Back to Blog

What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear

The debate of the Federalists and the Anti-federalists is not our debate.  Their argument was centered on how to create a system that maintained the strength of sovereign states and create a strong, independent general government.  We now have the opposite, weak quasi-sovereign states with a run away all-powerful federal government.
The central government debated by the Federalists and the Anti-federalists was small, very limited and scarcely funded by tariffs and excise taxes—no federal income taxes, no Federal Reserve, no trillions in treasury bonds.
Today we have over 400 federal departments and agencies that regulate nearly every facet of American life, with more than 2.65 million federal civilian employees. That does not include the approximately 1,430,895 people who are active duty military, or the additional 848,000 people in the seven reserve components.
The congress and central government of our time hold no resemblance to that debated over by the Federalists and Anti-federalists.  The very nature of the states, their culture and enumerated sovereignty, the scope of the general government and the level of its involvement in the daily lives of the citizens, the global dominance of our nation, all of these and countless more aspects of our state and national realities were no more part of the original debate than was the science of cloning, T-cell harvesting, or the controversy of same sex marriage.
Our debate is not a continuation of the American 1780’s debate.  That is nothing more than a distraction and waste of energy and precious time. Tocqueville clearly points this out in Vol. 2 of Democracy in America. As there were no historical recorded models of a large democratic republic until his seminal work, the Federalist and the Anti-federalists could not have been debating about our unique situation.  In fact, Tocqueville spends time trying to find an example for what he was witnessing, and for what turned out to be the first stages of our current governmental and cultural situation.
It simply is not the same debate, in fact the current version of the U.S. constitution holds very little resemblance to that published in 1789 or of that in use when Tocqueville toured the United States of the 1830’s during the administration of President Andrew Jackson or even of that in use during the years immediately following the War of the States in the 1870’s.
To be concerned that the form of government bequeathed us by the founders is under attack, is to be ignorant of all its modifications and changes and degradations for the past 100 years. Today’s constitution is a ghost of its former self.  What the founders gave us is not under attack—it is dead and buried.
To become familiar with the original form and supporting culture and how to restore those principles in our time of Despotic Democracy is our task and the topic of our 21st century debate.  Please take the time to read the lengthy quote below by Tocqueville.
I know that this is a no-no for blogging, but I don’t know how to engage in this most critical debate in 800 words or less.
In fact, that may just be the problem.

Democracy in America Volume 2, Section 4, Chapter 6 (1840)
What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear
I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation 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 as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind.
As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only 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 upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. 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?
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 these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. 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.
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 a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.
They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.
By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.
I do not deny, however, that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms that democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst.
When the sovereign is elective, or narrowly watched by a legislature which is really elective and independent, the oppression that he exercises over individuals is sometimes greater, but it is always less degrading; because every man, when he is oppressed and disarmed, may still imagine that, while he yields obedience, it is to himself he yields it, and that it is to one of his own inclinations that all the rest give way.
In like manner, I can understand that when the sovereign represents the nation and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived serve not only the head of the state, but the state itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public. To create a representation of the people in every centralized country is, therefore, to diminish the evil that extreme centralization may produce, but not to get rid of it.
I admit that, by this means, room is left for the intervention of individuals in the more important affairs; but it is not the less suppressed in the smaller and more privates ones. It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other.
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; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men.
It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; 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.
I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations that have introduced freedom into their political constitution at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution have been led into strange paradoxes.
To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted, the people are held to be unequal to the task; but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the play things of their ruler, and his masters, more than kings and less than men.
After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.
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 from the suffrages of a subservient people.2
A constitution republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts has always appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.

Share this post

Comments (22)

  • Steven Montgomery

    Great post Shanon. So do we want to restore the “original form and supporting culture” or do we start afresh and restore freedom with a constitution with even more checks and balances?

    September 20, 2011 at 10:47 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      Good question Steve. I don’t have the answers but I know we do need to begin this new debate and stop wasting time on the old one.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm
  • Chris Nichols

    Bastiat made note of the same idea (perhaps influenced by DeTocqueville) of how absurd it was that the people are generally held to be incapable of managing their own affairs, but on election day the people are supremely qualified to select those who are.

