More than a year ago, less than a month after the Obama Inauguration, I wrote about the threat of an emerging American tyranny, quoting Tocqueville’s nightmare scenario of a slow seduction of the American people who would willingly abandon freedom to a soft dictatorship that would appear to be democratic. I was right about Obama’s intentions, but wrong about the reaction of the American people, which is central to the battle in which we are engaged.
Tocqueville foresaw a slow death of freedom. He feared that the power of the central government would gradually expand, meddling in every area of our lives, and he was afraid that we would welcome it, and even convince ourselves that we controlled it.
Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated…
The tyranny he foresaw for us does not have much in common with the vicious dictatorships of the last century, or with contemporary North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. “The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling.” The vision and even the language anticipated Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave New World. Tocqueville described the new tyranny as “an immense and tutelary power,” and its task is to regulate every aspect of our lives.
It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.
Tocqueville thought we would not be bludgeoned into submission; we would be seduced. He foresaw the collapse of American democracy as the end result of two parallel developments that would ultimately render us meekly subservient to an enlarged bureaucratic power: the corruption of our character, and the emergence of a vast welfare state. His nightmare vision is brilliantly and terrifyingly prescient:
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?
Roger all that. Tocqueville had it right, and it’s exactly what has happened on his old continent. Europe has fallen under precisely that sort of tyranny, and our would-be tyrants thought they could do the same here.
But the scheme did not succeed, at least the way they planned it. Instead of embracing the tyranny, the American people unexpectedly rose up against it. To use Tocqueville’s metaphor, Americans acted like a recalcitrant child and refused to behave. At which point the tyrannical wannabes decided to slap us down and make us behave properly. They were forced to carry out a coup, a baldfaced seizure of power. Thus, the Demon Pass. Thus the two most memorable lines from the coup plotters: (Pelosi): “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it,” and (Hastings): “there are no rules. This is the U.S. Congress.”
That was not the way it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to go quietly. Instead we fought back, and the final outcome of this big fight–the one I foresaw more than a year ago–is still in doubt. The would-be tyrants may prevail; after all, they have the awesome power of the state. But we have the numbers and a superior vision.
Americans can be very tough in this kind of fight. Ask King George.
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