A Sort of Despotism

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States for nine months ostensibly to examine our prison system, but in fact to examine the American political system. He later wrote Democracy In America, a most remarkable book that very few read any more (sad to say). In a chapter of that book titled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” he provided us with an analysis that is as timely today as it was when he wrote it, proving once again that the classics are always relevant:

“I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observer is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of the rest, — his children and private friends constitute for him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them but he sees them not; — he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes it upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. . . . it seeks to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but rejoicing. . . . it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their happiness, it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

“Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for those things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

“. . . The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

“By this system [of electing those that govern them] the people shake off their state of dependency just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. . . . .  this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

“. . . It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed: and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring form the suffrages of a subservient people.

For those of us today who feel strongly that we are enslaved by a government not of our choosing and who can only wait and hope that when we next exercise our free choice of new representatives there will be profound change, these words ring true in our ears. But de Tocqueville was spot on in noting the illusion of freedom we live with, convinced that our freedom consists in having twenty-seven varieties of cereal to choose from in the grocery store when, in fact, it consists in the ability to make informed choices based on knowledge of which of those cereals will make us sick. And we are not born with that knowledge, it comes from an education carefully designed and from the example of others around us who seem to know and to base their choices on that knowledge.

Our present system of government is being sorely tested. It remains to be seen if enough people are intelligent enough and determined enough to take back their government from those who would possess it and continue to “stupefy” the citizens. It remains to be seen, that is to say, whether enough of our citizens refuse to be ” a flock of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”


14 thoughts on “A Sort of Despotism

  1. Hugh, this is another incisive quote in the excerpt you use from de Tocqueville: “By this system [of electing those that govern them] the people shake off their state of dependency just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.”

    “Relapse” is the key word. We so often say we want change or reform, or a leader who will give us “all” that we want or believe in. And we get roused at election time, only to generally sink into a relapse of the worst kind — disengagement, combined with armchair quarterbacking. For all our griping, the despotism of corruption, and big, big money continues. This moment of high intensity during the election — often fueled by the “change for change sake” mentality — then drifting away gives us a president like Trump. Yes, a non-traditional candidate won the election but at devastating cost. We’ve put an self-absorbed, self-serving amateur in the White House. We have to hope that the public and those in positions of authority, with constitutional means to check if not impeach, defies de Tocqueville’s observations.

    • It wouldn’t “defy” de Tocqueville, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction. It would take courageous politicians and I don’t see many of them!

  2. In my mind, mulling words in an attempt to post a stringer long enough to provide a complete and coherent sentence. Failing that…One major observation was and is, as de Tocqueville outlined: looking in the mirror whose reflection is seen? The village? The community? The common good ?

    Miroir miroir sur le mur…certainement pas vous ou moi.

  3. Hugh, some leaders are fighting back, but they are late to the ball game. We need more them. McCain, Flake, Sasse and Corker cannot be the only Republicans to do so. I heard George W. Bush speaking out today against White Supremacism. It must be more.

    Senator Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan must remember to which body they swore their oath. I heard someone saying McConnell’s priority is to keep the Republican majority intact. No. your first priority Mr. McConnell is to help govern the country and preserve the Constitution. Same for you Mr. Ryan.

    We need more Americans telling these guys to do their jobs. And, when the President is out of line, call him on the carpet. Keith

  4. Wow Hugh … when you set out to make us think, you make us think! I read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America many moons ago, when doing grad work toward a degree in International Relations, but I think it is time for me to read it again. Just so happens, I know right where my copy is. This is so spot on with what we are experiencing today, and the description of the people is chillingly familiar. Thank you for this … I shall re-blog!

  5. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Our friend and fellow-blogger Hugh Curtler has provided a short excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, long considered one of the most influential and relevant books of the 19th century. This is a short piece, but even though it was published 182 years ago. Please take a moment to read it and think about it. Many thanks, dear Hugh, for such a timely piece and implied permission to re-blog!

  6. I, like Jill, studied de Toqueville many years ago but memory of what he said had not just grown dim but vanished! This ia s terrific and timely quote. It is often salutary reading writers of bygone ages as you remind us so pertinently. Just yesterday I discovered a tiny pamphlet of 2 poems by Oliver Goldsmith, The Traveller and The Deserted Village, tucked away on our shelves.So much was relevant to today’s crazy world – here’s just a taste:
    “For just experience tells, in every soil,
    That those who think must govern those that toil;
    And all that freedom’s highest aims can reach,
    Is but to lay proportion’d loads on each.
    Hence, should one order disprorption’d grow,
    Its double weight must ruin all below.”
    Sorry for the length of the comment but I wanted to share that with you! All our loads seem to have become very disproportion’d. What do we older folk do about it, other than write? Is that the best thing for us to do?

    • I do wonder how many these days would agree that “Those who think must govern those who toil”? In our egalitarian age (which de Tocqueville saw clearly) we hesitate to allow that anyone is better suited to lead than anyone else. Just take a look at our leader today: the reductio ad absurdum of egalitarianism.
      To answer your question, I honestly do not know. But I do know we must keep on keeping on. Writing is therapeutic and you never know when it might strike a responsive chord.

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