THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS PEERS STOOD ON THE VERGE of an entirely new historical era, but the ultimate question remained: were citizens up to the challenge of enhancing the democratic ideal and of intelligently voting for representatives who best housed their values?
Over 200 years later, we look back on those turbulent times and wonder what the big deal was. But that’s only because we have the benefit of hindsight. All that the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution saw when they looked back was a combination of wealth owners and a political elite that basically decided for everyone else how society would function. To decide upon a marked departure and simply “trust the people” approach was a gamble of truly historic proportions and there were no guarantees of success.
Yet Jefferson counted on one key ingredient if success was to be attained: knowledge. Here’s the way he put it at the time:
“If we leave the people in ignorance, old customs will return, and kings, priests and nobles will rise up among us. The diffusion of knowledge among the people is the only hope of success. Education alone will preserve the sovereignty of the people. Without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny.”
Odd as it might seem to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t a given way back then. It was one of the reasons Jefferson himself felt so strongly about the need for public school systems at all levels. He believed that without watchful and knowledgeable citizens those in power would stray and government would no longer represent the will of the people. Worse, they wouldn’t even understand their people. He believed, and time would bear this out, that because people who held office were human, that they would be subject to influences that could tempt them away from the public good and towards special interests. He reserved his greatest concern for rabid partisanship, where people put their minds on hold for the sake of selective interest. Informed citizens guard against such opportunism.
Democracy fundamentally requires an informed electorate. The alternative to that is civic decay, which is what so many jurisdictions are experiencing at present. The Achilles Heel of democracy has always been that it doesn’t force citizens to participate. Worse still, it doesn’t force them to understand the very issues that directly affect their own status.
Much has been written lately, especially on social media, that by exercising the right not to vote people are actually making a choice. Fair enough for the short-term. The long-term consequences, however, will be the dumbing down of democracy itself and the hijacking of communities by those who managed to cobble together enough support to get elected when the majority of citizens refused to participate. In doing so, we begin the inevitable walk back to the Stone Age.
As historian, Daniel Boorstin, once put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Exactly. The tendency to land on the support of a certain political party can be a galvanizing moment; it can also lead to the shutting out of our minds of other ideas necessary for good governance. This is where partisanship is its most dangerous. When handled well, it can provide a personal sense of shared conviction, a welcome, and an opportunity to fight for what one believes in. Handled poorly, there is the inevitable exclusiveness, the shutting out of others, and the demonizing of those that disagree. Sadly, at present, there is much more of the latter than the former.
To be meaningful, politics must call out our convictions. But to be effective it must draw us out of ourselves, beyond the present, and set our minds and intellect to a wider setting that extends farther than our private circumstances and personal gratification. Our communities are worth the best our minds have to offer, but to achieve that we must resist the lure of simple thinking and be called out to the realm of greater humanity.
The sovereignty of the electorate – citizens – over their rulers lies at the very core of the democratic experiment. To waste it on the need to always be right or to vilify others merely sells out that sovereignty to the professional manipulators in the political class. Our community requires more than that and we must be smart enough to realize it.