The New Criterion has a lively review by Mark Steyn of Paul Rahe’s book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift. The central idea of the article (and presumably the book, although I haven’t read it) is summed up by this two-hundred-year-old passage from Tocqueville, who was musing on ways in which a free republic could, on its own, collapse into a despotic state, quite apart from the coercion of a nineteenth-century-style despotic monarch:
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.
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…
The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Sound familiar? The problem is that the transformation to “soft despotism” occurs stealthily, perhaps imperceptibly. The key to retarding its creep, according to Steyn and Rahe, is the vitality of the institutions that traditionally served as intermediaries between the individuals and the sovereign state: family, church, school board, township, county, and the like. These are the institutions that are on the ground, that are actually capable of observing and responding to the problems of individuals and communities, and in which individuals can feel genuinely invested. But that ideal is increasingly forgotten as the federal government assumes greater and greater responsibility for our everyday lives.
Steyn offers this current anecdote in support of Rahe’s thesis:
Today, the animating principles of the American idea are entirely absent from public discourse. To the new Administration, American exceptionalism means an exceptional effort to harness an exceptionally big government in the cause of exceptionally massive spending. The can-do spirit means Ty’Sheoma Bethea can do with some government money: A high-school student in Dillon, South Carolina, Miss Bethea wrote to the President to ask him to do something about the peeling paint in her classroom. He read the letter out approvingly in a televised address to Congress. Imagine if Miss Bethea gets her way, and the national bureaucracy in Washington becomes responsible for grade- school paint jobs from Maine to Hawaii. What size of government would be required for such a project? And is it compatible with a constitutional republic?
Can you imagine a schoolgirl in 1793 sending a letter to George Washington asking the federal government to please do something about the leaky roof on her local schoolhouse? And can you imagine President Washington actually inviting said schoolgirl to come to Philadelphia and sit behind him as he read her letter during an address to Congress in an attempt to shame them into sending a check to Dillon, South Carolina (as Obama did with Ms. Bethea)? We have been sliding down this slope for a long time; perhaps the slippage has accelerated enough during this new administration that people will finally notice.