The Magazine

Consequential Ideas

Exploring the subtle dangers of 'soft despotism' in democracies.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Yet there are two difficulties that arise from treating Tocqueville as the heir of Montesquieu and Rousseau. The first is in the title of this book that identifies soft despotism as democracy's drift. Drift is unguided, unintentional movement that does not proceed from an idea but rather from inertia or from a slope in the terrain. Tocqueville certainly believes that democratic equality makes society more individualistic and leads to the danger he called "individualism," of which the consequence is likely to be soft despotism.

He calls this movement the "democratic revolution," and says that it began 700 years before, when the Church began to allow commoners to be clergy. That would put its beginning in the 12th century, long before the modern philosophers of democratic equality (among whom he surprisingly includes Descartes).

Tocqueville says further that the democratic revolution is not an idea but a "providential fact," implying that it is too strong to be resisted and also that it might be for our good. As well as tending toward soft despotism, democratic equality produces greater justice than the rival regime of aristocracy. In his discussion Rahe features the role Tocqueville assigned to rationalizing reformers of aristocracy--ministers of the French king such as Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, the 18th-century philosophes, Napoleon's bureaucrats, and in our day professional administrators inspired by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century--all of whom were more opposed to the irrationalities of aristocracy (or patronage) than favorable to democracy.

In this trend ideas serve democracy but do not originate it. Yet when democracy comes to America fully visible "in broad daylight," as Tocqueville says, it is in the democratic "idea," both political and religious, that the Puritans brought with them. It seems that, before the Puritans, democracy was working under cover of aristocracy--on its own, as it were--without benefit of advocates who were strong enough to speak openly on its behalf. In this way the democratic "social state" ("state" in the sense of condition), another of Tocqueville's concepts, could be the cause of democratic ideas rather than the reverse.

In sum, Tocqueville plays down, perhaps understates, the role of ideas in causing modern democracy. In Democracy in America he does not mention Rousseau, and he mentions Montesquieu only once, to criticize him. In the famous chapter in The Old Regime and the Revolution on the "men of letters" who helped to bring on the French Revolution, Rousseau--the most obvious influence--is omitted.

Another related difficulty in making Tocqueville the heir of Montesquieu and Rousseau is that Tocqueville does not appear to be a political philosopher, at least not one of their kind. He does not provide either a comprehensive survey of politics, as did Montesquieu, or an abstract foundation for politics, as did Rousseau. He calls for a "new science of politics," but does not supply it except in apparently unorganized fragments.

Instead, he presents the idea of democratic liberty in an account of the facts of American democracy, above all in the discussion of the New England township with which he begins his presentation of American government. Here one sees the natural, spontaneous association of free men to address a need before their eyes, such as laying a road, that cannot be satisfied by one individual alone. He goes on to describe and praise the complex, artificial, theoretical Constitution that presides over the more spontaneous "civil society" of American democracy. But he never mentions the Declaration whose fundamental principles inspired the Constitution. Rahe notes this fact and deplores it, declaring that his purpose was to instruct Frenchmen, not to "celebrate abstract principles."

Yet Tocqueville appears to have had an aversion to abstract principles and to have considered them a menace to democratic liberty. In a democracy, abstract principles, including the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal," will be democratic ones and will accelerate the democratic revolution rather than guide it. Democratic citizens, lacking any sense of hierarchy either in society or in their own souls, are likely to reject demanding ideals and to prefer immediate, material enjoyments that are easy, obvious, and palpable.