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Alexis de Toqueville, man of the moment

March 4th, 2009 - 6:08 am

Regular readers know of my fondness (and here) for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, first published in 1835 but still the best thing ever written about the character of popular government in the United States. I am happy to see that Tocqueville is enjoying a renaissance. The current issue of The Weekly Standard lists him among the contributors to their reflection on “Obama’s America,” appropriately illustrated with a herd of sheep on the cover, and reprints part of his famous description of “Democratic Despotism” in its editorial pages. My PJ Media colleague Michael Ledeen–author of an excellent book about Tocqueville–has also weighed in on the subject with a brilliant and melancholy post on the subject (h/t Andy McCarthy).

Russell Kirk rightly said that Tocqueville’s analysis of democratic despotism was “his supreme achievement as a political theorist, a sociologist, a liberal, and a conservative.” The aching pertinence of his dissection of this “tutelary despotism” that “does not tyrannize” but rather “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” is a classic in the library of political admonition. For decades, the United States has been drifting towards the shoals of that enslavement. With the ascension of our current President and his plans to inspan us all in his “spread-the-wealth-around” socialism, we are nearing the point of shipwreck. “The devilish genius of this form of tyranny,” Mr. Ledeen writes,

is that it looks and even acts democratic. We still elect our representatives, and they still ask us for our support. “. . . servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind . . . might be combined with some of the outward forms of freedom, and . . .might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.” Freedom is smothered without touching the institutions of political democracy. We act out democratic skits while submitting to an oppressive central power that we ourselves have chosen.

And again:

We will not be bludgeoned into submission; we will be seduced. He foresees the collapse of American democracy as the end result of two parallel developments that ultimately render us meekly subservient to an enlarged bureaucratic power: the corruption of our character, and the emergence of a vast welfare state that manages all the details of our lives. His words are precisely the ones that best describe out current crisis:

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

The metaphor of a parent maintaining perpetual control over his child is the language of contemporary American politics. All manner of new governmental powers are justified in the name of “the children,” from enhanced regulation of communications to special punishments for “hate speech;” from the empowerment of social service institutions to crack down on parents who try to discipline their children, to the mammoth expansion of sexual quotas from university athletic programs to private businesses. Tocqueville particularly abhors such new governmental powers because they are Federal, emanating from Washington, not from local governments. He reminds us that when the central government asserts its authority over states and communities, a tyrannical shadow lurks just behind. So long as local governments are strong, he says, even tyrannical laws can be mitigated by moderate enforcement at the local level, but once the central government takes control of the entire structure, our liberties are at grave risk.

At the very end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville sadly names “general apathy” the greatest danger of the age. The great question that faces us today concerns the extent and recalcitrance of that apathy. How far has our enervation proceeded? Mr. Ledeen ends his reflection with the hope that “we’re in for a hell of a fight.” I second that hope, and I tremble at the possibility that we’ve gone too long without exercising the the muscles of freedom and independence to make effective use of them now.

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