For coincidental reasons, a few recent posts have looked at the social implications of communications technologies (e.g., how 19th-century magazine publication and 21st-century internet aggregation facilitated the emergence of communities of interest). I was going to turn to other topics–maybe song lyrics–but a just-released study brings me back to the communications theme.
A research report in the Journal of Economic History suggests that early 20th-century rural road improvement led to more mail delivery which then led to more democratic, responsive politics. Ironically, this aspect of technological “modernity” seemed to boost “anti-modern” policies.
The public innovation of RFD–Rural Free Delivery–represented a major change in American rural life in the early 20th century. With rare exceptions, before RFD rural Americans had to travel, usually over difficult roads and often in bad weather, to collect their mail at scattered post offices. They did it occasionally. But when, starting in earnest in 1902, the Post Office rolled out delivery to individual mailboxes perched on decent, passable roads, getting mail became an almost daily event. (In 1913, the Post Office started delivering parcels to rural mailboxes, too, which set off a surge in mail-order catalogue purchases–Sears, Roebuck; Montgomery Ward–a major blow to bricks-and-mortar retailing. But that’s another story.*)
Elizabeth Ruth Perlman and Steven Sprick Schuster ask, in “Delivering the Vote: The Political Effect of Free Mail Delivery in Early Twentieth Century America,” what political difference RFD made. By comparing counties before and after the major expansion of RFD and by comparing counties with different numbers of RFD routes,** Perlman and Schuster come to these conclusions:
RFD routes were important politically because daily, home delivery spurred many more rural families to subscribe to newspapers. That, in turn, did not increase rural voting rates but did increase voting for third parties, notably the Greenback and Populist parties (presumably because rural Americans learned more about such parties). Moreover, where RFD spread it appears that local congressmen started voting more in line with rural residents’ (rather than urban residents’) preferences–which is to say, more conservatively–presumably because rural newspaper readers were now able to better monitor their representatives. In particular, congressmen in RFD-rich districts became more supportive of prohibition and more opposed to immigration–which is why I remarked that this “modern” technology reinforced what are commonly seen as “anti-modern” positions.
If one wants to extrapolate to this century, one might think about the uses of, say, talk radio, web sites, or social media, as tools for greater political awareness and democratic mobilization–but perhaps not in the political direction many initiators of new media might have preferred.***
* A few readings: Fuller, RFD, 1964, and The American Mail, 1972; Kline, Consumers in the Country; Henkin, The Postal Age, 2006; John, Network Nation, 2010.
** Some readers will worry about selection effects: which counties were more or less likely to get RFD or to get much of it was not random. The authors go to some lengths, including developing “instruments” for RFD, to deal with that concern. I’ll leave it to more technically skilled readers to judge the adequacy.
*** Look for forthcoming work by Jen Schradie which compares digital mobilization by left- and right-wing organizations.