“WHAT SORT OF DESPOTISM DEMOCRATIC NATIONS HAVE TO FEAR”

Last week I attended a wonderful presentation here at Wheaton by my friend and colleague Bryan McGraw.  In addition to being a connoisseur of southern barbecue, Dr. McGraw is also a first-rate political philosopher.  In the course of his presentation, McGraw highlighted an extended passage from one of my favorite writers from the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, and I was so struck by its relevance during this election season that I wanted to pass it along.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

As many of you will know, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who traveled to the United States during the height of the period of Jacksonian democracy.  In 1831, at the age of twenty-six, Tocqueville was commissioned by the French government, in tandem with another young aristocratic Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, to travel to the U.S. to investigate and report on the American penitentiary system.  Tocqueville and Beaumont spent nine months exploring the country, traveling by stagecoach, steamboat, and on horseback from the urban northeast to the edge of the western frontier and back again.

Upon returning to France, Tocqueville and Beaumont filed their report on penitentiaries, and then Tocqueville began to pen a much broader set of reflections on American politics, American institutions, American culture, and the American people.  The result, Democracy in America, remains one of the most remarkable commentaries ever penned on the interrelationship of liberty, equality, religion, and popular government. I would be surprised to learn that any of this year’s leading presidential aspirants has ever read it.

A sympathetic critic of American democracy, Tocqueville wrote partly to praise but also partly to warn.  Quick to highlight the “benefits which democracy promises to mankind,” he also purposed to “point out the distant perils with which it threatens them.”  Chief among the latter was the potential for tyranny.  As Tocqueville observed, “I noticed during my stay in the United States that a democratic society similar to that found there could lay itself peculiarly open to the establishment of a despotism.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

So how might this come about?  Tocqueville believed that there were certain attributes of the popular democratic mindset in the United States that would gradually facilitate the centralization of governmental power.  In the extended passage below (from volume II, part 4, chapter 6), Tocqueville shows how the individualist, materialistic ethos that he encountered among Americans might encourage the inexorable growth of government.  Read it and see what you think.

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world.  In the first place, I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls.  Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.  Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends.  As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them.  He touches them but feels nothing.  He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, fatherlike, it tried to prepare its charges for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood.  It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances.  Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living? . . .

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society.  It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd.  It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.

**********

If you’d like to read more on Tocqueville’s critique of American democracy,  check out these earlier posts by clicking here, here, here, and here.

George Caleb Bingham, "The County Election," 1852

George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1852

8 responses to ““WHAT SORT OF DESPOTISM DEMOCRATIC NATIONS HAVE TO FEAR”

  1. I am late to this post so I may not receive a response but I wanted to add a thought. Tocqueville and most of the above commentators seem to fear the centralizing tendency in American government and claim that it produces people dependent on federal power. There also seems to be the idea that people look to the government to protect their own petty interests and increase their happiness. I may be wrong in the above assertion, and if so please correct me but I don’t get the sense that Tocqueville or the commentators above take seriously the many problems in American society that the government has/is attempting to address. It is not just that people want their own petty interests cared for, but people look for solutions to real, enduring problems. To take one example, the fight against racial injustice has frequently been stymied by people claiming that the federal government should stay out of local affairs. In my reading of American history, I have not seen churches, communities, schools, or other non-governmental institutions (white ones at least) sufficiently address the problems of racial injustice and thus the federal government has stepped in. I am not trying to start a partisan debate, but would genuinely love to understand how others above would propose solving major societal issues without the federal government stepping in to force things like school integration, etc. Are the choices really democratic despotism or continued injustice? What would American look like today without the government enforcing, say, protection of voting rights for African Americans?

  2. ” It is probably safe to say that none of the contenders for the Presidency have read him or, for that matter, has studied the Federalist Papers or has carefully perused the Constitution.”
    I’m sure this comment applies to most of the candidates, but not to Cruz. He has argued many a case before the Supreme Court, winning many cases concerning religious liberty. Alan Dershowitz stated that Cruz was the smartest student he ever taught.

