In 1835 the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote extensively on American-style democracy and came to the conclusion that as vibrant and exceptional as the American experience was, it was only a matter of time before its inevitable collapse.
de Tocqueville’s stated conclusions: “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.”
And: “When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education … the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint… It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold … they neglect their chief business, which is to remain their own.”
The Nov. 6 re-election of Barack Obama likely sealed the fate of the America’s decline and confirmed de Tocqueville’s prophecies.
The decline of American democracy began in the Great Depression when the Roosevelt’s administration’s “New Deal” initiated the modern notion of taxation and redistribution on the basis of social and electoral segments of the population. The process of political pandering to people based on electoral advantage was pushed further in the Lyndon Johnson administration with the “Great Society” which resulted in the Democratic party starting to buy the votes of the black community in the U.S.
In increments, successive administrations, primarily Democratic, but in some cases Republican, have determined the path to electoral success is to offer voters more and more benefits, without any discussion about how the benefits will be funded.
It is not possible for government to provide one group increased advantages without reducing the advantages of some other group or groups. In the American system, this is achieved through taxation, although initiatives such as affirmative action and human rights legislation have the same effect in non-financial areas of society.
The Obama administration since 2008 has focused on reinforcing existing feelings of disaffection and disenfranchisement in a few key electoral communities, primarily black, Latino, single women, public-sector unions and the gay community. At the same time, Obama promised these groups special benefits, and vowed to create a system in which the “favoured” groups would pay nothing for their newfound benefits.
That the group of people — “the rich” in the Obama lexicon — who will be expected to pay are largely white, male and over 45 years of age is understood, but unsaid.
American voters, as de Tocqueville put it, have discovered under Obama they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. This has always been the case, the difference being that in the past most U.S. leaders retained some grasp of a sense of the “moral hazard” in rampant vote buying. No longer.
The standard has been set and there is now no incentive for any U.S. politician to restrain his promises of special deals to various constituents. The voters have delivered the message that individual liberty and government debt are far less important than taxpayer-provided benefits and handouts. Voters have signaled they will sell themselves to the highest bidder, and politicians in the U.S. will now engage in a bidding war to win the vote.
Obama made his promises at the same time disenfranchising the very group upon whom he depends to fund his commitments. The “rich” are less likely to be predisposed to continue to work to foot the bill, and the current president has no plan to make up the financial shortfall, beyond raising taxes and borrowing money. There is now no alternative that is acceptable to the American voter.
de Tocqueville noted the average age of great civilizations is 200 years. America has beaten the clock and made it to 236 years. America’s inevitable decline began 80 years ago with FDR, and it is exceptional that America was able to continue as a great democracy since then. But the die has been cast.
Some will cheer the demise of America’s role in the world — but have they truly considered the alternative?
Mark Walker is the publisher of the Penticton Western News.