President Obama may be a well-read guy, but on Tuesday as he stood next to French president Francois Hollande he indicated to the world that he had not read Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ in full. If he had, there would be no way he would have referred to the intellectual giant as “Alex.” While it may seem like nitpicking, let’s put it this way: it would be like talking about how much you respected “Ernie” Hemmingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ with a straight face.
And so, it is with that in mind that I invite you to read just a small excerpt from de Tocqueville’s masterwork. In short, the man predicted to a the the kind of despotism Americans currently live under — even if millions of them don’t realize it.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835:
If despotism were to be established in present-day democracies, it would probably assume a different character; it would be more widespread and kinder; it would debase men without tormenting them. …
I wish to image under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, living apart, is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country.
Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, father like, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?
Thus, it reduces daily life the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.
Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in the way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.
I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.” — De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. 1835.
Anyone who reads those words and appreciates the message would never forget the author who wrote them because it is the work of genius. If you have not purchased ‘Democracy in America’ I highly suggest doing so. It will cost you $13 brand new if you go for the Penguin Classics edition, which is not too shabby when you consider how much you’ll learn by the time you’re through.
Editor’s note to my regular readers: As you know, I haven’t been blogging as much lately because I’m attempting to finish a book. Without giving too much away, I will say this: the passage you just read by Alexis de Tocqueville will, for all intents and purposes, be included in the final draft. If you like science fiction and U.S. history, then I invite you to stay tuned.