The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Elections & Campaign Reform

In the previous essay on Elections & Campaigning, we considered the root cause of our problems in electing good people to public office. In this essay, we must consider the more difficult problem of what can be done about it.

From the beginning, we must recognize there are things we can't do about this problem. What we can't do is institute laws and regulations that would control political campaigns and force persons with minds bent on corruption to become outstanding statesmen and public servants. That will never happen. Laws cannot change people's character. If we are to have people of good character in the public trusts, we the people must be able to identify them and vote them into office. We must also have a system that will allow good candidates to run and to maintain their integrity intact. The intention of the Founders was that the people choose representatives based on their own assessment of the candidate's character.

    "With us, the people (by which is meant the mass of individuals composing the society)... being unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level yet competent judges of human character, they choose for their management representatives, some by themselves immediately, others by electors chosen by themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

The character that counts in an election is how faithfully the candidate will manage the public trust, how well he or she will look out for the general interest and happiness of the people as a whole and not use the public trust for the benefit of private interests. The issue of character in political campaigns as we know them is more often a distraction. The integrity and character that count are those related to how faithful a person is to the interests of the people of the United States as opposed to those private interests that seek government favors.

    "I should have listened to [certain] solicitations [for a government project] with more patience, had it not been for the unworthy motives presented to influence me by some of those interested. Sometimes an opposition by force was held up, sometimes electioneering effects, as if I were to barter away, on such motives, a public trust committed to me for a different object." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808.

We may think that our Constitutional protections will keep our system of government on the right track in spite of elections won by nefarious means, but that is a false expectation. When all the participants become corrupted, when the people themselves are hoodwinked, there is no piece of paper that can save us.

    "If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

And the ordinary way in which the people exercise their supervision is through the electoral process.

    "The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution, dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801.

The Constitutional mechanism that was designed to keep the government pure is dependent upon the people remaining alert in their oversight of government, even when they are in error.

    "The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

Legislation is not the answer to every problem. Moreover, if we attempt to exercise control over the content of campaigns, the restrictions we install will only destroy a process that is founded on liberty. The protection of our liberties is not just the object of our governmental system; it is a fundamental part of that system and is necessary for its successful operation. As in so many areas, the freedom to succeed necessarily includes the freedom to fail; the capacity to do what is right necessarily includes the capacity to do what is wrong. In the case of campaign regulation, the overriding principle of Freedom of Speech prevents us from making the mistake of trying to control what candidates can say and how and by what means they can say it. Thus, the principles of our liberties, embedded in the First Amendment, prevent us from attempting foolish measures that could only erode our liberties.

    "The liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1808.
<> Voters need reliable information about the candidates and their character as it relates to their public responsibilities if they are effectively to oversee their actions. They need dependable information on the things about a candidate that they should consider when they go to the polls. But where are they to get this information? Are they compelled to believe the self-serving claims of the candidates themselves and to trust the negative ads those candidates run against their opponents? Are they to decide based on endorsements from other politicians or on the partisan recommendations of newspaper editors?

    Welfare for Politicians

Condemning the way funds are raised and from whom, however corrupting may be that process, addresses only a superficial part of the problem; it does not go to the root, namely how the funds are spent and the failure of other mechanisms in our society that would elevate election campaigning to a meaningful level. Reforming the financing of campaigns alone will not produce elections in which voters are provided with the information needed to make a right choice and in which they are not required to sift through a bombardment of false and misleading advertisements with no other means of judging a candidate. We now have public financing of Presidential campaigns, but rather than ending the danger of corruption, public financing just becomes another source of funds as the private sources (which were supposed to be less relied upon) assume ever greater importance.

Because public financing is a kind of "welfare for politicians," it creates more problems than it solves. It introduces restrictions on who can apply, since obviously money cannot be doled out to anyone and everyone who wants to run for office. The result is, only certain "qualified" candidates can receive public financing, and those who don't meet the qualifications are shut out, perhaps more surely than ever before. In addition, the amount of public financing we have seen thus far has not changed the face of political campaigning one whit, and extending it to Congressional races is unlikely to alleviate the problems that face us. Good people have no more desire to run in a publicly financed war of mud-slinging and deception than in one privately financed. Montesquieu, whom Jefferson much admired, wrote in his Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.12:

    "When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil." --Copied by Thomas Jefferson into his Commonplace Book.

