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Involved in their own governing

Gordon Wood

Guest commentary

When Jefferson penned these words he was thinking of the kind of participatory "ward" democracy that took place in New England town meetings, the kind of democracy that still only takes place in small towns where people personally discuss and vote on issues relating to their communities. There is no doubt that this sort of democracy gives people an acute sense that they are participating on a regular basis in real self-government. Unfortunately, however, this kind of participatory democracy cannot work in a large community, especially in a nation of more than 300 million people. Jefferson and his fellow founders had to be satisfied with what they called "representative democracy." Although Jefferson accepted the idea of representation, he quite rightly worried that such a representative process might distance the government from the people and was apt to leave them passive and estranged from those who were supposed to represent them. The Progressives sought to alleviate these evils through the introduction of referenda and ballot initiatives, but these have had their own unanticipated consequences. Perhaps the best way in which people feel part of their government is through jury duty and helping out in political campaigns. Certainly during the recent primaries and the presidential campaign many young people experienced for the first time a sense that they were involved in their own governing. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, Americans hold more elections for more offices than any other people in the world. Participating in all that electioneering and campaigning has become the most meaningful expression of self-government in modern America. GORDON WOOD is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University.

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