Friends, I uncovered this several years ago, but I have reproduced it in full for you all. It is quite simply the most stunningly prophetic statement on the rise of tyranny in the United States I have EVER read, and it comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which was published in the 1830’s. It is a bit long, but I assure you, few things will be as worthy of your time to read as this. It is from pages 803-809 in the Penguin edition of the book, just so you have the precise source and know that this is a legitimate quote, not one of the many false ones that go around:
Alexis de Tocqueville
“I had noted in my stay 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…When the Roman emperors were at the height of their powers, the various nations inhabiting the Roman world still preserved their different customs and manners: although they obeyed the same monarch, most of the provinces were administered separately. They abounded in powerful and energetic townships and, although the whole government of the empire was concentrated in the emperor’s hands and he remained the arbiter of everything when the need arose, the small details of social life and private everyday existence normally eluded his control. The emperors, it is true, wielded immense and unchecked power…they often abused this power to deprive a citizen arbitrarily of his property or his life, but their tyranny was an excessive burden on a few people, but never spread over a great number. It latched on to a few main objects, leaving the rest alone. It was violent, but its extent was limited.
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…I wish to imagine under what new features despotism might appear in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them living apart is almost unaware of the destiny of all the rest. His children and personal friends are for him the whole of the human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he stands alongside them but does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself; if he still retains his family circle, at any rate he may be said to have lost his country. Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority if, fatherlike, its aims were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood. It prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness, but wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances. Why can it not remove from them entirely the bother of thinking and the troubles of life?
Thus it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice: it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen…Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp, and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them. Rarely does it force men to act, but it constantly opposes what actions they perform. It does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls 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.
I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people…they [democratic peoples] feel the need to be directed as well as the desire to remain free. Since they are unable to blot out either of these hostile feelings, they strive to satisfy both of them together. They conceive a single, protective, and all-powerful government, but one elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with the sovereignty of the people. That gives them some respite. They derive consolation from being supervised by thinking that they have chosen their supervisors. Every individual tolerates being tied down because he sees that it is not another man nor a class of people holding the end of the chain, but society itself. Under this system, citizens leave their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then they return to it…many people very easily fall in with this type of compromise between a despotic administration and the sovereignty of the people, and they think they have sufficiently safeguarded individual freedom when they surrendered it to a national authority. That is not good enough for me. The character of the master is much less important to me than the fact of obedience…
I see quite clearly that, in this way, individual intervention in the most important affairs is preserved, but it is just as much suppressed in small and private ones. We forget that it is, above all, in the details that we run the risk of enslaving men. For my part, I would be tempted to believe that freedom in the big things of life is less important than in the slightest, if I thought that we could always be guaranteed the latter when we did not possess the former. Subjection in the minor things of life is obvious every day and is experienced indiscriminately by all citizens. It does not cause them to lose hope but it constantly irks them until they give up the exercise of their will. It gradually blots out their mind and enfeebles their spirit, whereas obedience demanded only in a small number of very serious circumstances involves enslavement on rare occasions and then burdens only a certain number of people. It will be useless to call upon those very citizens who have become so dependent upon central government to choose from time to time the representative of this government. This very important but brief and rare exercise of their free choice will not prevent their gradual loss of the faculty of autonomous thought, feeling, and action, so that they will slowly fall below the level of humanity. I may add that they will soon lose the capacity to exercise the great and only privilege open to them.
The democratic nations which introduced freedom into politics at the same time that they were increasing despotism in the administrative sphere have been led into the strangest paradoxes. Faced with the need to manage small affairs where common sense can be enough, they reckon citizens are incompetent. When it comes to governing the whole state, they give these citizens immense prerogatives [voting]. They turn them by degrees into playthings of the ruler or his masters [the people], higher than kings or lower than men. Having exhausted all the various electoral systems without finding one which suited them, they look surprised and continue to search, as if the defects they see had far more to do with the country’s constitution than with that of the electorate. 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…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 freer institutions or would soon revert to its abasement to one single master.”