What should a democratic people fear in their leaders? That depends on the character of the people. When the great French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville considered the character of the American people of his time, he noted the “purity of their religion,” their “painstaking and steady habits,” the “mildness of their morality,” and the “extent of their enlightenment.” Such a people, Tocqueville averred, had cause to fear in their leaders, not “tyrants, but rather tutors.” The generally decent but somewhat stolid and materialistic character of Americans of the nineteenth century guarded them against the kind of violent rule so often visited upon European peoples of that time. But it exposed them to the danger of a different, milder, but no less virtue- and freedom-killing tyranny. In picturing America’s potential, dark future, Tocqueville saw the people and its virtues. He also saw the individual born of democracy, with all his weaknesses:
“I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.”
Despite the decency of his society, the person born of American democracy had been degraded. His individualism—his concern to surround himself with pleasant things and engage in pleasant activities, bound within the small groups of family and close friends—divorced him from the communities in which full humanity develops. He set himself apart from his true self, and from the real guardians of his freedom, namely the associations of daily life in which were forged human relations that kept the state from claiming sovereignty over his soul. This individual would pursue yet more vulgar pleasures, along with ease and material well-being. Such men, Tocqueville feared, would surrender their self-government and even their self-will.
“Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living?”
Thus, we have Tocqueville’s famous description of “soft despotism.” Many have noted the prescience of Tocqueville’s vision, here. Historically, one can trace the development of America’s welfare and administrative state, from its roots in a materialistic rendering of the “social gospel” and the surrender of local responsibilities to a supposedly more efficient set of state “experts.” Personal relationships atrophied as faith grew in mechanisms supposedly capable of producing more fair and effective results than could be produced by the very flawed beings who designed them.
Tocqueville portrayed with stunning accuracy the decline of human character, into the tyranny of the majority and the selfishness of individualism; this even as in his era religion continued to hold a kind of sway. Virtues became tamer and narrower, producing an emphasis on material prosperity and equality that empowered the central state and, naturally, sapped the vitality of the intermediary institutions that once formed good character and held together a free, self-governing nation of communities.
But what comes next? What does the individual produced by centralized administration choose for a life? We have seen over the last several decades the progression from democratic man to social democratic man, and from democratic society to social democratic society. Tocqueville provides a stunning description of this new era of national political control:
“After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Tocqueville’s portrait of degraded, diminished democratic character is dystopian enough. But over the last several decades it has become clear that the disintegration of civil society and human character do not stop here. The timid ward of the social democratic state is not, alas, the nadir of democratic character. From this slavish creature, content to be coddled by a brahmin class of narrow, thoughtless officials with their timetables and charts for “bettering” the lives of the people, there remains room for yet more degradation. As a result, there remains room for a yet more degraded form of government. From the character and government of soft despotism we are descending into the character and government of soft totalitarianism.
Tocqueville’s greatest students, the American Robert Nisbet and the Frenchman Bertrand de Jouvenel, understood the natural source of the very unnatural next stage in democratic degradation. Man, both scholars understood, cannot live without some form of community. Our hearts demand union with others. And if we cannot have community, we will embrace ersatz community—the false community of ideological movements and oppressive politics.
Americans have now existed for more than two generations as the wards of the national state they demanded be built to satisfy their physical needs and wants. Their economic, political, and even social lives now are regulated by statutes and regulations seeing to it that everyone is officially tended to (whether well or ill is another matter, but one the experts insist they alone can address). But meeting basic needs has proven insufficient. Demand for comforts has emptied the public purse even as it has exposed the cultural consequences of dependency in crime, squalor, and hopelessness. Meanwhile, the state has expanded its ends to include a different, no less impossible goal, namely fairness, defined as equal treatment by everyone in all things. In the new state, no one is to be favored over anyone else in employment, housing, education, and welfare. Whether employees or employers, people’s lives are structured to maintain compliance with work rules, environmental regulations, and anti-discrimination regimes that require persistent training sessions and reporting to special “compliance” committees. Everyone is guaranteed equal treatment throughout their lives in the same fashion that they are required to prove that they are treating others equally, that they are not harming the environment, and that they are not somehow promoting or approving religion or traditional lifestyles above previously more marginal choices. Their lives and characters are shaped by a pervasive apparatus controlled from the political center.
We have moved beyond Tocqueville’s soft despotism to a new and more dangerous form of social control. Rooted in radical ideology and, more deeply, the corrupted character of social democratic man, we are experiencing development of a more insistent, pervasive, and punitive form of control. It is a control that by nature aims at transforming character and society away from individualism and toward a kind of social compliance that favors abnormity, but demands obedience, that leaves individuals with only national and global “communities” as sources of meaning and guides to proper conduct.
It would be easy to mistake this development for a mere hardening of soft despotism. Eight years of the most radical President in American history produced prosecutions for violations of the ruling ideology of multiculturalism, anti-colonialism, gender politics, and radical environmentalism. Whether in the form of administrative findings, consent decrees, formal prosecution, or hounding from positions of power and authority by various mobs, more people suffered more consequences for their dissent from an increasingly radical hegemonic worldview than for decades past. And the early days of the Trump administration have produced no sudden, successful move to call off the dogs of tolerant enforcement. Targeting of conservative organizations by the IRS, shutting down of campus and workplace free speech, Title IX’s “gender” provisions under which those accused of sexual assault are finding themselves expelled from schools without due process; all these, so far, continue. Indeed, the brahmin class has doubled down on suppressing contrary viewpoints on campus and wherever else they retain control. Conservative speakers have been banned from campuses and at least one college, Georgia Gwinnett College, had a Christian student removed from campus on the grounds that discussing his Christian faith—even within tiny designated “free speech zones”—constituted disorderly conduct and even “fighting words.”