As we have seen, the present system and its heavy reliance on money for advertising only attracts office seekers and other corrupt persons whose interest it is to use the office for personal gain. Whatever provisions we make by law can as easily be turned to corrupted ends. With public financing of campaigns, public funds from the general treasury, intended to be used for public purposes and subject to the control of the various branches of government, are instead channeled into private uses by public officials and become a part of the means whereby those officials get and retain their elected positions.

    "Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them; distinguished, too, by this tempting circumstance: that they are the instrument as well as the object of acquisition. With money we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

If genuine campaign reform is to happen, it must substantially revise the way campaigns are run, not merely revise the way corrupt campaigns are financed.

    What We Must Do About It

What we, the people of the United States, must do is to demand that political campaigns meet our needs, that they provide us with the means by which we can "narrowly watch" the process. Campaigns must be taken out of the present arena and placed into one that serves the people. When that happens, things will begin to fall into place almost automatically, for once the spirit of the people is activated and able to express itself, politicians will give heed.

    "The spirit of our people... would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

This is not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking or exhortation. The people are not solely dependent on politicians and the government for leadership in expressing their will, nor is the ballot box the only means available for them to express themselves. Indeed, the force of public opinion itself is greater than the power of government.

    "The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823.

We the people are not dependent on a gracious government that will permit us to express ourselves. Even in non-democratic countries, public opinion is a potent force that politicians must deal with.

    "Ministers... cannot in any country be uninfluenced by the voice of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

Such ministers have no particular interest in constantly reminding the people of their power. No doubt, they would often prefer that the people remain quiet and be accepting of whatever cards the politicians deal them. But that power is there none the less.

    "The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes with the given fulcrum, moves the world." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1814.

Through most of our history, this opinion, this voice of the people, has been expressed through the press and in our time, also through radio and television. The press has been an indispensable part of a well-managed republic.

    "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

Therefore, the means by which the voice of the people is brought to bear must be through the press or through some similar medium that has the power to inform and unite the minds of the people. In Jefferson time, this was solely the press, and that not necessarily limited to newspapers.

    "The press [is] the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced... all means of a general effort [are] taken away." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Nov 29, 1802.

The press has never been an ideal medium for this task, however, and in our day it appears even less so. Cities that once had multiple newspapers competing with one another now rarely have more than one. Radio and television, more conducive to conveying information and indoctrination and less conducive to studied consideration, find their greatest use in the mind-numbing forms of advertisement so much used in electioneering that are seldom conducive to intelligent consideration.

    The Corruption of Wealth and the Failure of the Press

We have noted that it is the campaigns that need reforming, not just the financing. Elections are won now-a-days largely through the weight of advertising, and less frequently on the basis of the capabilities and public character of the candidates. It is often a matter of selling and using any kind of sales pitch that will move people, regardless of the lack of truth and honesty in the pitch. To conduct such advertising campaigns requires huge sums of money, and that in turn requires soliciting contributions from those with the money. And those willing to contribute large amounts to political campaigns just happen to be the people who most often have an interest in corrupting the government.

    "My observations do not enable me to say I think integrity the characteristic of wealth. In general, I believe the decisions of the people in a body will be more honest and more disinterested than those of wealthy men, and I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family and peculium [i.e., private property] in it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1776.

It is the integrity of the people themselves that is able to protect us from the interests of the wealthy. If the wealthy can control elections by supplying the money for advertising that will in turn mislead the people, then the whole system becomes perverted. The result is, we have corruption abetting corruption. And compounding this corruption of the political process by wealth is the journalistic failure of the media adequately to provide the information that citizens need to make informed decisions. We place this accusation at the feet of journalism because there has been no other institution in our society that can meet this need.

    "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816.

Those who would oppress the people first try to control the means of informing them.

