Past Issues of Government Technology

Jenkinson, Jefferson and Digital Democracy

A scholarly consideration of the electronic future.

by / April 16, 2002 0
Perched on the banks of the energetic Truckee River in Reno, Nev., is Clay Jenkinson's library, a place he calls his home. There, stacked in three compact stories, he carries on his work of writing, broadcasting, thinking and theorizing about American life. At the same time, he almost obsessively adds to his collection of more than 10,000 books.

Jenkinson is best known, perhaps, as one of the nation's foremost Jeffersonian scholars. He is a sought-after speaker and mesmerizes crowds by bringing the past president to life in a subtly dramatic portrayal based on the great man's life and writings. At the same time, he stays connected to his personal passion for the great plains of North Dakota, which is the subject of Messages on the Wind. This newly released book recounts his lifetime relationship with this expansive, windswept and sacred country.

But there is much more to the mental meanderings of this Renaissance man. He looks at democracy and the American way of life through the lens of history that reaches back to the classic Greek philosophers, and the ancient myths that somehow repeat themselves in the modern human experience. In this nation, that experience now includes a new factor -- the Internet and the integration of information technology in the process of governance. According to Jenkinson, this vastly expanded access to knowledge and communications that move at the speed of light will have an impact on democracy. And, the Sept. 11 attacks on America will affect civil liberties in both the electronic world and on the street.

"Jefferson used to quote a Roman adage, 'Law goes silent in war,' and that really is the history of civil liberties in the United States," he said. "We attempt to adhere to the Bill of Rights but we essentially do what has to be done. Security actually matters more in American history than liberty." Jenkinson recounted events in history, all the way back to President Lincoln, in which the government suspended constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

Cyberspace is a new frontier and it is yet unclear what liberty means in this realm. However, Americans have long prized their privacy and expect their Internet communications to be as confidential as the U.S. mail. The federal Homeland Security Act passed in December of 2001, makes Internet surveillance acceptable under certain conditions and trespasses on other civil liberties that citizens take for granted. Many states also passed their own version of security legislation that loosened the reins on the right to privacy, even between lawyers and their clients. As fast as legislation was introduced, it was opposed by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. However, there has been no hue and cry from the people.

"We're lucky we have watchdog groups and we live in a culture which is characterized by groups that focus intensely on certain issues. In a way those groups are doing the hard work of democracy for us," Jenkinson observed. "Jefferson would want average citizens to be concerned in this way, to be watching vigilantly the growing powers of government, to be wildly protesting when their rights are eroded even in a tiny way. He said, 'Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.'"

Even though Jefferson was a man of great vision, he never imagined a world in which borders could be bridged by technology. "On 9/11 several things occurred. Jefferson's idea that America was separated from the rest of the world by a 3,000-mile moat called the Atlantic Ocean - that moat disappeared forever. We can never be isolationists again," Jenkinson said.

The country, he posited, was taken by surprise and surprise can lead to inaction, allowing government to make decisions that might otherwise lead to a public outcry. "Jefferson wrote a famous letter to Madison after Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts and he said the time to be vigilant is in times of crisis because that's when government assumes greater powers and you grant government those powers because you are frightened. But then government seldom relinquishes those powers," Jenkinson explained.

Jefferson was a great intellectual and gifted leader. The digital revolution would have given this unusually curious man many tools to further his research. "He wrote 22,000 letters with a quill pen," Jenkinson said. "Today he would be able to be in contact electronically, either by voice or by e-mail, everyday of his life. It would take six or 10 weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes longer. Nations have gone to war because of the delays in the exchange of ... diplomatic information.

"Today he would be able to communicate with his philosophic friends and his scientist pals," Jenkinson said, "and he would be able to stay in contact with all the people that he loved. His sense of assurance would go up."

No doubt, so would Jefferson's remarkable production. "Jefferson was essentially a fact gathering machine," Jenkinson said. "He spent a fortune that he didn't have on a library of 7,000 volumes." The insatiable president used this library in his mission to govern intelligently. "He was essentially creating a reference library, which he could mine to sort data and to apply statistics and information to the American conditions," Jenkinson said. The president was able to find obscure facts that often required great personal effort. "It would have taken him hours, days, maybe even months to answer a question that you and I can answer instantaneously."

As a student of American history, Jenkinson has also studied the shifting demographics as the country moved from family farms to agri-business. He is deeply concerned about the fate of small towns in his beloved home state of North Dakota. There, he founded the Marmarth Institute to highlight the loss of rural America. He hopes the Internet can offer options to people who eschew big city life. "The possibilities for living in isolated places, not having to live in a city, having the benefits of urban culture but to be de-urbanized, to be diffused all over the landscape in Jefferson's sort of ideal pastoral way -- all these are being made possible by the Internet," he observes.

Online educational opportunities might compensate for the lack of resources in small towns, he said, and provides world-class teachers to children in impoverished areas. In addition, the Internet can build new communities that don't exist in the physical world. And, Jenkinson believes it will be a resource for people who could otherwise be shunned in mainstream society. "It has another [implications] for people who are ridiculed because they are black, because they have a disability, because they're fat - because their sexual orientation is unusual," he said. "Suddenly, they find they are not alone in the world. It's an extraordinary and almost immeasurably beneficial tool that has come to the world 250 years after the life of Thomas Jefferson."