That said, while the so-called “antifascist” crybullies may be willing to bust heads on the streets of Berkley (provided there is no real danger to themselves) few among the administrative ruling class see themselves as being punitive. Rather, those who dominate positions of power in education, as in criminal justice, welfare, and the administrative state more generally, believe they are protecting oppressed persons in the least punitive fashion possible. This is not to excuse their thuggish behavior, but rather to characterize its insidious nature.
A significant portion of the power wielded by administrators of the soft totalitarian state comes from their self-conception—accepted by all too many social democratic men—that they are merely helping people, including by getting them into a “system” that will re-educate them to become, “more tolerant” and well-adjusted. This extension of the therapeutic state—a phenomenon recognized more than half a century ago as a danger to human liberty—was made possible by the completion of the social democratic state. Now that all political, economic, and social (even formerly private) life has been subjected to the strictures of ideological justice, administrators are in a position to regulate all human relationships, hence all aspects of human character.
That discipline the left found oppressive in the factory has been extended to the classroom, the household, the public restroom, and even the bedroom. In the name of individual liberty, the traditions, norms, and even institutions (e.g. the natural family) that once fostered the character necessary for both independence and local self-government are being destroyed. In their place, various governmental and semi-governmental institutions (“NGO’s” or “non-governmental organizations,” as they inaccurately are described) have been invested with increasing power and authority.
Those who oppose the various forms of abnormity fostered in the soft totalitarian state should expect no sympathy. After all, by the state’s standards, they are not being oppressed. Defining their opposition as “hate speech” is merely the first step in placing conservatives, and Christians in particular, alongside other “problem groups” in need of re-education. After all, in the United States, very few Christians, conservatives, or for that matter delinquents of various other kinds, are subjected to serious punishment in the sense of physical violence or imprisonment. Rather, their life-chances are modified in the name of fairness. Being expelled or fired are not, after all, the same things as being executed. What is more, the official ideology holds that the criminal justice system itself is fundamentally unjust, meaning that drug users, “undocumented workers,” and persons from disadvantaged backgrounds and groups accused of various crimes have suffered more than conservatives forced off campus or out of jobs, and with less legitimate reason.
The soft totalitarian answer, then, lies in punishing no one, but rehabilitating everyone. Whether in school suspensions, canceling speaking opportunities, prison sentencing, or any other bad thing visited upon wrongdoers, the soft totalitarian state sees an opportunity to reshape the character of the individual who has come under its power. As the progressive law professor and Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein has written, the goal is to “nudge” people to make the “right” choices. Such nudging may be more insistent in some instances than in others, but the principle remains the same: The experts know what is best for us and will use the power of a pervasive state to encourage us to make the right choice.
None of this is to say that the soft totalitarian state does not aim to disrupt our lives. Its goal is in fact to change our very character, to make all of us into the same kind of individual who celebrates abnormity, tolerates destructive deviancy, and works to eliminate standards, institutions, and faith claiming a status higher than the state. Moreover, the very pervasiveness of the soft totalitarian state and its ideology undermine the means of resilience outside itself. The ability to break relationships with no consequences, valuing the leaving over the staying and the rights over the duties, undermines genuine community. As for those broken in the process, they must look to the state to raise themselves or their children, to get off drugs, to provide some kind of purpose in their lives, and to re-educate everyone in “best practices” protecting them from unpleasantness, especially in consequence of their own actions.
Social democratic man, helped along by the shock troops of the more honest far-left, has settled into an existence undreamed of by his predecessors. For it is an existence that bears little resemblance to any genuine life. Its meaning comes from pleasure, politics, or nothing. It differs from that of mere democratic man, within his soft despotism, in that its very pleasures are prescribed by the state and the last vestiges of human life in family and close friendship are fast being lost to memory. For most people most of the time, it is not really life, but merely a somnambulistic existence punctuated by the occasional creedal passion outburst.
As for those who reject the ruling ideology, soft totalitarianism aims to destroy the communities they build for themselves. Schools and even churches are being forced further and further to the periphery by rulings that subject them to unacceptable rules, even requiring positive actions celebrating the breakdown of traditional culture, unless they become “purely sectarian.” The goal seems to be a kind of “Amish option,” leaving the religious to eke out an existence on veritable reservations in which their faith will be tolerated, provided it strays not from its boundaries.
But no system can control all of human life. Our souls remain our own, so long as we claim them for ourselves and, more, for our God. As soft tyranny undermines the character of its people it undermines its own ability to produce the goods those people demand. The next stage in human degradation is mere savagery. Let us hope the soft totalitarian state collapses before it achieves this end. Let us hope enough men of character remain to bring down the crumbling edifice and rebuild one more in keeping with our true nature and the true, limited nature of any decent political order.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative in April 2017.