America Satire

200-Year Life Cycle of a Democracy

A serious look at a bogus viral email.

Most of us have received that email (perhaps from family) with oversized letters and big exclamation points in the headers — or improper punctuation in general — that goes about describing the end of the good days in America, such as when Eisenhower ran things. Specifically, there was that one from 2000, during the election of President Bush #2, where “the 200-year lifespan of a democracy” is outlined, followed by a collection of demographical statistics about the constituency of Al Gore, to argue that only conservative candidates have the right stuff.

When it was discovered that the academics quoted in the viral email were falsely represented (Tyler is actually Tytler, with a “t,” and he never authored this analysis, nor did Olsen author his part) and that the same statistics were used from Gore through Obama, the whole thing lost credibility and remains shrouded in mystery.

In other words, this passage might as well be attributed to Mr. Rogers and Dr. Seuss, but the theory is actually pretty compelling. It became a truism in mass consciousness and thus it achieved relevance. So let’s give it a go and project away. The false quote from Professor Olsen follows,

In 1887 Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.

It seems logical and reasonable. I just want to trace the whole thing out.

Alright, what year marks the 200th year of America? In case you forgot, the American Revolution was 1776. That would make it 1976: the year Jimmy Carter was elected. He followed Nixon, a rather scandalous President. Carter was the regular guy, elected to clean up the dirty dishes in the White House. But that’s just it. He was elected to do it and not supported. The people did not follow his high moral character — and like Obama, he is accepting of his dire political situation. Three years later, he was baffled and felt he had nothing to lose by giving a televised speech that went down unfavorably, leading directly to Reagan in 1980.

It is called the “Malaise” or “Crisis of Confidence Speech” because the tenor is that the only fundamental threat to American democracy is that people are expecting too much out of government; deferring our lives and American spirit to government. We are so prosperous and abundant that we expect food delivered on trucks to restaurants and gas in our tanks so that we can whimsically go out dancing on cocaine and booze and have a 24-hour pancake house to cool out with before going home to have unprotected sex with someone we just met. Maybe all this abundance without self-reflection in who we are and what we’re asking government to do on our behalf could possibly lead to dangerous consequences. That’s the nutshell of Carter’s speech. He is a Democrat. Not a shrink-the-government-conservative.

If the people were enjoying an all-time high of self-indulgence in the 1970’s, having that reputation, then maybe we could be placed at the apathy and dependence click on the wheel of samsara that is democracy. The next one is bondage. The logic follows that apathy precedes bondage because it would require our distraction for the powers to lay the chains, to lead the sheep to the barn for capture. “Just keep feeding us and we’ll go with you, baaah.” But just as a shepherd is bonded to his flock, so are the American people bonded to our government. There are loving shepherds and there are shitty ones.

Carter is arguing that a combination of austerity and creative solutions could drive the American spirit to resolve problems with OPEC and our foreign policy with the Middle East. The Bush and Reagan names go down in history as the administration that escalated the conflicts of the Middle East. Remember that whole Iran-Contra thing?

The people didn’t realize that they were growing the wealth of terrorists by driving hot rods and hippy buses — living the American dream while funding the jihadist’s mission. Carter wanted to get through to the people that bondage is inevitable; either bonded to war or bonded to oil. Take your pick.

The inevitable happened: we embedded our military into the Middle East so deep, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have surpassed Vietnam. Covert operations have caused violent blow-back with all administrations since Carter.

Fuel inefficiency and low-pricing were off the charts compared to the 1980’s, during Clinton’s reign, making his advances in domestic, clean energy rather moot. All because we, as a people, couldn’t stop to follow the chain of our consumer habits, and wonder, “does my Subaru run on blood-oil?”

We should even question Clinton’s relationship to the Middle East. Just because we didn’t hear about it doesn’t mean shit didn’t happen. Ron Paul gives a proper account concerning the impeachment of Clinton. Because during the height of the distraction of Monica Lewinsky, bombs were dropping over Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just a few years before 9/11.

Abundance and Complacency

Reagan campaigned and won on a basic principle of self-satisfaction. His Are you better off? campaign has nothing to do with American spirit or ingenuity. The tenor of his short speech is not to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, not to share resources and develop new technology, but just wait for daddy to provide a new policy that will give you a job. I mean, how apathetic is that?