    "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

A free press assumes a press that will alert its constituents, the people themselves, to the information they need in order to be the watch guards of liberty. Such a press is free because it identifies with the people and not with the forces that would deceive them. If the press is not free, if it is controlled by special interests, it will not perform that needed function.

    "The most effectual engines for [controlling public opinion] are the public papers. [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of new writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the minister. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13,1785.

In our time and in this country, there are no significant legal restrictions on a free press. Our Founding Fathers recognized fully the importance of a free press to a free people, and early on established the tradition of a free press.

    "Considering the great importance to the public liberty of the freedom of the press, and the difficulty of submitting it to very precise rules, the laws have thought it less mischievous to give greater scope to its freedom than to the restraint of it." --Thomas Jefferson to the Spanish Commissioners, 1793.

The problems with a free press in Jefferson's time were those associated with the dissemination of false facts. False reasoning, on the other hand, could only be contradicted by correct reasoning, and to suppress false reasoning would suppress the press itself, since it would submit the press to the opinion of censoring authority.

    "Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint. The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805.

Our time has witnessed a great change in circumstances. We are only rarely troubled by false facts disseminated by the legitimate press. But in our time, we have seen wealth and wealthy interests take possession of the press. We have seen the news media be an accomplice to campaigning based on advertisement and to an absence of any genuinely independent analysis of candidates and issues. We have seen a press more intent on reporting the election "horse race" than on informing the people about vital issues. The deception and misinformation disseminated in the campaign that was analyzed in Elections & Campaigning became news only after the election was over, when the voters were no longer capable of acting on it! Beforehand, there was not a peep.

The two main culprits in the corruption of our electoral process, then, are media advertising and journalistic failure. We might be tempted to blame the candidates themselves, but as Jefferson said, when the people become inattentive, politicians become wolves. It is a law of their nature, and we should not blame them so much for expressing their nature, as we should ourselves for our inattentiveness. It is our job to keep that nature in chains. We might conclude that it is we the people who are to blame for this whole mess, but the people cannot take action except through agents, and in this case, it is their media and journalistic agents who have largely failed them, who have aided and abetted a form of campaigning that has corrupted the system.

The next question is, then, how can media advertising be eliminated as a major force in elections and replaced with some form of informing the public that is more conducive to providing the voters with the information they need, more conducive to campaigns waged on legitimate grounds? It is not possible to outlaw advertising because it is protected by the 1st Amendment, and rightly so. In a society devoted to civility, that would pose no problem. Just because something is allowed by law does not necessarily mean that it must be indulged in by decent people. If the bounds of civility as practiced encompass anything that is not strictly forbidden by statute, then we have become a society that has no self-restraint, that has no sense of decency to guide it other than statutory law. However tenuous the proposition may sound, our future seems to rest on our ability to discipline ourselves and to choose a mode of conducting elections in a civil, respectful manner. This means that the candidates must feel a compulsion to conduct themselves rightly, but most importantly the people themselves must acquire a sense of civic discernment that will reject campaigning based solely on advertising, that will demand substance and integrity.

This, however, amounts to nothing more than wishful dreaming unless it is accompanied by something else; and that is a different mode of campaigning that will replace the old and compel both candidates and the people to recognize that the old tactics, based almost entirely on advertising, no longer properly serve the purposes of a democratic society. That means there must be a strong and vital means substituted for advertising whose very existence will be a testimony against the advertisement-driven campaign and overwhelm the worthless with the intelligent.

Happily for us in these closing years of the 20th century, a new medium is emerging that has great promise of providing the people with a means of communication that will more than any other enable them to "narrowly watch" their elected representatives and those who aspire to the office. That medium is, of course, the Internet.

