Soft Despotism Print
By Joseph Wood   
Thursday, 30 July 2009

The United States is at a dangerous moment. There are always the threats to our security from the outside, or the maladies – political and economic, moral and spiritual – from the inside. But the dangerous features of this moment are deep-seated and chronic, having emerged over decades. They will not be easy to resolve or reverse.

First, there is the problem of education. Declines in the mastery of standard bodies of knowledge are well documented. Education has become more specialized, even (or especially) for those in intellectual fields. In the natural sciences, research has long been past the point where biologists or physicists could comprehend the work of most of their colleagues in the same field, much less in fields like philosophy or theology.

In the “knowledge jobs” that populate the “information economy,” much training is devoted to the vocabulary of management science, but little education goes to understanding the purposes and ends of management. In academe, despite some efforts to establish core curricula, scholarship – once a search for truth and beauty – has lapsed into a morass of relativism. And a rejection of any sort of canon of thought has left most graduates barely acquainted with the ideas that animated the founding of the United States, ideas on which a free society must rest.

This deficit of understanding of basic ideas leaves people unaware of the absolute truths that should guide practical politics. Writing recently here, Father James Schall noted, “Individual and political ethics today are full of ponderings about the ‘mean or middle.’ The going view is this: No real ‘mean’ exists. . . .The state defines both the line and the mean. It enforces its law. The extremes become increasingly possible as the implicit ‘goal’ of the shifting middle.”

European friends speak of how they have admired America’s ability to return to the mean, the center. They contrast that tendency with Europe’s capacity to alternate between a self-satisfied focus on short-term comfort and a rush over a brink of extremism. If Father Schall is right, we have become “Europeanized” in an especially dangerous way.

To describe the outcome, we might turn to a new book by Hillsdale Professor Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism. That justly famous observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, described the rise of a “soft despotism” in democracies as follows:

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. . . .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. . . .The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided. . . .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. . .

President Obama did not bring us to this moment, but he is taking advantage of these conditions. His great goal is the leveling of outcomes. Democracy is, for him, about using law and a large governmental apparatus to ensure a “fair” result, to define a mean measured by how it “feels” to administrators and judges of his political cast.

Abroad, Obama points to America’s failures and those of its opponents. He posits moral equivalence and rejects American exceptionalism as mostly arrogance, rather than an exceptional tendency – despite severe failures – to foster human flourishing at home and encourage it abroad. In Obama’s view, for example, the Cold War ended not due to the efforts of the West and the rising of those in Central Europe (inspired by a Polish pope), but in a non-violent choice by the Russians. This is global – and historical – leveling.

The Catholic Church has by and large prospered in America despite prejudice and obstacles. But a country governed by soft despotism, gently shepherding a mind-numbed public towards its own comfort, will not be a friendly place for people of strong faith. Catholic virtues and truths are demanding at times. And when those demands become unwelcome, in a despotic power (even softly despotic), there is a real threat to freedom of belief.

Perhaps we will indeed wind up like Europe not just in our inability to find the true mean, but in our satisfaction with a seemingly benevolent government shepherd as well. Many of Obama’s followers seem to want exactly that. But for those who value the individual freedoms that have allowed Americans to pursue authentic human happiness in their families and communities, there is, as Tocqueville warned, danger at hand.


Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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