The Village Square in Tallahassee hosted humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson on October 15th for a live audience taping of the nationally syndicated show The Thomas Jefferson Hour. To learn more about our program and listen to an audio of the program CLICK HERE. To look at pictures of the program CLICK HERE. The below piece by Mr. Jenkinson ran in ” Context Florida and the print edition of the Tallahassee Democrat.
As the 21st century finds its rhythm, and the 2016 presidential contest begins to take up most of our public space, it seems clear to me that we have two political parties in the United States, but they are both thoroughly Hamiltonian.We have what might be called the “greater Hamiltonian Party” and the “lesser Hamiltonian party.” The obscene dominance of money, political action committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, and unrestrained attack ads has essentially disenfranchised the vast majority of American citizens.
In a world where there is no longer any real accountability, our political discourse has spiraled down into the gutter. A citizen from Jupiter, or any rational American, forced to watch nothing but Fox and MSNBC 24 hours per day, would soon despair of the American experiment.
What is to be done?
My view is that we need a Jeffersonian party or (better yet) a Jeffersonian movement in America. Jefferson believed that a republic could not survive without a high level of civility. In his first inaugural address, after a hotly contested election, Jefferson wrote two passages that every American should stop to consider.
First he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
In other words, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, there are more things about which you agree than disagree. Stop exaggerating your differences – to raise money from your most virulent supporters, to appease the most extreme elements in your caucus, to erect a pedestal of righteousness in your name.
Jefferson’s second passage is even more important. “Let us,” he wrote, “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
Think about what Jefferson is saying here. The ideal of a republic is social “harmony and affection.” We live in the freest country in history, on what Jefferson called a “wide and fruitful land” with “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” We have every reason to rejoice, almost no reason to lament.
Who would not agree that the rancorous partisanship and political paralysis of the past dozen years have made our public life (the res-publica, as the Romans put it) dreary, tedious, dispiriting, degrading, demoralizing, and exceedingly frustrating?
National renewal begins with a new commitment to civility. The style of our national debates should be serious, at times pointed, but always respectful and civil. The whole spirit of the Enlightenment can be summed up in a statement attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire:
“Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.
We need to bring down the temperature of our national debates. We need to listen more carefully to each other. We need to try to understand not only what the opposition is saying, but the set of American principles that underlie what they say. We need to refine our debates so that they begin again to be evidence-based, rational, sensible, and helpful. Demagoguery is telling people what you think they want to hear even if you know what you are saying could never be instituted in law.
Demagoguery is playing on the fears, the darker energies, the prejudices, and the uncivil desires of the people. Demagoguery is deliberately saying things that you know actually degrade the possibility of true resolution of our problems. By those definitions, the United States in 2015 is awash in demagoguery.
Jefferson believed we would only be a republic if we had a well-educated and well-informed public – a nation of people who could see beyond narrow self-interest to the health and happiness of the entire commonwealth. Jefferson famously said that in our system the will of the majority ought always to prevail, but “that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
Here’s what we desperately need. More civil public discourse. A willingness to compromise. The ability to see the virtue of the opposition, and to realize that they feel passionately about what is good for America. A willingness to read – books, articles, websites, the classics, the Founding Fathers – and to inform ourselves before trotting out the usual talking points (from Rush or Rachel or Sean or Glenn).
We need more Village Square events. I’m so excited to be coming to Tallahassee in the persona of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. I do the work that I do, portraying Jefferson (and other historical characters) across the country, and playing Jefferson 52 weeks per year on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, because I believe something vital is missing at the core of American life, and that Jefferson’s view of republican democracy is the answer to what has gone wrong in American life.
Not everything about Thomas Jefferson is admirable, but his understanding of how a republic works is as important today as it was when he first penned these thoughts two centuries ago.
If I can play a small role in restoring Jeffersonian values to our national discourse, I will say, to use one of Jefferson’s allusions, like the character in the Bible, nunc dimittis, now you may dismiss me, for my work is done.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a humanities scholar, Rhodes Scholar, author and social commentator. He has lectured about and portrayed Thomas Jefferson in 49 states over a period of 15 years, before U.S. Supreme Court justices, presidents, 18 state legislatures, and countless public, corporate, student and television audiences. Column courtesy of Context Florida.
The Village Square will host Jenkinson for a special live audience taping of the The Thomas Jefferson Hour at 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Goodwood Museum & Gardens. “Founding Ideals: A Conversation with President Thomas Jefferson” is a fundraiser for The Village Square. You may purchase tickets by clicking here. Questions? Email email@example.com or call 850-590-6646.