Winston Churchill once remarked that politics is “almost as exciting as war” and just as dangerous. “In war you can only be killed once,” he mused, “but in politics many times.” In Madison County, however, politics is a blood sport played by a few powerful families yet sanctioned by all.
The gladiators in Madison’s political circus bear names that echo throughout the county’s history: Allen, Ponder, Wyatt, Cody, Ledford and Ramsey. The infamous Shelton Laurel Massacre is best understood not in terms of the Civil War and divided mountain loyalties but as the settling of old political feuds among clannish families. The raiders who came looking for much-needed supplies—deliberately sacking the home of L.M. Allen and humiliating his family—were making a political, not an economic statement. Salt was available in many places, but the Allens could be found only in Marshall.
Ironically, the county derives its name from James Madison, generally acknowledged as the father of the American concept of democracy. But as Manly Wade Wellman describes in his book The Kingdom of Madison (Land of the Sky Books, 2001), the county in its early days more closely resembled a feudal state, politically and socially dominated by a group of elite families who presided over clusters of townships and settlements picturesquely named after creeks and laurels. Even today, political rule in Madison County is really a “soft despotism”—a sort of good ol’ boy dictatorship—with elections generally decided by an aristocratic elite’s economic resources and influence rather than by individual votes.
Soft despotism inevitably promotes a cult of personality: strong individuals who control government and its chief organs for years or even generations. The Ponders, who ran the county in the mid-20th century, typified Madison’s preoccupation with an unusual brand of personal-identity politics. Yet a crucial distinction must be made between the “Ponder machine” of the last century and present-day county politics. Zeno and E.Y. Ponder transformed the county from a Republican into a Democratic stronghold, but with today’s politicians answering more to money than to voters and parties, those labels have less and less meaning.
After all, how much money do ordinary folks in a small mountain county like Madison actually contribute to candidates? Indeed, other than occasionally casting a vote, today’s citizens mostly disappear from the political arena—and accordingly, elected officials tend to do less decision-making publicly and to ignore the little people, whose votes are taken for granted.
In the political black hole between elections, little that might be characterized as democracy ever happens in Madison County. The existing institutions—the courts, a few appointed officials, boards, managers, committees and police—have a great deal of de facto legislative power, but citizens have little say in the decision-making.
Perhaps understandably, voters often turn their backs on local elections, and the determination and energy needed to force reform are slow to arise. What’s more, the county lacks a tradition of strong organizations that could curtail elected officials’ use of power. Few groups—Laurel Valley Watch and the League of Women Voters are notable exceptions—put pressure on elected representatives. In neighboring Buncombe and Haywood counties, everyone from church to union to student groups protests, petitions and publicly critiques local-government decisions, but when the Madison County commissioners assemble for their Monday-night surprises and massacres, only a few disorganized and disgruntled residents are likely to show up.
In such a setting, voters’ direct influence over crucial government decisions disappears soon after an election. Why else would the commissioners feel they could fire County Manager Ricky McDevitt with impunity and anticipate the resignation of County Attorney Larry Leake with complete confidence? As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections should not be confused with democracy.
One of democracy’s chief characteristics is the decentralization of power, yet in Madison, individuals and small, elite groups decide most public business—often behind closed doors. Indeed, many of our elected officials view the right to hold, express and discuss opinions as a negative right: an irritating obstruction to local government’s paternalistic efficiency resulting from too many tree-huggers, eco-freaks and “outsiders” having moved into the county.
Of all the duties of a democratic government, helping protect the poor from the corrosive effects of poverty looms largest. In Madison, however, the rich are growing richer—not because they’re smarter and better capitalists, but because they don’t shoulder their fair share of the tax burden. County governments rely primarily on property taxes to fund their operations, and most of us pay taxes on real property such as land and homes.
Meanwhile a few wealthy folks manage to pay little or nothing. Last year, the commissioners voted to hire a local judge to collect overdue taxes, but when the names of some large landowners surfaced, they reversed themselves and fired the judge.
So the very same people who have less and less influence on public policy increasingly bear the burden of financing local government. In 2000, the median household income in Madison County averaged $28,793—about 69 percent of the U.S. average, and below the 1995 level. Yet many families now have two wage earners working longer days with less free time (and thus even fewer opportunities to participate in the political process).
As a result, today’s county residents seem less politically engaged than prior generations. More cynical about democracy and its outcomes, they exhibit only a fragile trust in governance. Nonetheless, them’s politics in Madison County, and they’re still the damnedest of all.
[Mars Hill resident Milton Ready, a UNCA history professor emeritus, is the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).]