    • Hi, John: I apologize for not replying more promptly. Your point is well taken. My comment was rushed and, I am embarrassed to say, a bit snarky.

  3. It’s interesting how almost one word – “exceptional” – has seemingly overwhelmed what appears to be so much more depth and complexity in deTocqueville’s writings, and even that word “exceptional” is not used in the way in the book as it is used in the political rhetoric of today. When reading the “America is an exceptional nation” passage, I found the use of he word rather unexceptional and certainly didn’t carry the semblance of national pride that the word has come to embody in political rhetoric. Thanks for posting something so relevant to today’s goings-on.

    The excerpts you reference in your post also reminds me of a speech by D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge Janice Rogers Brown given at a Federalist Society meeting. She said, “Writing 50 years ago, F.A. Hayek warned us that a centrally planned economy is “The Road to Serfdom.” He was right, of course; but the intervening years have shown us that there are many other roads to serfdom. In fact, it now appears that human nature is so constituted that, as in the days of empire all roads led to Rome; in the heyday of liberal democracy, all roads lead to slavery. And we no longer find slavery abhorrent. We embrace it. We demand more. Big government is not just the opiate of the masses. It is the opiate. The drug of choice for multinational corporations and single moms; for regulated industries and rugged Midwestern farmers and militant senior citizens.”

    I think the same line of thought is here. I think most people are comfortable with a “soft despotism”. It has become so easy to view government as our shepherd to provide for us in almost as many ways as we can dream up. Well, really not government, but using government to make other people pay for the things we want to make our life easier. We no longer seem to believe in the Constitution’s original proclamation to “PROMOTE the general welfare”, but now want it to “PROVIDE the general welfare”.

    Your post does have me populating my Amazon shopping cart with a copy of de Toqueville’s book along with one by his companion, Beaumont. I think you previously posted about that rather unknown book (or maybe it was John Fea or John D. Wilsey). Keeping up with your history guys requires a rather large time and monetary budget for “continuing education”. 🙂

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    As Pogo commented, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I guess the question is, if we are on the road to soft despotism, is the end result inevitable. Given human nature, could we wind up with anything other than what De Tocqueville predicted? I really hate it when some European aristocrat living in 1835 knows so much more about our contemporary life than we do! Where did he get all this insight? It is probably safe to say that none of the contenders for the Presidency have read him or, for that matter, has studied the Federalist Papers or has carefully perused the Constitution. We seem to live in an era where we make things up as we go without reference to historical precedent or the wisdom of thoughtful people who also happen to disagree with us. Ah, cynicism is so easy but it is no solution. The last branch of the federal government that is up for politicization is the Supreme Court. If the Court buys into this soft despotism, I do fear for the future.

  5. John C.Gardner

    I believe this quote describes soft despotism which is not hard totalitarianism but one in which many(a large majority) are bent to the collective will of a paternalistic government. Mediating institutions such as family, church, schools at the local level are weakened and these character forming groups do not have the ability to provide effective support and guidance to all within their localized reach. Individuals who might look to each of these more localized institutions might change their focus to the soft despotism of national government care. I see this as a possible result in the future of our nation. A paternalistic federal government might also come about as various classes of persons(e.g. the white working class) see their economic status in society weakened which threatens their status in their own eyes and the eyes of others.
    Is there a good book with commentary and selections of Tocqueville that you might recommend that I should read?
    Thanks for writing this post.

    • Dear John: I wholly agree with your observations. Regarding an edition of Democracy in America, Bedford Books publishes an abridged edition that features the most commonly cited passages (I’m guessing they encompass about a a sixth or seventh of the complete text) and includes a thirty-page introduction by distinguished historian Michael Kammen. This would be a decent place to begin. It’s readily available through Amazon.

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