Interview: Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift

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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