Interview: Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift

posted at 6:08 pm on April 15, 2009 by Ed Morrissey

We often talk about American exceptionalism and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, and worry about whether we have lost sight of what gave us that exceptional place in human history. This afternoon, I had the pleasure to speak with Hillsdale College’s Professor Paul Rahe, who has written a new book, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

Not only did we discuss Rahe’s book, we also discussed the differences between the French and American revolutions, and how elitism replaced aristocracy there — and how it threatens to replace federalism and self-government here. Rahe offers suggestions for reversing a century-old trend towards soft despotism, and predicts that momentum may develop for such action sooner rather than later. More Tea Parties, anyone?

From the press release:

If we are ever to bring this process to a halt, if we are to put a stop to the advance of the administrative state and even roll it back, if we are to recover the liberty that once was ours, if we are to refuse to be subjects and reassert ourselves as citizens, we must first come to understand what it is that has occasioned centralized administration’s inexorable march. To achieve such an understanding, Paul A. Rahe, argues in his new book—Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect—we must re-examine the character of modern, commercial republicanism. We must consider with care Montesquieu’s celebrated account of the English constitution. We must ponder why he thought this “republic disguised as a monarchy” superior to the republics of classical antiquity and the monarchies of his own day; we must ruminate on his account of the political psychology dominant within it; and we must assess his judgment regarding that polity’s fragility. Then, we must consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s searing critique of bourgeois society, explore its foundations, and do justice to its force. And, finally, in this light, we must digest the argument advanced in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, assess the ffectiveness of his response to the warnings issued by Montesquieu and Rousseau, examine his fears regarding the trajectory of France, and reconsider the grounds for his positive assessment of the role played by local self-government, civic associations, an unfettered press, Biblical religion, and marital solidarity in Jacksonian America. Only when we have done this, Rahe argues, only when we have fully grasped the psychological foundations of modern democracy’s seemingly inexorable drift in the direction of soft despotism, will we be in a position to devise policies consistent with a genuine reversal of course.

The book gets its release tomorrow, and sounds well worth adding to your bookshelves. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

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Obama bought this book, but he thinks its a how-to manual.

johnsteele on April 15, 2009 at 6:17 PM


Drudge has a flashing siren, Gov. Perry says Texas can leave union if it wants.

Enoxo on April 15, 2009 at 6:22 PM

Only if Texas takes me with it.

PappaMac on April 15, 2009 at 6:24 PM

Maybe I need to pack up the family and move to Texas.

Browncoatone on April 15, 2009 at 6:34 PM

Thanks for the recommendation, this looks good. People who haven’t already probably would want to read Burke and Paine’s different takes on the French Revolution for some background.

Daemonocracy on April 15, 2009 at 6:51 PM

Really informative interview, Ed. I love the fact that the author actually proposes a plan by which to combat the all-encompassing control of the federal government by bypassing D.C. altogether. Now, we just need some state leadership to emerge and then onward to the Constitutional Convention! Can’t wait to read the book.

Puddleglum on April 15, 2009 at 6:58 PM

The French Revolution rose against long centuries of despotic tyranny and never had the spine of our Constitution and Bill of Rights to secure their revolt and thus could descend to mob rule and bloodthirsty vendetta.

Payback over-ruled Liberty, and the social structures that were hardened over a millennia did not vanish, but reappeared with new egalitarian names.

America was starting on fresh, open ground, without the de facto castes that petrified Europe (except for the polarized slave caste, which was solved by the second, infra-revolution, or “Civil War”), so our ancestors could move forward without the chains of too much History.

America, therefore, did not have the temptation of a “Terror” once its Liberty from England was won, because the Tories had either emigrated, if they were high-profile, or joined, with quiet resignation, in their newfound freedom, had they kept their royalist sympathies quieter.

Now, though, allowing the influx of those who do not support our Constitutional system of laws (and not of men), is slowly morphing our nation into a fragmenting and Balkinizing gang of anti-Consitutional, anti-law self-interest groups.

This failure to defend our very skin (borders) is undermining the success of our system and it enfdangers our nation’s future.

Until this flow of encouraged chaos is stopped, the finer points of these arguments are like spending great efforts to preserve the original documents of the Declaration and Constitution… as the building burns down around them.

Thanks for the stimulating interview, Ed!

profitsbeard on April 16, 2009 at 1:28 AM

John Miller at NRO has another interview up this morning. It’s under NRO radio, “Between the Covers”. John publishes 2 interviews per week with (mostly) conservative authors and has been doing so for more than a year now.

gh on April 16, 2009 at 10:07 AM

One thing differentiates the American Republic from past ‘republics‘ – we did not start off with a royal monarch or aristocracy (although the Congresstitutes, ‘celebrities’ and uber-rich Sorosians beg to differ on the latter).

Even the Athenian republic did not permit women any status and slavery was rampant. No way were they truly egalitarian.

SeniorD on April 16, 2009 at 10:07 AM

After listening to this interview, I am definitely going to get the book. I was thinking about it after John Miller’s interview, which was quite similar.

This looks to be the serious version of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny (both of which I own but neither of which I have finished yet).

gh on April 16, 2009 at 10:39 AM