The (Reported) End of America

The election is over: President Obama is returned to office, the Senate is blue, the House is red, and major budget cuts and tax hikes loom on the horizon. Regarding the fiscal cliff, it’s what we all wanted: someone having their budget reduced and someone is paying more so that our deficit can be slashed. But it’s also our collective nightmare, because in both cases that “someone” is us.

But that’s not what I mean when I say that people are writing the obituary of this great nation. Rather, the ones who are saying that our shared American ideals are dead are none other than disappointed Romney supporters.

Look, I know: it’s not a logical argument so much as it is an emotional one. In disappointment, anyone is liable to say things they don’t mean. But there are people out there who are convinced not only that Americans made a bad decision – that’s a perfectly reasonable feeling among supporters of a candidate who didn’t win – but that Americans are bad people, and that’s why they made the decision that they did.

On Election Results Day, the following two quotations appeared in my social media:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville

And:

When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic. – Ben Franklin

These two quotations express the same fear; namely, that Democrats are wild-eyed populists who will capitulate to the rule of the mob and squander the wealth of America. Putting aside the blue-blooded nature of this argument, I think that this sentiment deserves a fair response.

As always, I want to state this argument in what I understand to be its strongest form – but first I have to concede that this is actually two arguments. The quotation attributed to Tocqueville speaks specifically of democracy, rule by the people, and cites the fall of democracy in general terms. The Franklin quotation describes specifically the American republic, rule by representatives elected by a vote of the people.

There’s actually a significant difference, described well in this op-ed by Caroline Baum: representatives have the option of acting as trustees (who are elected on the grounds that they will use their judgment and individual conclusions to govern) or as delegates (who govern based on the will of the people who elected them). A trustee, then, can contravene the will of the people and make decisions he or she believes are  best, while a delegate acts mainly as the voice of a direct democracy.

Note, then, that we do not have a direct democracy, and so the argument advanced by conservatives disappointed in President Obama’s re-election is better formulated as “Americans have chosen a representative whose trustee decisions will result in transfers of wealth from the government coffers to the personal enrichment of citizens.”

I think. What Tocqueville and Franklin actually said was that they fear that citizens will vote themselves money from the public treasury, which, if I may say, is precisely the point of a democratic or republican system. The object of a democracy is to prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a powerful aristocracy and the dissipation of public funds through corruption and pet projects. In a democracy, public funds are supposed to be spent for the betterment of the population. We expect our government representatives to take our taxes and apportion them in such a way that society as a whole generates more opportunities for wealth, security, and happiness.

What the Founding Fathers seem to be worried about it direct redistribution: the potential that democratic societies could vote to raid the general wealth of the nation, effectively dissipating national resources among everyone. This is not only not what Obama and the Democrats want, it’s also profoundly an argument of the 1770s. In a decentralized, agrarian society, there probably was no way that the government could ensure a minimum standard of living for the population. But today, we have the material and technological wealth to ensure that citizens do not starve or suffer unduly from preventable and treatable illnesses.

The Republican platform was specifically that both taxes and expenditures would be slashed, assuming that the best democracy is one that best serves the interests of certain citizens – one that makes no effort to address the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. It is little wonder that democracies like that would not last more than a couple hundred years.

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2 comments

  1. A different view of the problem of the political divide in America is outlined in my post: http://alsanblog.com/2012/11/11/a-divided-nation/.

  2. Even though the elections are over for now, we will have to start over again in 4 years, right?

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