A Brief Collection of Quotations About (or Pertaining to) Politics
I’ve been collecting quotations about politics for almost half a century. I’m interested in what the wise and the wiseacres have to say on a subject that is – at the same time – so foolish and no laughing matter.
I’ve tried to make these quotations as accurate (and as accurately sourced) as possible. Many sayings come to us shrunken or distorted with age. For example, Voltaire never said…
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
What Voltaire said, in a letter to the extremely conservative Catholic priest M. Le Riche, was…
Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.
(Note how the great French wit is teasing the priest, whose writing is so hilariously awful that it’s “to die for.”)
But sometimes misquotes are worse than inaccurate. Sometimes quotations are twisted with malice. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s choice for Secretary of Defense, President of General Motors Charles E. Wilson, is supposed to have told the committee at his Senate confirmation hearing,
What’s good for GM is good for America.
Wilson told the committee almost the opposite. When asked if he could make a decision that would adversely affect GM, Wilson said yes but that it was hard for him to imagine that situation –
Because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.
(Wilson was confirmed by a vote of 77 to 6.)
I’ve also tried to leave out the quotations that everybody knows already. Thus there is no…
I don’t belong to an organized political party. I am a Democrat.
– Will Rogers
There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
– Mark Twain
Not that these aren’t clever and insightful. But no one wants used food, even when it’s food for thought.
Nonetheless, I’m sure some of the following will be familiar, especially to longtime American Consequences readers who will note that I myself have, in the past, at one time or another, cited almost all of these quotes. But don’t think of them as pre-digested. Think of them as the kind of leftovers that – like a good beef stew – get better with reheating.
If worthless men are sometimes at the head of affairs, it is, I believe, because worthless men are at the tail and in the middle.
– John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush
#22 No matter what happens, somebody will find a way to take it too seriously.
– Dave Barry, “25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years,” Dave Barry Turns 50
An endless vista of false teeth with nothing to bite.
– Comment attributed to Tory MP Robert “Bob” Boothby during the debate over the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service
He is a good and a great man: but he forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursuit of his own large views. It is better, therefore, for the insignificant to keep out of his way; lest in his progress, he should trample them down.
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.
– William F. Buckley (Yale class of 1950 btw), Rumbles Left and Right
Marijuana is a very dangerous drug. Some people smoke it just once and go directly into politics.
– Comedian Barry Crimmins
I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale.
– Bill Clinton, CBS TV Candidate Forum, Sunday, March 29, 1992
That’s the trouble with Democrats. Even when they do something wrong, they don’t do it right.
– Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, Monday, March 30, 1992
An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.
– Dwight Eisenhower’s definition of an intellectual, quoted by Paul Johnson in Eisenhower, A Life
How dreary – to be – Somebody
Hoe public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
– Emily Dickinson, lyric no. 260
The devil will be having his fingers in what we call our duties as well as our sins.
– George Eliot, Adam Bede
… the lethal temptation to exchange freedom for security: a bargain that invariably ends up with the surrender of both.
– Christopher Hitchens, Introduction to 2003’s reprint of George Orwell’s 1984
We are forming an aristocracy… in this country… which floats over the turbid waves of common life like the iridescent film you may have seen spreading over the water about our wharves, – very splendid, though its origin may have been tar.
A good many things go around in the dark besides Santa Claus.
– Herbert Hoover, 1935 speech to the St. Louis Republican Club
Now and then an innocent man is sent to the legislature.
– Caption by Indianapolis News cartoonist Kin Hubbard, early 20th century
The radicals of the upper class… they are very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral, and yet they don’t affect their position.
– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
In economically benevolent conditions… something we call democracy may even emerge to disguise the realities of power.
– John Keegan, A History of Warfare
Let us have done with British-Americans and Irish-Americans and German-Americans, and so on, and all be Americans… If a man is going to be an American at all let him be so without any qualifying adjectives; and if he is going to be something else, let him drop the word American from his personal description.
– Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, speech, 1888
Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular.
– Lord Macaulay, “Essay on Mitford’s History of Greece”
Abracadabra, thus we learn
The more you create, the less you earn.
The less you earn, the more you’re given.
The less you lead, the more you’re driven,
The more destroyed, the more they feed,
The more you pay, the more they need,
The more you earn, the less you keep,
And now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the lord my soul to take
If the tax-collector hasn’t got it before I wake.
– Ogden Nash, “One From One Leaves Two,” a poem about the New Deal
To be conservative… is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
– Michael Oakeshott, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays
To many politicians cost is the benefit… it means more money to hand out.
– Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute scholar
Scientific socialism… would hold especial attraction for intellectuals by promising to replace spontaneous and messy life with a rational order of which they would be the interpreters and mentors.
– Richard Pipes, Baird Professor of History at Harvard and National Security Council adviser on Soviet and East European Affairs in the Reagan administration, Communism
The special attraction of politics derives from the fact that it is the only occupation which allows the satisfaction of greed or vanity (or both) to be pursued in the name of public good.
– Richard Pipes, Scattered Thoughts, private printing, 2010
When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Till we become divine we must be content to be human, lest in our hurry for a change we sink to something lower.
– Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.
– Attributed (wrongly) to 18th-century Scottish jurist and historian Alexander Tytler, but in accord with Tytler’s skepticism about democracy.
Common sense is not so common.
– Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique
The enthusiasm of the people is very fine and looks well in print; but I have never known it produce anything but confusion… Trust nothing to the enthusiasm of the people.
– The Duke of Wellington, letter to Lord Bentinck
A new system shows which stocks could soon rise 100% thanks to a Connecticut couple’s catastrophic 401(k) loss.