    September 20, 2011 at 10:54 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      Chris, this is the kind of thinking and question asking we need to begin.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm
  • Jayne

    Superb information. Tocqueville was so great at seeing and writing for our benefit. I forwarded to my Law student and ask her to forward to some of those working the Romney campaign . I just think some of the ideas you present are worthy of the consideration of those who are running in the presidential race. No promises but she still has her connections there.
    Tocqueville could have been viewing our day to describe so well what is going on yet he understood it based on the knowledge he had way back then.
    And Steven lets restore not start over. The founders had it right, we just need original intent back in our constitution

    September 20, 2011 at 11:29 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      I don’t know Jayne. Let’s not limit ourselves with “restore” language. The founders were only suppose to “enlarge and amend the Articles.” Lucky for us they had bigger more principled ideas.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm
  • Julie Farnbach

    Wow. I’m stunned by how clearly De Tocqueville saw our situation. So how do we undo 100 years of bad precedent? Do we even try?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:43 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      Exactly. We need to look at this from a very different point of view and maybe it is time to build anew rather than “restore.”

      September 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm
      • Jayne

        The term is” reinstated in all its purity and glory”. I don’t think we get a do over in the country, if we believe that the founders had it right then why would we assume we could do it by starting over. On this point I tend to lean with the Prophets of God.

        September 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm
  • Tim Howell

    Thank you so much Shanon for the light and education you share and spread. Never stop, more people are listening then you know.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      Thanks Tim. We are doing what we think is our part. What’s your?

      September 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm
  • John W. Redelfs

    This from the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence best expresses my solution to the current difficulties:
    That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
    We need to win our independence from Washington, D.C. We did it once before when we won our independence from London. Why? Because what Tocqueville said is true, “…no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.”

    September 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      I agree. The concern is how, why and when?

      September 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm
  • Raina Stump

    Awesome article! It gets the wheels turning in a different direction; a direction and aim towards true solutions, in my opinion. It seems that we are being diverted to look at and believe the wrong “problems”. I believe we need to look at ourselves first and become educated in true principles and live those principles. From there we can serve our families, community and others by being the example and helping to educate them in true principles as well. Then there will be a movement that will not be diverted and caught off track, but have power in resolving and looking at the real questions, and then solving them as well.

    September 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      I see it as you do. We never to have a Renaissance in reviewing just exactly what the problems are, where we are and how to solve them with the ancient principles.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:10 am
      • Shanon Brooks

        “we need to have…”

        September 21, 2011 at 11:11 am
  • Eric George

    Through my long, painful, exhausting, and often heartbreaking career as a fixit man a few truths have become plain to me. One is that, so long as men ar corruptible, there is no form of government that will not falter and usurp. This being as much a natural law as gravity the debate over reinstating the constitution, rebuilding it, or scraping it for a new one must be a distant second; but since it is the topic of discussion here I will address it first.
    Above all else we must fix Tolkien’s ring of power firmly in our understanding. Whenever we create positions of power that power (being the corrosive force that it naturally is) will either corrupt the one who holds it or draw the corrupt to it. None of us are immune; and the one in a billion , like Washington or Gandhi, who are extremely resistant are also so rare we cannot count on them. Even if one does show up he/she will not live forever.
    In addition when we talk of reinstating, rebuilding, or replacing our core document there is but one form of convention that is good and proper for our country. The people who will be ruled must democratically elect representatives who will then protect and promote their rights and wishes. Any form of government that does not require this as its starting point holds no chance of being any good.
    Tocqueville is very right, our form of government has melted the minds of the common American to the point where they cannot reason properly. What kind of folks do you suppose our sleep walking countrymen will send to set up the new government. Reason tells me it will almost surely be the same, or a new version of the same, pack of jackals that are currently running the country.
    Of course, if our ideas are so much better because we are awake and can see clearly, then surely it will be right and good for us to seize power and force the rest of our countrymen to follow our ways for their own good? Marx sure seemed to think so. Let us not forget Power Corrupts and we are not immune. Let us also not forget that what we might start in all good faith and for all the right reasons others with more power and a better sales pitch can and almost certainly will highjack and twist to their own ends.
    I have also been party to reinventing quite a few wheels and from my experience it’s way easy to work in theory. I’m posititve when it come to the bloody knuckles, hair pulling, gray matter melting task of actually reinventing a national government for this land we will again see the great wisdom and incredible struggle of our founding fathers. Every new thing is hard, something of this magnitude is hard beyond what any of us can imagine; we will do well to use as a starting point the wisdom of those who gave us a nation.
    That being said the true road to independence is much easier to understand, and much harder to live. We must be incorruptible. We cannot fight this evil head on; and if we think we will simply wait it out and restart when it is done we are kidding ourselves. All indications are that when this house of cards collapses it will be global and total. There will be no resources to draw on and it will take every ounce of effort just to grub out a living. Most of us will not.
    No, my friends, we cannot fight this evil in open war, nor can we wait it out. We must be actively fighting this revolution, outside of the traditional battle field, with every ounce of strength we can muster. We must pass the profits of our businesses on to our employees when we have taken care of our own NEEDS. We must care for our neighbors as well as we do for ourselves. We must put honor before life again. In short we must get back to the business of living as Americans if we have any hope of side stepping this runaway train.
    I know this is a sensitive subject these days but there is no way around the words of Christ: do unto others as you would have done unto you. The truth is the truth is the truth. We will do more good and be much more effective warriors and patriots if we will follow the second great law: love your neighbor as yourself.
    If we do this, and do it with our whole heart, mind, and strength the truth will spread like wildfire and in short order we will be many. In time we will be a majority. If we all give it our all then just maybe we won’t have to endure the terrible crash that will make WWII, with all it’s horrors, look like a sunday school picnic.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:18 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      Sounds like we had better plan a summit to bring great minds like yours to focus on the problem and the solution.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:14 am
  • J. David Gowdy

