WASHINGTON — 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 votes 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.
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. After all, 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% said they felt "upper income" Americans paid too little in taxes. The year before, 61% said so. The year before that, it was 62%. Likewise, in April 67% said they felt corporations pay too little. The figure was the same in 2016 and slightly higher, 69%, 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.
White Protestants long considered themselves to have a "unique capacity for self-government"
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 non-white 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."
In her book "Democracy in Chains," author Nancy MacLean recounts a conservative argument from the 1950s, which held that blacks had no claim to equal public schooling because blacks failed to produce the tax revenue necessary to support well-financed schools. (A few centuries of state-sanctioned enslavement, torture and continued oppression was then, as now, a poor excuse.)
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. Given the perceived threat, it makes sense to manufacture reasons to make it harder for the horde to vote, and to stock up on guns, too.
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.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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