Expression of an ideal

Posted in: Jefferson Today, Thomas Jefferson

Guest commentary

"man ... feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day..." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell, February 2, 1816

There's a lot that is appealing in Jefferson's observation, with its expression of an ideal that seems to come straight from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If we cared only about elections, and allowed our political attention to wander during the long intervals in between them, we would be poor citizens indeed -- or at least the kind of docile citizens Jefferson's Federalist opponents seemed to expect Americans to be.

Yet the awkward fact remains that elections, even the prolonged, seemingly endless ones that our presidential campaigns have become, encourage citizens to focus their attention in ways that ordinary politics do not. In a political system like ours, with its multiple institutions working at several levels of governance (from school boards to Congress), it takes substantial, even heroic labor to live up to Jefferson's ideal. In the end, we usually fall short, not because we don't care (in the abstract), but because the cost of participating and remaining informed, even in our age, seems to run so high. There's something about the familiar competitiveness of elections that the tedium of tracking ordinary government decision-making just cannot match.

JACK RAKOVE is W.R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

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