An Educated Citizenry

I’m writing this from California, but I’ve been following the New York gubernatorial race closely in the hopes that Cynthia Nixon humiliates Andrew Cuomo in today’s primary election. I really don’t like Andrew Cuomo. When I think about why I do not like Andrew Cuomo, the thing that comes first to mind is the MTA. The MTA sucks so bad that it’s hard not to believe Cuomo isn’t purposefully running it into the ground out of spite. Sweating through my shirt underground for the better part of an hour this July as an F train sat in the tunnel inexplicably stalled just before the platform I cursed Cuomo, who, the New York Times reported last year, siphoned millions of dollars of much-needed funding to state-run ski resorts upstate, among other dumb things.

The second coherent reason for my dislike is Cuomo’s membership in a political dynasty. Political dynasties undermine democratic accountability. They turn seats of government from a privilege granted by the people into the property of aristocrats who pass them from generation to generation like fine crystal. Cuomo’s capacity to starve a crucial piece of New York City’s infrastructure strikes me as directly connected to the famous name and deep connections to the state’s political elite that got him elected. He doesn’t owe the people anything.

After these two concrete complaints, though, things get hazy. My reasons for disliking Andrew Cuomo bleed into visceral negative feelings. I dwell on personal qualities like “corrupt,” “bully,” and “lacks voice modulation.” This makes sense, since I know only a little about Cuomo’s practical role in New York politics, most of which I learned yesterday in reading Times hilariously tepid endorsement of him. In a debate with a Cuomo supporter over issues, I imagine I would last two minutes before I began to shout “I just fucking hate him” over and over again.

Before this year, I would been satisfied drawing deep on the little straw of my feelings, voting for Cynthia Nixon, then forgetting about Andrew Cuomo for another four years. But today, when we are told our capacity for rational political thought is being overwhelmed by propaganda, social media misinformation, fake news, and filter bubbles, while, at the same time, the pressure to hold and loudly express political beliefs sometimes seems unbearable, I have begun to increasingly question where my political beliefs come from and whether they stand on solid ground.

While writing this I thought about Thomas Jefferson’s widely-cited declaration that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” A functioning democracy rests on the ability of citizens to make well-informed choices about who is best suited to represent them. Thinking about why I dislike Andrew Cuomo was just one of many times I have doubted that I am the kind of citizen Jefferson was imagining.

But then I Googled the quote and learned that Thomas Jefferson never said it. According to the Monticello website, the exact quote originated on a website called PicktheBusiness.com. It is a corruption of something that Jefferson actually wrote in a letter to a guy named Col. Charles Yancey, in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Now I felt doubly stupid. The quote from the Founding Father that made me feel unqualified to participate in democracy was itself a fake, propagated by an investment tips website! This seemed to further prove my point. In an effort to educate myself and make myself a less ignorant, and the country more free, I read the original letter. Jefferson continues:

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.

The first part strikes me as true. Power corrupts, and all that. The second part is wrong. Perhaps the only thing everyone in the United States agrees on today is that “information” can just as easily bewilder and mislead us as provide the raw material for responsible democratic choices. Jefferson’s mistake is to ignore the fact that production and consumption of information takes place within a social context. It is shaped by pressures and biases that arise, in large part, from the fact that media organizations are for-profit enterprises who compete to sell attention to advertisers.

And when we read information in the press, the meaning we make of it depends in large part on our position in society. If I am honest with myself, a lot of my negative feelings about Cuomo come from the fact that nearly every person I know and interact with also hates Cuomo, while my Twitter feed is full of Cynthia Nixon voters cheering her on. This, too, makes me doubt my dislike of Andrew Cuomo. Many opinion columnists tell us that such “Tribalism” makes impossible the well-informed citizenry that Jefferson imagined by closing our minds to information that contradicts with our tribal loyalties.

Why does a primary election in a state that I no longer live make me feel so anxious? An election is a ritual that reinforces an impossible ideal of a democratic citizen that we can’t help but fall short of. The optimist might say an impossible ideal encourages us to strive to become better citizens and a better, if still imperfect country. But these days, nothing about our failures as a democracy inspires me. The ideal seems oppressive. It is most often wielded by opinion columnists as a bludgeon to beat back forms of political life that make them uncomfortable. As much as I doubt my political beliefs for failing to achieve the ideal, I’m also beginning to question the power we give the ideal, which might as easily come from a blog post on an obscure financial tips website as a Founding Father’s pen.