Paul Rahe: The road to soft despotism, part 1

Professor Paul Rahe continues his timely series of posts for us on democracy’s drift in America :

Two weeks ago, I posted on Power Line a piece, contending that President Obama’s health care proposals presuppose the administrative state’s assuming a power over our lives and well-being that is nothing less than tyrannical, and tracing the argument for its assumption of such powers to the Progressives’ repudiation of the American founding.

Last week, I posted on Powerline two pieces – one here and the other here – examining what it is that tempts liberal, democratic man to embrace what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his masterpiece Democracy in America called “soft despotism.”

I ended the latter piece by observing that Tocqueville’s fears in this regard were focused on his native France, not on the United States, which possessed, he thought, institutions, mores, and manners enabling the Americans to resist what I called “the servile temptation.” In this post, I propose to consider what these were; in part 2, I will examine why they no longer shield us from what I call “democracy’s drift.”

Tocqueville was aware of the danger before he journeyed to the United States. In April, 1830, not long before he crossed the Atlantic ocean, he wrote to a friend that what was most likely in store for their compatriots was the establishment of a “social body” that would be intent on exercising foresight with regard to everything; that would act as a “second providence,” nourishing men from birth and protecting them from “perils”; and that would function as a “tutelary power” capable of rendering men “gentle” and “sociable” in such a manner that “crimes” would become “rare” – and, he ominously added, so would “virtues as well.”

Under the rule of this “tutelary power,” he foresaw that the human “soul” would enter into a “long repose.” In the process, “individual energy” would be “almost extinguished,” and, when action was required, men would “rely on others.” In effect, a peculiar brand of “egoism” would reign, for everyone would “withdraw into himself.” If “fanaticism” disappeared, as he suspected it would, so would “convictions” and “beliefs” and action itself.

In America, Tocqueville sought a remedy for this malady, and he found it. The Americans possessed four advantages that his compatriots lacked. First and foremost, they benefited from local self-government. In their townships, in their counties, they possessed what Thomas Jefferson, whom Tocqueville read, had called “ward republics.” In these little republics they were active participants, meeting to debate and decide on measures affecting their interests, serving in local offices, and imbibing thereby a taste for liberty and a species of public-spiritedness.

From this experience, they learned what Tocqueville called “the art of association,” and this constituted their second advantage, for they were astonishingly adept at forming private organizations with public purposes – to build schools, hospitals, churches, and roads; to aid the sick and provide for the desperately poor. In this fashion, they had experience of civic agency, and they learned in times of need how to join together with friends, relatives, and neighbors to provide for themselves.

Like liberal, democratic men in France, they might be subject to the species of anxiety, restlessness, and uneasiness that Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville called inquiétude, but they countered this with a manly confidence in their own capacities. Where Frenchmen under the ancient régime had looked to what Montesquieu and Tocqueville called “intermediary powers,” the Americans – in the absence of local aristocrats, great magnates, a powerful church, and the various corporate bodies constitutive of European monarchy in the past – put municipal and state government and civic associations in their place. In the face of instability, trouble, and turmoil, they were anything but helpless, and they knew it.

Third, the Americans were religious. They were persuaded that they were children of God. This gave them a sense of their own dignity; it encouraged them to take responsibility for their own lives; and it made them wary of attempts to encroach upon their autonomy – especially in religions matters, but in others as well.

Moreover, although the Americans were divided along sectarian lines, the different sects all taught the same morality. In the face of life’s travails, they possessed an anchor, and this meant that they were less anxious, restless, and uneasy than Frenchmen in Tocqueville’s day, who were far less religious than the Americans he met.

Fourth, in large part because of their religious commitments, the Americans had strong families. In his Persian Letters, Montesquieu had remarked that Frenchmen are wary of speaking with other men about their wives, for they fear that those with whom they are speaking may know their wives better than they do.

No such claim could be made about the Americans whom Tocqueville met. Unlike French women, American women chose their own husbands; for the most part, they chose soberly and wisely; and, in nearly every case, they stuck to their commitments. Unlike Frenchmen, American men did not experience inquiétude in their own homes. In this regard, they were anchored as well.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. Some of the material in this post is adapted from his book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, which was released on April 16, the 150th anniversary of Tocqueville’s death. The book has been reviewed by Mark Steyn in The New Criterion, by William Voegeli in The Weekly Standard.


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