turner, The Golden Bough, 1834. Tate Museum, London.

Southern live oaks are important in American history and fiction. They line the entrance to Oak Alley Plantation in Mississippi, where, between about 1830 and 1865, hundreds of enslaved Black field hands – men, women and children — planted and harvested sugar cane, while enslaved “domestiques,” catered to the whims of the J.T. Roman family, as well as visitors and guests. That planation and its oaks were used as location for the gothic horror films Hush, Hush Sweet, Sweet Charlotte (1964, Robert Aldrich, dir.) and Interview with the Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan, dir.) from the novel by Anne Rice.

The anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”, written by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday in 1939, describes “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” but live oaks were far more often used for lynching because of the strength and length of their limbs. In 1916, at Newberry, Florida, a few miles from Micanopy, at least six Black men were hung from an oak tree at the intersection of Newberry Lane and Alachua County Route 235. It has since been cut down. Oak trees can’t be blamed for how they are used.

Late winter oak canopy, Smith Street, Micanopy. Photo: The author.

The crisis in American democracy

To say that American democracy is in parlous circumstances will not surprise readers of Counterpunch. Both major political parties have long been subject to the very factions and special interests that Rousseau and other Enlightenment political theorists thought inimical to good government. The federalist system – which Rousseau considered a necessary evil in large nations – has proven in the U.S case to be both anti-democratic and irredeemably corrupt. Just as bad, it has been powerless so far, to act in the face of the greatest crises ever to confront the nation, and humanity as a whole– climate change.

The weakness of American democracy was apparent from the beginning. The framers gave states with small populations as much power in the U.S. Senate as states with large populations. The current magnitude of the imbalance, however, was not anticipated. In 1780, the state of Virginia with a population of 540,000 was 12 times larger than Delaware with a population of 45,000. But because 40% of the Virginia population was enslaved, the imbalance between voting populations in each state was much smaller, more like 6 to 1. Today, California with a population of 40 million is 68 times larger than Wyoming, with a population of 580 thousand. The ten smallest U.S. states have a combined population of 7.5 millon; the ten largest 180 million. Yet their political power in the U.S. Senate is the same.

In addition, electoral minorities in the Senate – legally bribed by means of campaign donations — routinely obstruct or overrule majorities by means of the filibuster. Majorities of 60% are now required to pass even routine legislation. And the U.S. House of Representatives is no more democratic than the Senate. There, computer-generated algorithms drive gerrymandering, essentially allowing state legislators and party leaders to choose voters, rather than the other way around. The result is districts in which competitive elections are a near impossibility. And what’s true at the federal level is also true at the state level. In Florida, roughly 36% of voters are registered Republican and 36% Democrat (with the rest independent), but in the state legislature the division is 71% to 29%.

On top of the structural crisis of democracy, there exists an ideological crisis. One party, the Republican party, has essentially renounced governance in favor of negation. It would rescind recent environmental, education, civil rights, health, and infrastructure initiatives; it would defund programs to help the poor, such as Obamacare, Medicaid, and Food Stamps (SNAP), and return that money to corporations and top earners in the form of tax cuts. And it would halt even the paltry initiatives undertaken so far to halt global warming.

The Republican Party has endorsed a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories contrived by hate groups, media celebrities and former president Donald Trump, among others. These allege that liberals, socialists, and communists (indistinguishable by this account), are working in cahoots with LGBTQ activists, critical race theorists, Marxist academics, deep state bureaucrats, Muslim (or Mexican) immigrants, environmentalists, and international financiers to sexually abuse children or groom them to change their gender or sexual preference. The eminence grise supposedly directing these conspiracies is the 92-year-old (Jewish) philanthropist George Soros. Florida governor Ron DeSantis invoked Soros’ name repeatedly when recently asked about the indictment of Trump by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The rise of anti-Semitism on the Republican right is alarming.

And what happens at the national level, to repeat, happens in states and localities. In Florida, the rights of children and young adults to think and read about the history of slavery and racism, or about gay rights and gay marriage has been undermined by a rash of new state laws (HB 7, HB 1467, and HB1557). As a consequence, hundreds of books have been banned from Florida public schools, and far-right parents have engaged in a veritable witch hunt to identify and sanction “groomers” seeking to corrupt their children. In doing so, they are drawing upon a history of moral panics in Florida, dating back to the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s and Anita Bryant’s “Save our Children” crusade in the 1970s. Hatred, fear mongering and conspiracy thinking, along with corruption and anti-majoritarianism have perverted and disabled American democracy.

Oak tree activism and protection of “the commons”

But not so much in Micanopy. Though there are plenty of Trump and DeSantis voters, Town Commission meetings are blessedly free of conspiracy theories or disparagement of non-whites, queers, immigrants, intellectuals, or Jews. The reason, I think, is the oak trees. Not of course the trees themselves, but the community that figuratively gathers beneath them. Each time there is a Town Commission meeting or other public gathering, residents discover, just as Rousseau argued in The Social Contract, that familiarity breeds affinity. When everybody knows and regularly sees each other, folks are unlikely to speak or act in such a way as to antagonize neighbors.

What generally prevails at Town Commission meetings therefore, isn’t so much legislative acumen as Rousseau’s “common sense” with a strong emphasis on the word “common.” There still exists here, as in many other small towns and neighborhoods across the country, a vestigial sense of collective rights and the common good – a desire to protect the physical and cultural commons. I say “vestigial” because the course of capitalist development over the last two centuries has been to privatize (enable businesses to profit from) everything that was once considered common property, down to the water we drink. Some argue that even our consciousness has been privatized.

The idea of the commons survives in Micanopy because of the town’s small size and the preservation of its architectural and natural heritage. Everyone shares and enjoys it. And in recent years, as threats to that legacy have grown, the electorate has become better organized. Though individual property rights remain sacrosanct to most people here, there is great respect for the idea of a collective right to clean air and water, public safety, food security, nature reserves, and the area’s Indigenous heritage. When developers, two years ago, sought to build a Dollar General store on land just outside town limits but adjacent to the Micanopy Native American Heritage Preserve, residents and indigenous Seminoles got organized. They managed to persuade county officials to declare the impacted road a Florida Scenic Highway, dooming the Dollar General project. That land, which contains hundreds of Southern live oaks – and possibly Indigenous remains — has now been deeded to the town. It will become a 20-acre extension of the Native American Preserve.

The significance of oak tree activism is that it’s scalable and spreadable. If a small town, or community-based-organization has successfully protected its commons, word spreads and other towns and community groups are emboldened to do the same. When that happens, a movement is born and political officials at the county and state level begin to take note. But the forces that seek to destroy grassroots movements are very powerful, as the 2008-9 conspiracy to destroy ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) demonstrated. Just two years after false claims by Republican Party activists of voter fraud and sexual trafficking, the organization was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Despite these political and ideological obstacles, there is little alternative to establishing and supporting small scale, grass roots organizations. Small towns too can be incubators for democratic progress and action on global warming. The Southern live oak trees in Micanopy, like others across the South, are not only homes for myriad species; they are the basis of a contiguous forest that can one day restore the national commons.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at