Saturday, November 07, 2009

SOFT Despotism

(A couple of well-known Despots--taken from


Yup, I done it again. In the interest of further exploring some thoughts about Tocqueville's Democracy in America, I'm going to set aside the current Health Care debate for the moment. I'm sure that if I tried hard enough I could tie this post to it, but....well, I'm just lazy, I guess.

Today I want to talk about "SOFT DESPOTISM," a condition Tocqueville acknowledged as being entirely possible in a democratic government. Most of this discussion will come from Democracy in America, Volume II, Book 4, Chapter 6. Soft despotism is a condition that, according to Tocqueville, occurs willingly as people give up rights and give powers to the state--hence the term "soft" despotism, as opposed to "hard" despotism, which would be achieved by other means (ie, military takeover). The danger of soft despotism is that it occurs slowly and willingly as citizens relinquish their authority, giving more and more power to the government in the interest of levelling conditions--and people begin to look to the government more and more for handouts and programs and help. Would it be fair, then, to say that according to this definition that any "socialized" democracy is soft despotism?

For instance, a country such as Norway or Denmark has a democracy (in appearance) and a mostly ritualized, non-involved monarchical system...yet according to Americans these countries are considered to be nearly Socialist-run due to their large number of programs aimed towards tending to the needs of the people. Many Americans feel that this type of an arrangement is Socialist, as the typical, traditional American dream (according to many) is to be left alone, left for the most part to fend and provide for one's self. So are these other countries despotic? Is America heading to the point of becoming run by "soft depotism?" Many Americans (across party lines) claim that by taking over Health Care, the government would be crossing a line, becoming more socialist---taking decisions away from the people, while giving the illusion of equality. (HAH! I knew I could tie it in somehow!)

Tocqueville says, "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." (Vol. II, Book 4, Ch. 6)...also, "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."

Basically this says that in a despotic democracy, we console ourselves with the fact that "at least we've CHOSEN our dictator." If we're going to be run by a powerful, all-involved, centralized government, at least we were the ones who elected it and gave it the power. I'm not sure what kind of compensation that is for giving up freedoms and rights...I'm not quite sure what to think about things. There does seem to be evidence that our democratic system has become despotic, as it shows some alarming tendencies towards socialistic values and absolute centralism. Yet I can't believe that our country has headed in such a direction.

So what do you think? Has America become a despotic democracy? Or is Tocqueville's carefully balanced democracy still operating after all these years? What do YOU think?


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