So if the 200 year mark signifies the point of apathy, then what precedes it? How did that develop? Times were abundant in the Cold War generation. WWII and immediate post-war years were everything but complacent, and it was liberating. So what marks the era of liberty? There have been two major waves of human rights roughly 100-years apart.

The 1950’s were complacent during abundant times: colored people stayed in their place, segregated. Women stayed at home, discriminated. Men knew their business, and it was all very much the beginning of a “keeping up with the Jones” society.

Although the civil rights era was brewing in that complacency, that tendency sort of embedded itself into the new civil rights era. If you were Black and reached the status of other White men, then you were keeping up with the Jones’ and it was something to be proud of. Example: Bill Cosby. He was an advocate for portraying black actors in what had been assumed white roles. It was not a radical shift in the image of Man. The carrot rope just dangled over the newly freed secondary citizen.

Liberty and Courage

So then, the stage of Courage could be Lincoln’s era, and his 13th Amendment would mark the turning point toward liberty in this country. Let’s try that out against the Harvard Professor’s opinion.

I just went about suggesting that the 70’s and 80’s were the height of complacency as the result of national abundance, but the trend started in the 50’s. The final stage of liberty rolled out in ’64 with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, a long range trend that could only have been brought upon with great courage, starting with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

We are trying to determine whether or not America is returning to bondage. We have achieved universal liberty in contemporary American society, abundance has come to pass, and apathy is no doubt a known problem. I think if we are not yet in bondage, then we are close to it. We should consider that our government has compiled a tremendous list of scandals and bad wars since the 50’s, while economic disparity increased in favor of the financial powers, since the 60’s.

Bondage and Spiritual Faith

The misrepresented Professor Joseph Olson — who never wrote the statement quoted in the viral email — views it differently.

Olson believes the United States is now somewhere between the ‘complacency and apathy’ phase of Professor Tyler’s definition of democracy, with some forty percent of the nation’s population already having reached the ‘governmental dependency’ phase.

Wait a minute, let’s not get hung up on that interpretation just yet. Governmental dependency sounds like a sign of bondage to me, not apathy.

What is governmental dependency all about? The New Deal era (1940’s-1960’s) was the height of government benefits and those benefits have been declining since Nixon took office, while Carter was the first to usher in dramatic tax cuts for the wealthy. Moreover, the economy was booming, folks had jobs or could otherwise pick up gigs. Government regulation has changed that, producing new barriers to entry in entrepreneurship.

It is possible that Tyler was arguing in his earlier statement something about the wealthy people of the nation and not the poor, dependent citizens. Let’s consider that possibility and trace our history back a ways.

It was the era of great courage that brought this nation both to and out of Civil War. And before that it was religious persecution that brought the first settlers here, becoming the backbone of America. It wouldn’t have been liberty bringing us to civil war, but perhaps courage is what it took to settle in a strange land, full of “savages” who “needed” to be “saved.” The civil war didn’t have any religious context — other than prayers to end it. So the religious era began to wain, although the whole Manifest Destiny project, displacing scores of Native Americans, was justified as an act of God, but truly gave power to the rise of industry and white industrial men.

I wonder if God wanted us here so much that he made us arrive after the Native Americans, when we could kill them with weapons, for the primary purpose of mining for gold, clearing forests, and pouring industrial waste into the drinking water. It’s a bizarre concept of religious thought, but there it is. No more strange than the idea of going to Heaven as a result of suicide bombing Americans. At the end of the day, both acts have a way of primarily benefiting a few industrial men.

Lincoln delivered justice and that is his legacy, liberating the slaves knowing well that he was on the brink of defeating the Confederacy, thereby maintaining American unity and eliminating the possibility of another civil war. The era of liberty is what brought abundance as we ventured to the west coast, creating free market states without slavery, and an era of expansion with seemingly limitless prosperity. This era continued with women’s suffrage and gradual integration.

Returning to Bondage

The abundance of this new era came with the advent of central banks, stabilizing the state-operated banks, but had the simultaneous effect of making perpetual debt. On the surface it would look like an all-time high for both liberty and abundance as the cash cow just kept milking. The bondage of debt revealed itself as it collapsed into The Great Depression by 1930. Lasting a decade or so, we regressed as a nation. The religious gave hope, the courageous survived, the liberated found a new path to abundance, while the depressed became absolutely complacent. America was reborn in the following decades and WWII put a complete end to the Depression.

