Paul Rahe is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of the three-volume study Republics Ancient and Modern. Professor Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect has just been published. Commenting on this week’s events, Professor Rahe writes:
In the early 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited Jacksonian America, he was taken aback by much of what he encountered. Nothing impressed him more, however, than the demonstrated capacity of the Americans to form private associations for public purposes.
This phenomenon – illegal in Tocqueville’s France and rare on the continent of Europe, even today – amazed him. He was particularly struck by the political consequences of the Americans’ confident practice of what he called “the art of association.” For, as he discovered, opposition had sprung up to the so-called Tariff of Abominations outside the existing political parties.
This opposition was especially emphatic in the South. But, in a fashion that seemed spontaneous, organizations had been independently formed in every district of the country, and then they had joined together in a great network to bring pressure upon Congress.
Tocqueville did not express an opinion regarding the justice or wisdom of this movement. What interested and excited him was simply its existence. For it proved that, in a great commercial democracy established in an extended territory, civic agency was a genuine possibility. It proved that the residents of the United States of America were citizens, not subjects, and it demonstrated that the condition that he called “soft despotism” was not the only possibility afforded by liberal democracy.
Tocqueville’s ruminations deserve attention for one simple reason. We are today witnessing a reawakening of the American spirit that so strongly impressed him.
In earlier posts on Power Line, I have discussed the tyrannical ambitions of the Obama administration (here), the danger a consolidation of government poses for the people of the United States (here), the psychological disposition that makes democratic peoples vulnerable to servile temptation (here), the institutions that once in some measure shielded Americans from these propensities (here), the gradual disappearance of that shield (here), and some of the reasons why I think it now possible for us to recover the liberty that once was ours (here and here).
Here I simply want to add an appreciative word regarding Barack Obama. Our President has told us that he has a gift, and he is undoubtedly right. But he misconceives the nature of his gift. He thinks that his skills in oratory will enable him to fool all of the people all of the time. In his Presidential campaign, he did wonders – hinting at radical intentions while speaking always in a moderate tone. And thanks to the blunders of George W. Bush in office and to the ineptitude of John McCain, who had made a career of betraying his own side, Obama managed to win.
Soon, however, the Democratic Party will be reminded that, in German, “Gift” is a word for poison. For one cannot fool the American people for long, and the real effect of the effort made by Obama and by figures such as Rahm Emanuel will be to unmask the Democratic Party as a conspiracy on the part of a would-be aristocracy of do-gooders hostile to very idea of self-government in the United States.
This we are witnessing now, for everything is now done in secret and behind closed doors. The so-called “stimulus bill” was passed in both the House and the Senate in a manner suggestive of tyranny. It was written in camera with the help of a legion of lobbyists, and it was presented and shoved through before anyone in Congress even had a chance to read it, much less think about it.
The fact that there was no time allowed for public discussion and debate aroused suspicion nationwide; and when it became evident that the bill was a fraud – that its real purpose was to reward favored party constituencies and that the sum spent will grossly inflate the national deficit in the short run and require massive tax increases down the road – Americans in astonishing numbers took to the streets in every corner of the land.
The passage of the cap-and-trade bill in the House – again without adequate public discussion and debate – only reinforced the wariness of the general public, and the same can be said for the efforts of the Obama administration to push through a scheme aimed at putting us on the road to socialized medicine.
Behind closed doors, in secrecy, a deal was done to reward the United Auto Workers and to defraud the bondholders of Chrysler and General Motors. And behind closed doors, without any species of accountability, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner is reorganizing our financial system.
Now, as citizens flock to town meetings all over the country to confront their Senators and Congressmen, we can see the consequences. And the White House and the Democratic Party have responded to the spontaneous organization of opposition to their endeavors in a manner that is reminiscent of the governments in Tocqueville’s France – by insulting their fellow citizens, by charging them with conspiracy, by locking citizens out of putatively public meetings, by bringing in union toughs to intimidate the opposition, and by illegally collecting the names and contact information of those who have exercised their First Amendment rights in a manner unfriendly to the proposals advanced by the current administration – apparently with an eye to future retribution.
We should be grateful to Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel. For, in their audacity, they have done what their predecessors feared to do; and, in the process, they have made the tyrannical propensities inherent within the progressive impulse visible to anyone who cares to take notice. What Franklin Delano Roosevelt falsely charged in 1936 is visibly true today. “A small group” is intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.”
The only question is whether the Republicans have the wit to take full advantage of the opportunity that Barack Obama has handed them.
If any scholarly study in the history of political thought was ever timely, Professor Rahe’s Soft Despotism is it. Mark Steyn freely draws on Professor Rahe’s new book in the lead article featured in the current issue of the New Criterion.