    The debate of the Federalists and the Anti-federalists is our debate — it is about the nature and disposition of men with respect to ambition and power; it is about sovereignty, natural rights, delegated power and federalism; it is about virtue and liberty; and it is about how and why we have been bequeathed a Constitution and a Republic. That is the purpose of the Federalist, then, and now.
    There is no dispute that the size and scope of our government has grown dramatically. But, how can one analyze, measure and assess the role and effectiveness of government, or its departments or agencies, if one has no point of reference with respect to its foundation and its underlying principles?
    John J. Patrick (Professor, Indiana University, author of The Oxford Guide to the United States Government (2001) shared the following insights and teaching ideas for The Federalist: “The Ideas of The Federalist should be essential elements of civic education, because they are core values and principles of the American heritage and foundations of national unity in a pluralistic society. These ideas are also keys to understanding how American government works [or is supposed to work]… [and they] certainly fit standard educational goals and curriculum guides for courses in history, government, and civics. They are also core components of the American civic heritage and keys to civic literacy. Finally, they have enduring relevance to contemporary citizenship and government.”
    If we, the people, do not understand our rights and duties, then we are ill-equipped for any form of self-government, and expose ourselves to various forms of tyranny. As Algernon Sidney stated: “All human constitutions are subject to corruption, and must perish, unless they are timely renewed, and reduced to their first principles.” I submit that there is no better source to gain a knowledge of the principles of the Constitution and of self-government than the Federalist.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm
    • Shanon Brooks

      That is exactly what I am saying. The principles never change, likely human nature will not be changing soon, but forms always do, and we are faced with different forms and circumstances that the founders.
      I welcome a complete airing of the issues of that earlier debate as long as we don’t use it to sit on our laurels. We need to know our history intimately and do as our forerunners would in our situation, clearly pronounce the principles of the “laws of nature and nature’s God”, correctly see where we are politically and culturally and then apply the principles in such a way that provides the greatest protection for our rights and liberties.
      This we are not doing today. Let’s change that.

      September 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm
      • J. David Gowdy

        Thank you. We agree that the principles never change, and I agree that we are faced with different forms and circumstances than those the founders faced — but only to the degree that we recognize that an incompatible superstructure has been erected over time upon the foundation of the Constitution. Their work was to establish it, our work is to defend and save it. And, that can only be done in accordance with the formula given by Thomas Jefferson when he said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” So, as with you, myself, and others, we must seek to educate the minds of the people…
        Here is a link to the source where I discovered the key to that education given by Jefferson & Madison:
        Following that resolution, I developed this guide:
        I welcome your thoughts or comments. I in turn, will endeavor to learn more about Monticello College.
        Best regards,

        September 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm
  • Pam O'Dell

    You are the grease to the squeaky wheels of my mind, that is just beginning to turn. The FOL session in Albany was, as usual, incredibly stimulating. Looking forward to Wednesday’s ReValue America lecture.

    September 25, 2011 at 9:51 am

Comments are closed.

Back to Blog