The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
-- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787
I've quoted Jefferson's letter often enough that I'm hesitant to go back to it too often, but it is certainly germane to the current situation, and particularly relevant in the juxtaposition of Nick Anderson and Darrin Bell's commentary.
Jefferson was in France and, his letter -- in which he says "The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution" -- is a reaction to Shay's Rebellion, an anti-governmental uprising that was a great deal more than talk, at a time when the identity of the new nation was in flux.
I recently read Wil Randall's biography of Benedict Arnold, and it brought home the fact that the Patriot side was far from united throughout the Revolution; Arnold was not the only rebel who began to feel that peace with some guarantees of autonomy would be better than the continued chaos, and much of that came from a kind of true-believer witchhunt attitude in some state governments (in his case, Pennsylvania's).
This brings the academic study of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists into a bit sharper focus, and adds some context to Jefferson's oft-quoted words about refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.
Mostly, in the current moment, it focuses my attention on the need, as expressed in that letter to Edward Carrington, that keeping public opinion "right" is critical, and that not only does this mean the full circulation of information but the education of the voting populace -- a voting bloc that was far less universal, though not entirely "elite," in his day.
The press in Jefferson's day may not have been all that dissimilar than that depicted in Darrin Bell's cartoon: Anyone who owned a press could publish a broadsheet, and (as Jefferson discovered to his chagrin once in office), there was no requirement that the press be accurate, responsible or conscientious.
Still, I do wonder how much utter nonsense was being published, as opposed to slanted political commentary? Having read a fair amount of vintage newspapers, there seemed few that knowingly promoted apolitical frauds, compared to the current media glut of alien, Bigfoot and other foolishness.
In any case, as Nick Anderson suggests, we don't listen to serious, longterm warnings, and that, I'm fairly certain, has not changed, or we wouldn't have old-timey sayings like "You don't miss the water 'til the well runs dry."
And, sure enough, not only did Donald Trump announce at a rally that there is no drought in California, but I then saw someone on Facebook post "proof" that he was right, apparently based on the idea that a drought is only defined by rainfall and not by either snowpack or changing needs.
Which brings us, first, to Jefferson's qualification that people be capable of reading those newspapers, because pure literacy is insufficient without critical thinking skills, and a nation of people bombarded with TV shows about aliens, monsters, conspiracies and coverups can become credulous to the point where their ability to parse words becomes irrelevant.
Hence the ease with which, for instance, Tea Party, Occupy or other insurgent groups can post and gain infinite forwards and shares of claims that "the media won't cover this" when a quick Google News search shows hundreds of thousands of examples of coverage.
Or the ease with which anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO, anti-vax and other claims become as dominant in one person's newsfeed as claims that Obama is coming for your guns or was born in Kenya might be in another's.
I doubt that Jefferson expected the national dialogue to be some intellectual salon, but the sentences above continue:
I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did any where. Among the latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep.
He's a bit naive in assuming, first of all, that Indians lived without government, and he's also incorrect that their consensus-style of governance didn't create crises: The Iroquois were in existential freefall even as he wrote those words.
More to the point, however, is that consensus is hard to achieve in large groups, or in any groups in which there is no frontier into which the disaffected can disappear to follow their own star.
Both Anderson and Bell speak more specifically to a society too large and diverse to sit in a circle and come to consensus, and with no place where those who cannot agree might find a quiet retreat.
And I apologize if you've read all this expecting to find a solution.
Jefferson may have oversimplified things, but his wisdom remains accurate and relevant:
Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they 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; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.
To which I would simply repeat his earlier condition: "But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
Bearing in mind that he followed up this philosophical pondering by founding the University of Virginia, not by cutting educational funds.