Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French aristocrat whose Democracy in America remains the finest analysis of our politics and society, put it succinctly and thoroughly: “The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling.”
Not, than, a tyranny of the Stalin or Hitler variety. Not a society ruthlessly dominated by secret police and a charismatic dictator. Instead, American democracy is menaced by something far more subtle, a minutely-regulated society that is endorsed by a citizenry that willingly chooses to be oppressed.
Tocqueville's nightmare vision, written in the early 1830s foresees “an immense and tutelary power,” and its task is to watch over us all, and regulate every aspect of our lives.
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.
Painting of French Political Thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, by Theodore Chasseriau (1850)
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...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, and hardly a day goes by without evidence of the state's growing authority and ambition. Two recent stories would produce a sad nod from Tocqueville:
- A few days ago, we learned that Attorney General Eric Holder overruled objections from two whistleblowers in Homeland Security, and authorized the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to collect and maintain huge databases on the habits of American citizens, even when there was no reason to suspect them of illegal activity.
- Separately, Rep. Sam Graves warns us that the Federal Government has prepared thousands of new regulations that will substantially increase the costs, and dramatically limit the freedom, of American businessmen.
The "immense tutelary power" is very hard to fight, precisely because there is no single battle to wage against it. It spreads slowly, and is justified by appeals to our grievances, our desire for comfort and security.
The hell of it is that we choose this new kind of tyranny, and all too often we ratify it, as in the presidential elections. Others have done the same. Clare Lopez reminds us that people do indeed choose despotism. She cites the Iranians' enthusiastic endorsement of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and 1980, and we can see the same voluntary subjection of millions of people at work today in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and even Jordan, and in the last century even two of the most culturally advanced countries in the West--think Italy and Germany--chose tyranny, and supported it until defeated in a world war. It's easier to see the pattern in those countries, because hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, and the leaders openly proclaim their dictatorial intents. But the same process is at work here, albeit in a much different context, and our chances of defeating the would-be oppressors are much better.
Our best chance is to challenge the advance of the power of the federal government at the state level, where the Republican Party holds thirty governorships. As federal power advances regulation by regulation, the states can challenge it. This is taking place today in the states refusing to create Obamacare "exchanges," and we've seen advances in freedom in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where unions' efforts to impose their will on workers were defeated. Similar campaigns need to be waged against the "official culture" of political correctness; if open debate is silenced by speech codes, we will eventually be unable to define the central issues of freedom and tyranny.
Finally, all of us who participate in the fractious debates that define American politics--now as ever--need to challenge the expansion of state power whenever and wherever we can. Eric Holder's quiet approval of the NCTC's ability to monitor the behavior of millions of Americans would have gone unnoticed if two women in Homeland Security hadn't challenged it, and their stories weren't reported by the Wall Street Journal. Now we know. And now we can challenge it.
It's going to be a very tough fight.