As Jenkinson considers the benefits of digital technologies, he also provides sharp analysis of its potential to do harm. Like television channels, the Internet is populated with misinformation, endless shopping opportunities, empty amusements that don't encourage critical thinking. Although Jefferson would have loved the educational resources, speed and efficiency available online, the balance of online content might not have met his approval.

"He was a social idealist." Jenkinson explained. "If we were Jefferson's people there would be 495 channels devoted to enlightenment and there'd be five channels devoted to 'stuff.' ... If we were Jefferson's people we would have taken charge of our lives and we would have used these tools to deepen democracy. We haven't done it."

Jenkinson admits that today there is far more government than Jefferson would have liked. The president envisioned a decentralized system in which democracy ran best on a local level. At the same time, he was a proponent of early networking efforts.

"Jefferson was concerned about canals," Jenkinson said. "He wanted to knit the country together with canals because water was the network (the Web) in Jefferson's time -- the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Erie Canal, the proposed Cumberland canal. This was going to be the Web for Jefferson."

However, in Jefferson's time, canals were replaced by the age of steam. This innovation moved from the waterways to railways, and an entirely new network was born. Railroads created new opportunities for shipping people and goods.

Then came perhaps the greatest technological leap. "The telegraph was even more astonishing than all of the rest," Jenkinson observed. "I could be in San Francisco and I could say 'earthquake' and within seconds that could be known in New York City. This was the great breakthrough. First the telegraph, then the telephone - they raised many of the same issues of access and frivolousness and trafficking and surveillance and civil liberties [as the Internet]. The history of America is the history of overcoming space with technology," he added. " Now we've reached the point -- and it was seared into the consciousness on Sept. 11, 2001 -- we've gone from Jefferson's three mile per hour world to a 186,000 mile per second world. Space doesn't exist."

That event threw the nation into crisis mode and Americans surrendered some freedoms for the sake of security. Jenkinson wants a government that educates the populace rather than one that caters to its fears.

"All technology cuts both ways. It has enormous possibilities for good and very large possibilities for chaos. It's important for government to be one of the champions of the good," Jenkinson said. "Government has to help shape the way people use these entities, and that puts responsibility on government that Jefferson wouldn't have liked." Jenkinson considers the recently passed security legislation and the move to tighten regulation of electronic communications. "I think Jefferson would say, rather than destroying the Fourth Amendment, which is really in trouble now thanks to electronic surveillance, it would be better if we educated the American people so they would be self-restraining and not require electronic surveillance." Jenkinson expressed the belief that tenets in the Bill of Rights are currently threatened.

These are the big issues for digital democracy to ponder. But, many e-government leaders firmly believe that online services and the integration of interagency systems will bring citizens closer to government. They are aware the public does not have an abundance of trust and confidence in government and are hoping effective electronic government will change that perception. Jenkinson agrees these everyday experiences make a difference but recognizes there are barriers and complications to overcome.

"Government needs to be sure the access questions are settled, that there are kiosks everywhere and that they are user friendly," he said. "And that they aren't more accessible to clean people than those that have an odor, and they're not more accessible to white people than to black, and they are not more accessible to rich people than to poor. When you empower the people, the people are not always easy to deal with. It's much easier if the people are disaffected than if they are engaged."

Nonetheless, he admits many government efforts are paying off. "Most people are law abiding citizens and they have a very high level of frustration at the few government interfaces that they experience in a year -- a voting booth, the DMV, the tax board and so on," Jenkinson observed. "If you can eliminate those frustrations, people will feel better about government. And I think this is happening. I see lots of good examples around the country of this happening, and really creating efficiencies that no one could have expected 25 years ago."

At the same time, Jenkinson clings to a vision of an empowered American public. Making government easy, he insists, fuels a collective laziness and inattention. Digital democracy should be far more than online services that reduce frustration with government. "I think that's a terrible squandering of the idea of electronic government," he said. "It has to be more than that. For one thing, if that's all that it produces, the American people will like government a little better, but it won't improve America."

He suggested that convenience has become a mantra, fed by Internet speed and ease. "Jefferson would say that liberty is hard. It's an ordeal. Liberty is getting up in a town meeting when you least want to and knowing you are going to pay a price for it, and saying the hard things, fighting it out. Liberty and democracy and sovereignty are things that require a chunk of your soul's life."

Given the duality of digital democracy, Jenkinson suggests that the nation is poised for another great leader. He believes the few who have visited our world, such as Jefferson, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi, offered people a "gentle enlightenment." This, he suggests, has more value to democracy than does convenience and speed. That is not to say that Jenkinson is suspect of government's motives. "I see it as all good. I believe our government is effectively benevolent. It is doing what we say and what we say is, 'Make things right.'"

At the same time, Jenkinson -- the author, lecturer and businessman -- is willing to sacrifice some of his own liberties to gain the efficiencies of centralized government. He likes the idea of smart cards and doesn't bristle at the idea of a national identity card. He thinks the post Sept. 11 environment requires great vigilance. He is excited about new technologies that hover on the horizon and take the Digital Age to the next level. Jenkinson, the historian, does not live in the past.

He believes that as long as the people are not prepared to drive their own destiny, government must take the lead. This is not a viewpoint that would make his role model comfortable. "Government will have to take a much more paternal and supervisory role than it probably wants to. But in the absence of the people taking it on for themselves, the John Ashcrofts of the world have to take it on, on their behalf," Jenkinson admitted. "And Jefferson would see that as a national tragedy."

Jenkinson's new books, "Message on the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains" and "The Character of Meriwether Lewis," along with other information, are available online.
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief