The Way Out of 'Soft Despotism'


The Way Out of 'Soft Despotism'

Dec 8th, 2009 3 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and president of The Heritage Foundation.

More than 170 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans of an emerging danger to democracy: "soft despotism." This insidious threat, the French political thinker explained, could reduce a self-governing people to "nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

Today, that danger is greater than ever. The Left is pushing America toward European-style centralization of power. Liberal panjandrums seek an even more highly regulated economy,nationalization of industries and socialized health care. Lawmakers increasingly leave the "details" of how to implement legislation to unelected bureaucrats.

This isn't progress. It's the revival of a failed, undemocratic and illiberal kind of statism.

Luckily, the slow Europeanization of America isn't inevitable, and it's not too late. There's another way.

To take our country forward, we must renew our commitment to eternal truths about man, politics and liberty -- the truths held by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton.

Reclaiming America's future will require a concerted, monumental effort to push back progressive liberalism's assault on individual liberty and recover the Founders' principles in our political culture. We should focus on six priorities:

Educate for liberty. The classroom should foster understanding and appreciation of founding principles. Instead, high schools tend to minimize or disparage the story of America's founding. They justify neglect of the founding by arguing it's outdated and difficult to explain. Or they give short shrift to the principles of constitutional government and fixate on the Founders' acknowledged flaws.

Engage the American mind. Despite constant scorn by academic elites and popular media, most Americans still believe our country is something special and still respect the Founders' ideas that make it so. Conservatives must repeatedly articulate these core principles and apply them directly to questions of the day, thereby giving voice to the majority of citizens who haven't given up on the American experiment in self-government.

Uphold the Constitution. Public officials take a solemn oath to support the

  • Constitution, so they have a moral obligation to understand and abide by it. For members of Congress, this means refraining from passing bills that exceed their constitutional authority. For the president, it means rejecting unconstitutional bills and executing the law in a constitutional manner. Judges, who are uniquely positioned to spell out the meaning of the Constitution, must also recognize they aren't immune from its constraints.
  • Defend free markets and fiscal responsibility. Americans work hard to improve their families' condition. The fruits of their labor are moral goods contributing to happiness, as are opportunities to pursue the American Dream. Yet democratic capitalism is under attack by progressives. Principled leaders must reconnect the economic arguments for liberty and prosperity with the moral case for equal opportunity, free enterprise and creativity.
  • Revive self-government. In the 20th century, government assumed more and more tasks in more and more areas outside its responsibilities, greatly damaging American self-rule. When it fuels an entitlement mentality and dependency rather than promote self-reliance and independence, government encourages a character that is incompatible with self-rule. Determined to impose moral neutrality, the state pushes churches and other traditional social institutions into the shadows. To strengthen the fabric of civil society, we must restore the standing of those institutions to their proper roles.
  • Promote liberty. The United States has a special responsibility to defend the cause of liberty at home and abroad. Friends of freedom everywhere draw inspiration from our ideas and example. A confident understanding of our founding principles reaffirms what Americans hold to be self-evident. Anything less would deny our birthright and undermine our moral standing in the world.

America's founding principles are not historical curiosities. They still stand as a source of assurance and direction, beacons that can lead us to away from the byways of Europeanization and keep us on track to the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

De Tocqueville was right: Free-born Americans don't need government to be our shepherd. Besides, everyone knows that if government is the shepherd and citizens are the sheep, then we are the ones that get fleeced every time.

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is director of the Kenneth B. Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation and the author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our

First Appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press

More on This Issue