Greek tyrants upset democracy by delivering gifts of tax relief or other favors to citizens in order to stabilize their administrations. The tyrant Alexander of Pherae expropriated the precious metal mines of the country, minted coins to glorify his reign and gave gifts to his people so they knew where the presents came from.
Ancient Israel adopted a law to prevent such public advertisements of populist politicians, strangely worded to prohibit any “graven images.” They didn’t want a celebrity leader to put his profile image on a coin in order to lengthen his term of office and overshadow the written democratic law of the land.
The Tax Foundation commented on the national government’s 2001 innovation of sending tax rebate money directly to the electorate: “Incumbent politicians guessed that household voters would be more likely to recall their largesse if the tax cut took the form of a check as opposed to, for example, a reduction in tax withholding.”
Those checks from congresspersons would help them in their mid-term elections in 2002.
Then, in 2004, President George W. Bush followed up that brilliant new American political shenanigan by sending taxpayer rebates of $600 or $300, just in time for his reelection campaign that year. The whole concept worked well for him. He was elected for a second term.
Unfortunately, historians will notice that the repetition of this practice in 2020 not only smacks of Greek tyranny, but of the long western history of kings handing out gifts to their subjects at politically shaky times for the castle.
Democracy everywhere has as its goal the economic and political enfranchisement all the people, and the prevention of 1% of the people becoming oligarchs and life-long officeholders.
Democracies also have historically prohibited inordinate homage being paid to such celebrities in the form of distribution of special coinage, and the use of other ways of suggesting that a single individual butters the bread of the citizenry. In a democracy, the citizens butter their own bread.
In America, our ancestors in the 1800s understood clearly that the economic or political power of any one individual, or small class of individuals, must be curbed. Our Constitution stipulates there can be no “Title of Nobility” established in the United States. In addition, the policy of the nation from the beginning was to not place the profile image of any of its political officials on the national coinage.
This prohibition was carefully guarded until 1908, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy wanted to honor the founder of his Republican party, Abraham Lincoln, and so put Lincoln’s image on millions of coins that went into circulation beginning in 1909. Since then, the United States has put other political celebrity images on other coins. Previously, the nation used images of “lady liberty” or other democratic symbols on its coins.
The president tried to use his actual signature on the checks, but was told that was not legal. He then did the next best thing. He found a place on the check to type his name next to the words “Economic Impact Payment.”
The first checks with his name on it are going out soon to the poorest of Americans. This makes the process a little bit like elections in the Wild West and elections in cities with political bosses. In those days, candidates gave out free booze on election day to get voters to the polls for them.
If the president merely had the economic recovery interests of the people uppermost in mind, why would he be in such a hurry to associate his name with a gift of free money to all of the people, only months before the election?
Kimball Shinkoskey is author of The American Kings: Growth in Presidential Power from George Washington to Barack Obama, Wipf and Stock Publishers/Resource Publication, 2014.