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Tocqueville Said This Would Happen


This essay is excerpted from  Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution—As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen edited by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor. Big Tent grew out of a course held at The Citadel on The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America,” which was a joint project between Factor and ISI.


The eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield has called Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” And with good reason. Tocqueville was eerily prescient. He foresaw the possibility of civil war. He mused about the possibility that the world in the twentieth century would be dominated by two great powers, one democratic and one despotic, America and Russia: the Cold War. He also foresaw that a democratic nation could descend into what he called a “soft” despotism. In that respect he anticipated the conservative critique of the growth of the federal government and many of the public policy initiatives of the past hundred years.

Tocqueville’s vivid picture of soft despotism appears almost abruptly, at the end of the second volume of Democracy in America (1840). Up to that point, his depiction of democratic America is mostly (though not entirely) positive. He sees Americans overcoming the dangers of individualism through involvement in local self-government and by their propensity to create and work in voluntary associations—the little platoons, as Edmund Burke called them. He sees religion—and the nonprivileged place of different churches and sects—in America as tending to produce virtuous behavior and place limits on destructive impulses. He sees an America bursting with prosperity, resourceful in commerce, creative in invention, expanding rapidly over a continent even as it sends out ships to all parts of the world—an America where the ordinary person had a higher standard of living than ordinary people anywhere else on the globe, and one that seemed sure to ascend to greater heights.

He also sees a threat. America’s success is the result of things that could in time produce a future much gloomier and could prevent democratic America from achieving its potential. Near the end of the second volume of Democracy in America he presents this ominous vision:

I do not fear that in their chiefs [Americans] will find tyrants, but rather schoolmasters. . . . I think therefore that the kind of oppression with which democratic peoples are threatened will resemble nothing that has preceded it in the world; our contemporaries would not find its image in their memories. I myself seek in vain an expression that exactly reproduces the idea that I form of it for myself and that contains it; the old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it.

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.

The Safety Net Tightens

Here Tocqueville foresees a time when the forces he believes have enabled Americans to avoid the perils of individualism will no longer prevail. It is in part a demographic vision: the America in which Tocqueville arrived in 1830 was a country in which more than 90 percent of the people lived on farms. There was no city like Paris, which had 800,000 people and a population density of 59,000 per square mile. America’s largest city, New York, had just 200,000; Philadelphia, 130,000; Washington, 26,000; Charleston, 30,000.

By 1912, however, the United States had enormous cities: New York had 5 million people; Chicago, 2 million; Philadelphia, 1.5 million. Vast waves of immigration arrived on American shores—as many as 1.2 million immigrants a year. These people worked in garment sweatshops and on auto and steel assembly lines; they owned no property, renting their homes and often not even having bank accounts; they took no part in local government except as voters supporting machine politicians; in some sense they seemed indeed no longer to “have a native country.” Or, as the great twentieth-century sociologist Robert Nisbet puts it, Americans increasingly suffered a “loss of community.” As Robert Putnam recently discovered, to his dismay, the parts of America that have the greatest ethnic and racial diversity are also the parts with the highest degree of lack of trust in others and lack of participation in voluntary associations: Los Angeles today; the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then the most densely populated place in the world, a century ago.

The Progressive politicians of that era responded to those conditions, and to their fears that the urban masses would rise in a violent revolution like the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Revolution of 1917, by proclaiming that the Constitution’s old limitations on government were obsolete in a time of immigrant tenements and factory assembly lines. Government needed to regulate and control giant corporations and small employers alike and to provide a safety net for them. The result was the policy changes of the Progressive Era and New Deal. Tocqueville anticipated just this development:

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from every citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

Anticipating the Welfare State

Tocqueville in these words provides as trenchant a criticism of the welfare state and the regulatory state as any modern conservative thinker—and managed to do so eighty years before the Progressives, a century before the New Deal, 130 years before the Great Society, and 180 years before the administration of the current president. Local self-government has been in large measure elbowed aside by a centralized bureaucratic apparatus, run by alleged experts, justified by the supposed inability of ordinary people to take care of themselves and navigate the shoals and reefs of an advanced industrial society. This soft despotism—a phrase Tocqueville scholars like Paul Rahe have used, though Tocqueville doesn’t use it himself—assumes that people are incompetent children, and in treating them like children encourages them to behave that way.

Soft despotism will have a negative effect on people’s character, Tocqueville says; it will tend to eradicate the virtue that he saw in democratic Americans in the 1830s. He writes:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it 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.

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Many conservative thinkers have lamented the extent to which American society has come to resemble Tocqueville’s soft despotism—and have lamented even more that American voters seem to have continued to ratify it. In Tocqueville’s words, “citizens leave their dependence for a moment to indicate their master, and then reenter it.”


From BIG TENT edited by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor Copyright © 2014 by Mallory Factor. Reprinted courtesy of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.



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