Statement of an aspiration

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

I think Jefferson's comment to Cabell is more the statement of an aspiration rather than a description of politics in Jefferson's time or ours. Undoubtedly, Jefferson wished for a republic in which citizens participated daily in governmental affairs.

But he was aware that this was not always possible. With respect to the 2008 election, I think we have witnessed a moment when tens of millions of people did participate in politics on a daily basis. Several things account for this: the sense that the United States faces profound challenges in the areas of foreign policy, the economy, and the environment, to name three of the most urgent, in addition to dissatisfaction with the current administration, the absence of an incumbent, and the historic significance and compelling personalities of the main players. Moreover, technology, particularly the Internet, allowed people to follow and participate in the campaigns to a remarkable and unprecedented degree.

The struggle in the primaries between Obama and Clinton engaged the daily attention and energies of millions; this carried through to the general election and manifested itself in the outpouring of emotion when Obama appeared in Grant Park on election night. There was a profound sense that this was not an ordinary election but a transcendent historical moment.

I should add, having largely experienced the election from abroad, that the interest and passion it engendered was not confined to the United States. This was the fifth presidential election that I have experienced in Britain and the level of public interest in the course and outcome of the contest was unprecedented in my experience.

Jefferson's comments, however, refer to the disconnect between elections and governing. The events of the past year can be seen as an especially riveting and extended election day, but it remains to be seen whether the tens of millions who have been energized and engaged by the election will continue to participate "in the government of affairs" as Jefferson terms it, after Obama's inauguration on January 20.

FRANK COGLIANO is Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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