    Citizens Online for Good Government

The Internet, provides we the people with a means that will enable us to have a clearer voice and a voice that cannot be ignored. We are no longer limited by a press whose management is allied with the very interests that would corrupt government. Our voice is no longer confined to whatever a biased editor feels is "fit to print," that meets their own "editorial standards," and that conforms to the kind of information that is properly distributed one day and put in the trash can the next. Like the Old West, the Internet is a wild and woolly place where ideas stand or fall based on their merit alone, not on the censorious attitude of a cultural arbiter. We can only imagine that the Internet now is much like things were in the time of Jefferson, in the early days of the republic, when an individual could, with fair ease, obtain a printing press and publish ideas and opinions freely. Our object, then, should be to use this new medium in a way that will return our nation and our government to its rightful roots, that will enable the people to reassume the kind of proper oversight of government that is so absolutely necessary if the public liberty is to be preserved.

In order to return control of the election process to the citizens and enable them to "narrowly watch" their government, individual citizens must take upon themselves the responsibility to lead in that oversight. Such a dynamic endeavor must find its own process of development, but it is possible to suggest some initial directions that would at least outline the path of action and provide a sense of what is possible.

Ideally, at least one person among the constituents in a given electoral district should establish a website devoted to the office of, for example, Representative for the Congressional district. Such a website might have these major divisions:

    (1) The requirements and duties of this office
      Services available to constituents

    (2) A brief biography of the incumbent. (with picture?)

    (3) The incumbent's record

      (a) Positions on issues and political philosophy
      (b) Activities and accomplishments in office
      (c) Possible derelictions of duty, Questions, Improprieties
      (d) Use and misuse of campaign advertising.

    (4) Challenger A's record [activated before elections]

      (a) Positions on issues and political philosophy
      (b) Relevant experience and accomplishments
      (c) Negatives, Questions, Improprieties
      (d) Use and misuse of campaign advertising.

    (5) Challenger B's record - [similar for all challengers].

    (6) Open forum on incumbent and challengers.

    (7) Archives and links to other relevant sites

Keeping up such a website would be an excellent preoccupation for a retired person. In fact, someone on Social Security should feel under some obligation to contribute such a service to their country. It could probably be handled by almost any other person with a little time on their hands. It would require a person who is capable of being fair and even-handed, of course. And it would rely on information supplied by the incumbents and the candidates themselves, but not solely on such campaign poop. Other sources include information available in the press, and information obtained by the Webmaster when attending meetings conducted by incumbents and candidates, reading the Congressional Record, and from many other sources not readily available to the ordinary citizen. All of this could be summarized and kept up to date, so that citizens would have a one-stop source for the information needed to make intelligent decisions on election day.

Presumably, candidates themselves will establish their own websites, but we should notice one marvelous fact: the candidate's website, even if the candidate is financed by millions of dollars, will be no more accessible and will have no necessarily greater impact, than the humble citizen with a website financed by his $9.95 monthly fee to an ISP. The only thing that will matter is which has the best and the truest information.

As with anything, there are possibilities of favoritism and abuse by a citizen website. But any other citizen becoming aware of such abuses is free to erect a new website that will present the proper information more fairly. In this way, a website that presents inadequate information could easily be replaced by a better presentation. Truth will be on an equal footing with error, and will prevail by its own weight.

    "Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known and seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776.

This, then, is the means by which citizens can restore Constitutional government in our time. It is not likely that citizen websites devoted to elective offices will of themselves change the whole complexion of political campaigns; but they can be a start. Newspapers and other media, accustomed only to reporting what happens in a campaign without supplying any genuine guidance, might feel obliged to report what is happening with such websites, and may, indeed, broaden their own approach to elections in order to fulfill themselves this desire for useful, relevant information on political candidates for office. It is well to remember that the Internet is a developing medium. Newspapers, radio and television will no doubt remain the major source for information to the community. But this is an opportunity that we the people possess to influence the process in a positive way. It is not a wild, utopian dream; it is well within our capacity to accomplish.

    "The full experiment of a government democratical but representative was and is still reserved for us. The idea... has been carried by us more or less into all our legislative and executive departments; but it has not yet by any of us been pushed into all the ramifications of the system, so far as to leave no authority existing not responsible to the people; whose rights, however, to the exercise and fruits of their own industry can never be protected against the selfishness of rulers not subject to their control at short periods... My most earnest wish is to see the republican element of popular control pushed to the maximum of its practicable exercise. I shall then believe that our government may be pure and perpetual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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