In 1965, not long after his assertion that adopting Medicare would mark the death of freedom, Ronald Reagan, that great sunny-side optimist of the American right, explained the apocalyptic, anti-democratic impulse that animated the far right of his day, and which now permeates the Republican Party.
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always vote[s] for the candidate promising the most benefits from the treasury with the result that democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by dictatorship.”
Reagan’s remark was not an aberration; he repeated versions of it on other occasions. Nor did Reagan claim the paragraph’s vision as his own. He was quoting another man, or so he thought. Reagan misattributed the commentary to an 18th-century Scottish lord, Alexander Fraser Tytler, who apparently didn’t much fancy the American Revolution.
As David Wagner wrote in the Atlantic in 2012, dubious sourcing of the quote has produced a long comedy of conservative error. Radio host and Donald Trump cheerleader Laura Ingraham gave Alexis de Tocqueville credit for the insight. Others have attributed it to Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin or some other dead man whose reputation for genius could be commandeered, without protest, to imbue insipid conjecture with ancient gravity.
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The democratic experiment, pretty old by the time of Reagan’s 1965 speech, is even more so now. Exactly how long must we wait before the grasping horde “discovers” that with one neat trick – the vote – it can loot the treasury and wallow in ill-gotten gains? How dumb are these voters who, more than two centuries into the game, still haven’t figured out that they hold a royal flush?
The sequence beginning with “vote themselves largesse” and ending in “dictatorship” may be false as history and hapless as political analysis. But it’s a pretty good window on psychology. The fear of voters awarding themselves “largesse” is simply a powder-wigged antecedent to Speaker Paul Ryan’s own midnight ride, in which he alerted wealthy “makers” of the nefarious designs of the “takers.” Mitt Romney, in 2012, helpfully identified the “takers” as the “47 percent.” Yet whatever the label, Republicans instinctively grasped the horde’s innermost desire: “free stuff.”
Ryan subsequently apologized for his divisive language. But the divisive policies to which his party remains devoted haven’t changed. Nor has public opposition to them.
In April, Gallup did its annual survey of American opinion on taxes. In the poll, 63 percent said they felt “upper income” Americans paid too little in taxes. The year before, 61 percent said so. The year before that, it was 62 percent. Likewise, in April 67 percent said they felt corporations pay too little. The figure was the same in 2016 and slightly higher, 69 percent, in 2015.
As it happens, Americans are quite sure, year after year, that they don’t see a need for tax cuts for the wealthy or corporations. Still, Republicans persist.
The GOP’s effort to transfer trillions from poor to rich may be unpopular, cruel, and indefensible as economic policy. But if you fear that the wild horde is coming for the treasury any hour now, and you want to secure for yourself as much as possible before the looting begins, Ryan’s proposals, like Trump’s “Taxpayer First” budget, would get the job done.
The health-care legislation that Ryan shepherded through the House cashes in health insurance for millions of poor and middle-class Americans to provide big tax cuts to the very wealthiest. Meanwhile, Trump’s budget eviscerates spending on the poor and disabled, including many who voted for him, and transfers that money to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts. “This is I think the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes,” said White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.
For some anxious conservatives, the nation’s demographic transformation, with a white majority expected to cede to a nonwhite majority around mid-century, no doubt adds special urgency to the task of pocketing the treasury receipts now as a hedge against an untrustworthy future electorate.
As John Higham wrote in his history of American nativism, “Strangers in the Land,” white Protestants long considered themselves to have a “unique capacity for self-government.” Other races, they were quite sure, lacked this “supreme Anglo-Saxon virtue, a gift for political freedom.”
Some whites still convince themselves that whites have an especially virtuous work ethic, or are uniquely deserving of government resources. It doesn’t take much to imagine how such fantasies interact with fears that the undeserving will soon “vote themselves largesse” from the treasury.
As much as their own dysfunction allows, Republicans are working to safeguard wealth from the tyranny of the democratic masses, to hold off the “takers” long enough to enable the “makers” to gather and secure their just desserts. Trump surely represents a unique threat to American democracy. But just as surely, he does not represent the only one.