It is sad to say, but demonstrably true, that as a nation we are democratically illiterate. If most Americans lived up to Thomas Jefferson’s expectations about attaining the knowledge required of citizenship, thirty-second political ads would be a waste of money. That any American makes up their mind about which candidate to vote for through the influence of television commercials is evidence of a misguided, overtly manipulated, and egregiously irresponsible electorate.
Jefferson argued that government fails when left to elected officials without close attention and scrutiny by knowledgeable citizens, and that democracy is not possible without an aggressive pursuit of civic education by the electorate. And yet, we have high school graduates who can’t name the three branches of government, and adults when asked on the street can’t pass an elementary citizenship exam.
America’s love affair with liberty has always been such a front-and-center issue that the enormous responsibility that makes freedom possible is too easily overlooked. Jefferson argued vociferously that abuse and perversion of power would ultimately lead to tyranny, unless we educate ourselves as citizens with regard to what must be done and then hold our elected representatives accountable for achieving those results. He noted that we cannot prove or disprove that which we don’t understand, and ignorance is not an acceptable excuse for not figuring out what is to be done.
With every presidential election season, I can’t help but wonder what Jefferson would have thought of citizens making up their minds about whom to vote for, based not on the plans and polices of the candidates, but on whether or not he or she appears to win a debate. It’s often played out like an Olympic contest where people decide to vote for a 9.8 over an 8.9 debate performance, political agenda be damned. Of course, Jefferson is not the only founder who would have thought this is madness, because it is madness.
The hundreds of millions of dollars spent each election season on political advertising is an apt measure of a void of responsibility. This expenditure gauges the depth of our collective ignorance. Too much focus on entertainment. Too much freedom from responsibility. Don’t have time to examine the issues? Too busy? Nonsense, says Jefferson. Nothing we do is more important than our duties as citizens because we are the very safeguards of liberty. He put it this way, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
To be swayed politically by television commercials, slogans, clichés, platitudes, placards, signs, and bumper stickers is to cede one’s responsibility of citizenship over to manipulation by the highest-bidding propagandist. Swing voters underscore the issue of political advertising with cynical clarity in that their indecisiveness can’t be the result of closely examining the election issues at hand. If they were to do that, their decision about how to cast their vote would ultimately become clear. Instead they bounce back and forth like ping-pong balls in match play to the rhythm of mindless television ads, which often amount to little more in substance than character assassination.
So what would the man who said he couldn’t live without books think today about American citizens who call themselves patriots, who don’t read but who have adamant opinions about myriad subjects they’ve never studied or looked into in depth? I’ve read enough of Jefferson’s work to be certain that he would be appalled and ashamed, but perhaps not surprised. I wonder, though, how he would have reacted to the stark reality that more and more people in the present mistake ideological derision for evidence of patriotism, while embracing a system of misinformation designed to justify the status quo and to stand in as a substitute for freedom.
Champions of the status quo have known for decades that acclimating citizens to feel at home in an unjust society is easy to do if the fuel used is contempt. All that’s necessary to normalize the perception of escalating inequality is to wave symbols and push the public’s hot buttons by pointing to an out-group as the cause. It works nearly every time.
The sad epitaph for those beholden to defend an unjust society under the guise of sustaining freedom is that it is far easier and more emotionally satisfying to protect the powerful forces that pull their strings than to admit to having been made a puppet. Before one can see the hidden strings that manipulate, it is first necessary to tune out the barrage of political ads that would have us feel instead of think.
We can either be citizens or consumers, but if we default to the latter, we stand to lose the former.