Is the Despotism that Tocqueville Feared Inevitable?

Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift:
Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect
  • Paul A. Rahe
  • Yale University Press, 2008; 400 pages, $38.00

The American people have fallen into the habit of expecting government to solve all problems, removing risk from their lives, and providing for all their needs and wants. It is commonplace now for individuals to look to government—rather than the family and civil society—to relieve their most ordinary concerns, support their basic endeavors, and make good on the simplest injuries anticipated in daily life. As more and more citizens look to government for benefits and services, they become increasingly dependent on them. Are Americans, therefore, becoming the clients of government rather than its self-governing master?

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warned of a tendency of democracies, bent on bringing about equal results in all cases, to succumb to a centralized and consolidated government that promises to master every social condition and outcome in pursuit of this elusive goal. The combination of egalitarianism and the regulatory power of centralized administrative government, Tocqueville feared, could lead to a new form of despotism that would destroy the human spirit. In this future, he foresaw “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Government would become the all-powerful instrument serving these insatiable appetites. Self-governing citizens would degrade themselves into passive subjects of an impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state.

Written almost 170 years ago, Tocqueville’s analysis of a form of despotism that democratic peoples should most fear seems ever more prophetic:

Above [the people] an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the sole agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances: can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

The problem is not that such a government is hard or even harsh, but just the opposite. It promotes selfish, petty interests because it caters to them, and by doing so deforms the character of self-governing citizens, rendering “the employment of the free will less useful and more rare.” It creates a therapeutic society under the authoritarian rule of bureaucrats and experts. Such a power, Tocqueville concluded, “does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” Once citizens have given up liberty for comfortable security, and the responsibility of self-government for the ease of government-as-parent, democratic government can become a type of soft despotism—less coercive in its methods and more benign in its intentions but despotic nonetheless.

Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, takes the Tocqueville passage as its epigraph and builds an argument around its meaning in the development of modern political thought and then as it might apply to modern-day politics. But before getting there, the bulk of the book is a thoughtful consideration of two powerful and prominent thinkers—Montesquieu and Rousseau—who influenced Tocqueville. Both Montesquieu and Rousseau were influential political theorists dealing with the challenges of the modern republic. The “celebrated Montesquieu,” as Madison called him in The Federalist, concluded that England had developed, in Rahe’s words, “a new form of government more conducive to liberty and graced with greater staying power than any polity theretofore even imagined.”

In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu celebrated—and helped to further develop—the modern commercial republic that was blossoming beneath the British monarchy. The republic was far from perfect; indeed, it left its people content but in an unsettled condition of inquietude. For these reasons, Montesquieu emphasized intermediate powers and classes, and developed the concept of the separation of powers, to check the advance of government tyranny. In contrast, Rousseau criticized the modern republic for leaving citizens disconnected, embracing the classical model that Montesquieu had abandoned as impossible—because it destroyed liberty—in the modern world.

Though influenced by both, and sharing their sense of the possibility of modern despotism, Rahe argues that Tocqueville was “Montesquieu’s heir.” Tocqueville’s observation, based on his critique of administrative centralization and experience of local institutions in America, was that intermediaries between the sovereign state and the individual—the many associations and groupings referred to today as civil society and which begins with the family—should be recognized and maintained as the bulwark against the development of modern state despotism.

The French had undermined and abolished these institutions in the midst of their revolutionary zeal for “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” But the Americans, even after their efforts to build a new nation based on liberty and equality, kept their institutions—indeed, had arranged their governmental institutions to provide for the flourishing of such private institutions, or what Abraham Lincoln would later call “free institutions.” “In New England, their world was the township; in the South, it was the county; and elsewhere it was one or the other or both,” Rahe writes. “Self-government was the liberty that they fought the War of Independence to retain, and this was a liberty that in considerable measure Americans in the age of Andrew Jackson still enjoyed.”

This all began to change, Rahe observes, toward the end of the nineteenth century and through the twentieth century, when American thinkers—having studied political ideas in Europe (especially Germany) and imported new principles of politics and concepts of government—started a new movement in the academy, the media, and politics to re-found the American system.

These arguments played out in Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal, and the Great Society. They are also reappearing in what might be a new era of progressive reform under President Obama, pushing for more evolving rights, more government administration of society, and more centralization of American life in the guise of “progress” and a “living” Constitution. What the progressives call a right can be seen as “something intrinsically desirable and good; every item is arguably an element within the ‘happiness’ that the Founding Fathers expected most Americans to pursue,” Rahe concludes. “But in their day, and in Tocqueville’s as well, it was taken for granted that no one had a ‘right’ to such goods. . . . Moreover, at the time of the founding, Americans believed—and no one more fervently than Thomas Jefferson—that the expansion in centralized administration necessary to guarantee ‘equality in the pursuit of happiness’ and requisite for the provision of such goods was incompatible with the political rights that [Franklin] Roosevelt would later list in his [1944] message to Congress. Tocqueville was of the same opinion.”

But is the drift toward despotism inevitable? That is the great question. Rahe’s analysis of political thought is decidedly, and rightly, anti-historicist. Soft despotism may be democracy’s “drift” but it is not a foreordained outcome, inevitably determined by the forces of so-called progress. There always remains a choice. Americans may either continue down the road they are on—declining toward a European-style, heavily regulated and secularized nation, and one where marriage and children are marginalized. Or they may take a different path, which is the subject of my new book, that would seek to rediscover and then restore a commitment to foundational principles, core institutions—especially the family—and basic habits of self-government that might slow the drift, and perhaps even reverse course, so that Americans might renew their future.

Dr. Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and editor of The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. He is also the author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI Books, November 2009).