From the moment President Obama was reelected, disgruntled conservatives began circulating a quote heralding democracy's downfall at the hands of greedy voters. We hate to break it to them in their time of mourning, but their favorite bit of historical wisdom is fabricated.
Spend three minutes surfing the conservative web today, and you're likely to come across variants of this quote, usually attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, maybe even a couple times:
A democracy can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury.
Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham dropped it on her blog, with the insight "Alexis de Tocqueville called it 200 years ago." The instigators of the Free Republic message boards are rallying around the sentiment. The lurkers over at pro-gun forum GlockTalk are big fans. Fundamentalist Christian non-profits are using it as their Facebook status. Even real professors from real colleges are invoking the bogus quote. Top conservatives on Twitter also agree that it's a delicious quote, but they can't seem to agree on who uttered it:
Alexander Hamilton famously said, "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end ."— Nadeen T-Flores (@NadeenTF) November 7, 2012
"[Democracy] can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury." -A. Tyler— Paul McCord (@jpmccord) November 7, 2012
"When the public discovers they can vote themselves money from the public treasury, the [American] experiment will be over"-Tocqueville 1838— Rufus Kings (@RufusKings1776) November 7, 2012
"Democracy will cease to exist when people realize they can vote themselves more money"- Thomas Jefferson #welfare
— Ryan Amidon (@carramrod94) November 8, 2012
"When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." Benjamin Franklin— Shannon O'Sullivan (@irishchick34) November 7, 2012
When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic. -Alexander Tytler (paraphrase)— varvel (@varvel) November 2, 2012
They're pretty sure it was one of those old prophetic white guys. You know, the ones with the wigs and the quill pens. Never mind which one, they're basically interchangeable.
Back in the real world—a world where voters aren't looting the Fed and proper attribution matters—none of the men cited above wrote these words. In trying to track down the origin of this quote, we found that it's a perennial favorite amongst post-election gripers. (That atrocious protest sign you see to the right, for example, was captured by Flickr user eyewashdesign: A. Golden, shortly following the 2008 Wall Street bailout). Atlanta, Georgia-based lawyer and politician Loren Collins heard the aphorism so often that he decided to do some research into its origins. He was able to trace the first known usage of the quote to a 1951 column by Daily Oklahoman newspaperman Elmer T. Peterson, who cites Alexander Fraser Tytler—not de Tocqueville—as the original author.
Tytler was a Scottish professor, lawyer, and Lord who lived during the American experiment's infancy. He wrote many skeptical takes on democracy, but the quote being passed around by conservatives right now wasn't one of them. The passage, "appears in no published work of Tytler's," according to Collins' research. Writing for the Freakonomics blog, Fred Shapiro was also unable to find anything like this in Tytler's works. And if anyone knows a thing or two about proper quote attribution, it's Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.
We hate to rain on anyone's pity party, and don't mean to rub conservatives' faces in the results. But as journalists, we're always game for a good round of fact-checking. This doesn't mean conservatives have to stop spreading fear about democracy's impending doom—just that they should maybe do some quick Googling before attaching fancy dead guy names to their feelings of post-election rage.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.