Paul Rahe's "Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift"

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Paul Rahe, who is the author of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocquville and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press: 2009).

Professor Rahe’s book is the first of three that I will be recommending for summer reading in preparation for the RedState get-together in Atlanta on August 1st. Judging from the covers, this trio might not seem the lightest of reading but fortunately all three authors prove in their own styles that substantive reading doesn’t have to be a long, hard slog. And all three of them have important lessons for us in this lazy, off-election-cycle summer.

Over the months since the 2008 election, conservatives of all stripes have searched their souls and wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth over the apparent demise of our movement. Various proposals to reinvent, repackage and/or rebrand conservatism have been widely offered. My thought is that we might productively, with the assistance of these three excellent books, strive for another “r” word—renaissance.The word renaissance carries a number of meanings. Literally, it means “rebirth.” It is generally associated with the intense interest in classical antiquity that emerged in Italy at the beginning of the fourteenth century. But as Erwin Panofsky pointed out in his Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, what we think of as the Italian Renaissance is just one in a long series of encounters with the classical past that continue to this day.

In our current quest, we might find Professor Panofsky’s work instructive. I think we are right to recognize that the contemporary version of conservatism has, at least judging from the results of the last two election cycles, become exhausted and sterile. But it does not necessarily follow that conservatism is dead. It seems to me that what we might do is revisit the past to forge our own vision of the future, one that is suited to the twenty-first century. To return to Panofsky’s example, just because he didn’t paint like Raphael doesn’t mean Cezanne didn’t understand antiquity in his own right. He just responded to it differently.

And so we come to Professor Rahe’s new book. His premise is that in the work of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Swiss and French philosophers Montesquieu, Rousseau and Tocqueville we find the origins of classical modern political theory designed to ensure the liberty and rights of the individual—a movement which is, as Rahe notes, itself yet another reinterpretation of the lessons of classical antiquity.

For those of us not blessed with the kind of rigorous education offered by Rahe and his colleagues at Hillsdale College, the opening section of Soft Despotism provides a thorough grounding in their political philosophy. Through this section I was struck by the aspects of their thought that seems to have particular resonance for our situation today—resonance that for me was most profound in the sections on Tocqueville.

It may seem curious that a Frenchman who was born 204 years ago would have much to tell us about twenty-first century America, but I find Alexis de Tocqueville eerily prophetic in his identification of the cult of equality that characterizes the American approach to democracy. I find him more appealing than Montesquieu and Rousseau—although that may stem from too little exposure to Montesquieu and too much to Rousseau in another context. In any event, Tocqueville has something to say to us, notably:

Without fear, he trusts in his own strength, which to him appears sufficient for all. An individual conceives the thought of some enterprise; this enterprise has in itself a relation with the well-being of society; the idea that he should address himself to the public authority for the purpose of obtaining its help does not even occur to him. He makes his plan known; he offers to execute it; he summons the strength of other individuals to the aid of his own strength; and he engages in hand-to-hand combat against all the obstacles. Often, without a doubt, he succeeds less well than if the State was to take his place. But in the long run, the general result of all these individual enterprises greatly exceeds that which the government would be able to accomplish. (I.i.5, p. 78)

It’s a passage to make you think a bit—it might seem to go against the grain to admit that the State could do some things better, given its enormous resources. But the point is that the greater good is actually better served by the sum of individual rather than collective activity. It requires, however, self-generated effort by the individual.

Soft Despotism is more than historical analysis of long-departed white European males. In the conclusion of the book, Rahe bravely makes a leap that few historians are willing to take these days, and applies the lessons of the past to the present day. For him, these are not dead texts isolated in their own time; they are living documents that we can revisit in order to confront our own dilemmas.

The thing about “soft” despotism as opposed to other kinds of despotism is that it is not necessarily inevitable. It is not created by natural or man-made disaster. It is rather self-inflicted by societies that have come to a point of exhausted surrender to the naturally-expansionist tendencies of the state. In Professor Rahe’s analysis, the United States has arrived at the brink of this abyss. We had thought that the fall of the Soviet Union had created a world in which the trend towards liberty and democracy would naturally evolve, but we were perhaps wrong. Rather than march on towards freedom, the victorious west has drifted in the opposite direction. Complacency has replaced urgency.

Rahe here makes what may be his most powerful contribution. We have on our library shelves tomes that foretold this unfortunate trend, and that contain the seeds of ideas that can help us combat it if we have the will. True, it is a tall order, but not an impossible one. We have an opportunity now that is uniquely our own to revisit the origins of what we understand as conservatism and take our own lessons—not the lessons that resonated in 1952 or 1980 but those that speak to 2009—to heart. We can look at the menace of encroaching government control that manifests itself in ways big and small and seriously consider how this is stifling the spirit Tocqueville so admired.

It is greatly to Professor Rahe’s credit that he has taken this material off the dusty shelves and put it freshly into our hands—and that he has done so with such vigor and passion as well as scholarly rigor.

In the course of our conversation, Rahe emphasized the need for “vigorous local government”—in other words the form of government best suited to respond to the needs of the individual rather than the collective, and so foster prosperity. He pointed out that the social democratic state is an entity that “eats its own seed corn”—it has nothing to plant that will grow in the future. He proposed that two events that have occurred since President Obama’s inauguration illustrate both his thesis of a drift towards soft despotism, and his proposed means to combat it. They are the infamous DHS report identifying potentially dangerous domestic terrorists, and the April 15th “tea party” protests against excessive taxation and government race.

In the first case, Rahe pointed out that the rights and privacy of individuals were being targeted in the name of the collective good. After all, everyone hates terrorists, right? But the people in this report aren’t actually terrorists. They are people who are likely to feel strongly against the policies that result in the social democratic state and so they are “softly” blacklisted not by overt attack, but by the suggestion that such people are dangerous and need to be controlled for all of our good.

Professor Rahe did, however, find “hope” in the tea party protests, which speak to the Revolutionary sprit that forged this country. They were relatively small, local affairs that expressed the needs and opinions of the few rather than the many—needs and opinions that would most effectively be handled by a knowledgeable and responsive local authority rather than a distant, once size fits all central government. They suggested that parts of the populace are still willing to take action and stand up for themselves, rather than surrender to the state. As he concludes, “Let our motto be, as once it was, ‘Don’t tread on me!’ And let our virtue be individual responsibility.” (p. 280)

So, people, Memorial Day has passed. The summer reading season is here. Get cracking, and let’s discuss in August.