Timeless Wisdom: The Tocquevillian Descent Into Tyranny

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 12, 2021

At the end of his seminal work, “Democracy in America,” Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville offered a stunningly prescient “prophecy” of how democratic institutions could easily fall into a tyranny unlike anything the world had ever seen before. Nearly two centuries later, his “prophecy” seems to draw closer and closer to fulfillment every day, if it hasn’t been fulfilled already.

He opens his “prophecy” with this bracing assertion:

“I had noted in my state in the United States that a democratic state of society similar to the American model could lay itself open to the establishment of despotism with unusual ease … If despotism were to be established in present-day democracies, it would probably assume a different character. It would be more widespread and kinder. It would debase men without tormenting them.”

Freedom is such a normal concept in American thought and rhetoric that the idea that our system could become tyrannical “with unusual ease” makes us incredulous. How could that be? Tocqueville explains how.

He describes a society awash in prosperity and luxury unseen since the beginning of the world. But at the same time, a mass of citizens “turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Each is almost totally atomized from the rest. “He exists only in himself and for himself,” Tocqueville predicts.

Social atomization: check.

Above this mass of the atomized stands “an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over the destiny.” Tocqueville describes this power (the government) as a sort of reverse-patriarchy. Fathers, after all, seek to “prepare men for manhood.” But this government “seeks only to keep them [the citizens] in perpetual childhood.”

Lack of maturity and increased childishness: check.

You see, this is a society of amusement. Its spiritual core is gone. “It prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind,” Tocqueville declares. But there’s a catch: “It works readily for their happiness, but wishes to be the only provider and judge of it.” This government provides and even anticipates their needs, secures their pleasures, and directs their industry. In spine-tingling words, Tocqueville said it ultimately aims to “remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life.”

Intellectually debased and superficial: check.

The end result is that freedom in day-to-day choices is restricted more and more, day after day, as the state “gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen.”

Society is inundated with laws, rules, and regulations managing every detail of life. Even the ambitious and entrepreneurial struggle to break through them, Tocqueville foresaw. This web of regulations “does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them…It does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls out so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.”

Stifling economic regulations: check.

Such a system seems to be the opposite of democratic. But ironically, it is the democratic principle itself that leads to it. “They derived consolation,” Tocqueville observes of these future citizens, “from being supervised by thinking that they have chosen their supervisors.” In other words, because they ostensibly chose their government through their vote, they do not fear its encroachments on liberty. It’s a creature of their own making after all.

But Tocqueville believed the opposite. Rather than being a creature of the people, such a government gradually makes the people into its creature. Its regulation of every aspect of life “gradually blots out their mind and enfeebles their spirit.” As a result, the people delegate more and more of their ability to choose how they live their lives to the state, whose decision and provision they begin to rely upon even more than they rely upon themselves.

Yes, they retain the right to vote. But, in arguably the most penetrating statement of his entire career, Tocqueville observed:

“It is, indeed, difficult to imagine how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them, and no one will be convinced that a liberal, energetic, and prudent government can ever emerge from the voting of a nation of servants.”

In other words, a nation of individuals who no longer govern themselves can’t be expected to wisely choose those who will govern them. They no longer know what free, virtuous, and wise decision-making is. Therefore, retaining the vote doesn’t achieve them much, since slowly but surely the government they mold begins to mold them.

Unprecedented dependence on government for day-to-day life: check.

Eerily enough, Tocqueville predicted the rise of demagogues who would claim “the defects they see had far more to do with the country’s Constitution than with … the electorate.” Is this not precisely what we have seen in our own day? The people are endlessly flattered, and the Constitution is constantly trashed.

The terminus point described by Tocqueville is chilling:

“The vices of those who govern, and the ineptitude of those governed, would soon bring it to ruin, and the people, tired of its representatives and of itself, would create free institutions or would soon revert to its abasement to one single master.”

This is the unavoidable end for any people who have lost their virtue, their vigilant watch over their institutions, and accepted the erroneous idea that they control a government they’ve become dependent upon. When such a point is reached, there are only two options left: revert to freedom, or the further consolidation of power into fewer and fewer hands—even, perhaps, a single person’s hands.

I pray we are not there yet. But I fear we are much closer than we ever dared to think.

Joshua Charles is a former White House speechwriter for Vice President Mike Pence, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author, a historian, writer/ghostwriter, and public speaker. He’s been a historical adviser for several documentaries and published books on topics ranging from the Founding Fathers, to Israel, to the role of faith in American history, to the impact of the Bible on human civilization. He was the senior editor and concept developer of the “Global Impact Bible,” published by the D.C.-based Museum of the Bible in 2017, and is an affiliated scholar of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. He is a Tikvah and Philos Fellow and has spoken around the country on topics such as history, politics, faith, and worldview. He is a concert pianist and holds a master’s in government and a law degree. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com.