The Silky Smooth Road to a Soft Despotism

by Derrick G. Jeter

In a recent essay, “The Exception of American Exceptionalism,” I argued that Barack Obama does not believe in America’s unique place in the world. This was proved through his percent for bowing before royalty and his need to apologize for our “arrogance” and what he sees as a “dismissive” and “derisive” attitude toward Europe. My conclusion was challenged by a reader (I invite you to read our discussion), which spurred additional thoughts, for which I’m grateful.
At the heart of my previous article, and the discussion that followed, was this question: “Is America just another country, like all other countries—no better, no worse—and does Barack Obama believe this?” I concluded that America is not like any other country, while Obama clearly does. Many in America today have concluded as I have, that what has swept into Washington is a hyper-attitude of moral equivalency regarding America and American virtues. However, if you smell the air, a shift in the patriotic winds is blowing across the country. Citizens are wondering: “If America is not unique or special what is there to love about her?” Or, as Douglas Jehl wrote, as quoted in my previous essay, “what else were 1776 and all that about?”
My reader thought I had spread the butter too thin. After all, he concluded, no harmful consequences have come as a result of Obama’s bowing and apologizing, and besides it’s too early in the administration to judge Obama’s principles. I think not. My reader, I suspect, is looking at this administration only in pragmatic terms. American exceptionalism, however, is an idea, a sort of attitude or spirit about America, that works itself out in pragmatic ways, called policies. Reasoning backwards, from the practical position, what does it communicate about our declared and protected rights to liberty and private property when the Obama administration gives out billions upon billions of taxpayers’ dollars to stimulate a slow economy, to prop up failing business, or to buy those business altogether? What message does the current Congress, along with the support of the President, send to the American people (or the people around the world, for those concerned about such things) that an enormous amount of our economy will be federalized under universal, mandated health-care?
From just these few examples should we not come to some judgment of Obama’s principles? Do these actions by the administration, along with the leadership in Congress, reflect the uniquely articulated principles of liberty in the Declaration and protections in the Constitution? Or can we conclude that there are some in America for whom the slavery of their country (to foreign nations who hold our ever increasing debt, for example) is dearer than its liberty? Liberty is rarely lost through a single revolutionary act; rather it is lost through incremental acts, which, in itself, is revolutionary. The American Declaration of Independence enumerated our rights as citizens and the Constitution protects our rights by enumerating the limits of state power. Our founders saw the necessity of a federal government, particularly after the failures of the Articles of Confederation, but wisely determined that that government be limited in its powers to encroach upon the personal liberties of its citizens. Listen to Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas, dated September 7, 1803:
Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction. I say the same as to the opinion of those who consider the grant of the treaty-making power as boundless. If it is, then we have no Constitution. If it has bounds, they can be no others than the definitions of the powers which that instrument gives. It specifies and delineates the operations permitted to the federal government, and gives all the powers necessary to carry these into execution. Whatever of these enumerated objects is proper for a law, Congress may make the law; whatever is proper to be executed by way of a treaty, the President and Senate may enter into the treaty; whatever is to be done by a judicial sentence, the judges may pass the sentence.
Here is Samuel Adams: “The security of rights and property is the great end of government.” And the “Father of the Constitution” from “Federalist 51”:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
The precautions the founders devised was a system of checks and balances—divided government between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The danger lay in the corruptibility of the human heart, in those who make up those branches. If any one of the three became diverted from its enumerated and limited authority then the system could become dangerously imbalanced and threaten the individual’s freedoms. In this sense our founders did not see government as compassionate, as did George W. Bush who adopted the idea of Compassionate Conservatism from Marvin Olasky. The founders viewed government as force, as power. Like fire, government can be a faithful servant if contained within its proper confines, but a fearsome master if let loose for it will consume the house of liberty and leave behind it the ashes of a once great nation.
In many ways, the fire has jumped the hearth and we have been on a slow burn toward a soft despotism ever since the turn of the 20th century, with the progressive movement. Virtually every president since Theodore Roosevelt, regardless of party affiliation, has championed the progressive/liberal ideology of unshackling the state from the chains of the Constitution. The most notable exception are Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Obama is clearly the most liberal president since Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and a true believer in the notion that the government can and should fix all social and economic inequalities. Not only is this foolish and completely impractical, it is also a perfect recipe for what Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, called “administrative despotism”—what we’d call soft despotism.
Writing in 1840, Tocqueville warned that America could lose her uniqueness and her citizens be reduced to comfortable servitude to a benevolent tyranny. In a downward, four step spiral, Tocqueville described how we could reach the bottom of this “administrative despotism.”
First, we circle the wagons through radical individualism, whereby citizens, in their desire for personal gain, become severed from the life and concerns of the country. The “innumerable crowd,” Tocqueville wrote, “of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.”
Second, we are wooed by the bread and circuses the state provides. “An immense tutelary power . . . takes charge of assuring (the citizens’) enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?”
Third, we suffer from soul death, when on a daily basis the state “renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of it from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.”
Finally, we become unformed biscuits ready to be made into any shape the state desires. “Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
Tocqueville’s words have become prophetic, because what he so eloquently described in 1840, is what is taking place here in American in 2009. We have a name for it: Socialism or Collectivism. It is based on the failed notion that what is best is equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. This is equality run-amuck. But economically, you can never enrich the poor by impoverishing the rich. Yet, is this not exactly what the Obama administration and Congress are attempting with their policies of bailout after bailout and their rush to saddle the American people under the crushing load of universal heath care? It is nonsense and bordering on madness. One wonders if Washington is fiddling while the country is burning.
In deference to my disgruntled reader, the bowing and apologizing of the President is a petty thing for me to write about . . . if that were all he did. His bowing and apologizing, however, are merely illustrative of something much more important—his headlong charge to reshape America into the mold of an “administrative despotism.” Nothing could be less exceptional or unAmerican than that. It is our responsibility, therefore, as citizens of this great nation, to become full citizens. It is we, in the words of Lincoln, speaking to Congress on December 1, 1862, who “shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” I pray it’s not too late.