The New Deal rolled out benefits from the public treasury faster than bombs over German u-boat bunkers. This is also the time that federal debt soared and the perpetual war machine began to amass.

Sources: Department of the Treasury, Congressional Budget Office

The conservative approach wants to point the finger at poor people, but we still haven’t even considered that our dependence could be elsewhere. Face it, we are far more dependent on the American military holding down our position in the world than we are on SNAP or the Affordable Care Act. Our financial systems are entirely dependent upon the policies from the banks and the agreeable cooperation of public officials.

The Snowden revelations are beginning to illustrate the bondage of BIG DATA and the National Security Administration, now tethered to every act we make all the time, especially on the internet. Moreover, we depend on internet technology to make money and hold that position for ourselves in the marketplace. The eye of Big Brother is beginning to open.

It is clear now what Eisenhower was talking about when he decided to coin the term “military industrial complex.”

Meanwhile the “Too Big To Fail” reality is right before us. Banks connected to the federal reserve like to act up and hold the barrel of our economy to our head, blaming irresponsible consumers for widespread market failure. Then the same folks who pass legislation for that scene turn around and talk their asses off about free markets and the benefits of free markets. It’s an irony when the free markets are purported to be the best thing ever, perfect and self-maintained, then our public legislators constantly have to protect it and legislate to keep it going.

Total contradiction all the time in government at this point, because as the famous analysis states by accident, the democracy is over when they “can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.” Olson blames the voters, but I will suggest that the legislators learn how to obtain gifts from the treasury. Hello insider trading! Hello campaign contributions!

The quote again is “the voters can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury,” so we have to consider the context of the Author and what he knew at the time. The Athenian Republic was not a contemporary democracy — there was a slave class and women were secondary as well. If the quote comes from 1887, this was not a contemporary democracy either. The voters in both of these eras were the men who owned property. People were considered property: Women and “inferior” men were not voters.

So who are we talking about in contemporary terms? Because only in the rebirth of our nation in the 1960’s did we truly realize social liberty. So who are the voters today? Everyone! In the first fifty years of an actual existing democracy, the public treasury has squeezed out the poor, more and more.

We can elect Obama to hopefully push some new health care law, make public benefits simpler and more efficient, but is that really a generous gift? We can elect congressmen to pass food benefits through the budget for another year, but is that really a benefit, or simply the right to eat? If an economic system apprehends natural areas, gardens, and small local farms, then it holds its portents against you at a price, then it limits your human rights. SNAP is a way to guarantee that a modern economic system can sustain a population in a fair way.


I think this Olson interpretation is just cynical, and the piece is propaganda. It is naive as the writer forgets that the voters are not just white men anymore. He is hopeful in a way, because he really doesn’t want to believe that bondage is debt, because debt is what drives our economy more than anything, because it’s too big to fail — or else.

Perhaps even he is too complacent and afraid to interpret the life cycle of America with honesty. Because we are well past 200 now, at the ripe age of 237. Perhaps we are on the verge of collapse and dictatorship. I just don’t think it’s Obama who is doing that through public benefits — it’s through war. He is very supportive of the bondage of PRISM and the NSA.

We live in a country now where folks who invent things, to bring real solutions to the table with the capacity to liberate the people from economic instability and international conflict, are killed or ruined. Stanley Meyer invented a water car in 1990. Nicolai Tesla invented a free electricity grid. Even Thomas Edison had developed efficient batteries and was devising a business plan for homes to be independently powered with personal energy storage, before a great fire ruined the uninsured project.

I am not saying it’s all American interest. That wouldn’t make sense. But the bondage is in the fact that markets are held above people, so the people who are apparently the top, most influential, wealthiest, most powerful — the so-called 1% — are under the bondage of these markets and I am sure they are not fully conscious as to who they’re serving.

If you love democracy and America, as do I, then perhaps you have to reconsider what it actually is and get some balls together, to do something about keeping it. Oh yeah, and concerning those statistics, I’ll just refer you back to this analysis of it. They were debunked anyway and it only serves an interpretation that I don’t much care to support or repeat.

A previous version of this article did not dispute the quotes as real or false, but it was added that the quotes misrepresent real authors and the source of the 200-Year Life Cycle of a Democracy is unknown. Other edits include the removal of irrelevant points, typos, and other style adjustments. Citations can be found below.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

Have anything to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.