"Despotism (or “hard despotism") is life under a rule of a single entity with absolute power. In a democracy, the majority can install “big government” and create a “nanny state” of dependency, or “soft despotism.”
The origin of “soft despotism” is often credited to the book Democracy in America (1835) by Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859), but the term never appears in the book. Democracy in America did state that “the will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided” by a powerful government, one that one that “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry,” and ultimately, spares them “all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.” Tocqueville’s work has been associated with “soft despotism” since at least 1963. Tocqueville is also incorrectly given credit for coining/using the term “soft tyranny.”
The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, in Asmodeus at Large (1833), provided perhaps the first citation of “soft despotism”:
“Then with all the power that Love gives us over the one beloved — that soft despotism which melts away the will — I urged my suit to Julia, and implored her to let us become the world to each other.”
Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy. The word despotism means to “rule in the fashion of a despot” and does not necessarily require a singular “despot”, an individual.
Despot comes from the Greek despotes, which roughly means “master” or “one with power”, and it has been used to translate a wide variety of titles and positions.
Wikipedia: Soft despotism
Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by “a network of small complicated rules” might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called “hard despotism") in the sense that it is not obvious to the people. Soft despotism gives people the illusion that they are in control, when in fact they have very little influence over their government. Soft despotism breeds fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the general populace. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that this trend was avoided in America only by the “habits of the heart” of its 19th-century populace.
Asmodeus at Large
By Edward Bulwer Lytton Lytton
Philadelphia, PA: Carey, Lea & Blanchard
Then with all the power that Love gives us over the one beloved — that soft despotism which melts away the will — I urged my suit to Julia, and implored her to let us become the world to each other.
History of Political Philosophy
By Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey
Chicago, IL: Rand McNally
... “soft” despotism, one which “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry,” and, ultimately, “spare[s] them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”
Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy
By Marvin Zetterbaum
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Democratic men, he warns, will abandon their freedom to these mighty authorities in exchange for a “soft” despotism, one that “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry,” and ultimately, spares them “all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living."*
*Tocqueville, Democracy, II, 336. It need hardly be remarked that certain twentieth-century regimes that have been characterized by their self-styled devotion to egalitarianism have also been characterized by anything but a “soft” despotism. Tocqueville was guilty of grossly underestimating man’s capacity for violence, and of failing to see how it could persist under the veneer of democratic compassion.
Franklin D. Roosevelt;
The contribution of the New Deal to American political thought and practice
By Morton J. Frisch
New York, NY: Twayne Publishers
FDR may not have foreseen it, but the humane passion for welfarism could result in what Tocqueville referred to as a soft despotism. This is perhaps the greatest difficulty underlying the New Deal.
Political Realism in American Thought
By John W. Coffey
Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press
Kennan may be wrong about the “latinization” of American politics, but his assessment of the fate of American democracy is not entirely dissimilar to what Tocqueville imagined as the triumph of a soft despotism in democratic society.
11 October 1992, Washington (DC) Times, “To thine own self be true”:
Now from another thinker inclined to walk the center line comes a slim book of a secular nature, but similarly concerned with moral action in the midst of self-centeredness and the “soft” despotism that Alexis de Tocqueville promised and the couch potato now seems willing to settle for.
Google News Archive
14 November 1994, Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune, “Rise of conservatism: Election reveals changed times” by George F. Will, pg. 9A, col. 2:
Tocqueville warned of a soft despotism that “makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his faculties.”
The New Republic
Our discriminating Court.
April 9, 2001 | 12:00 am
You may not like the expansion of anti- discrimination law into every corner of American life--my own view is that it fulfills Tocqueville’s fears about the soft despotism of the nanny state—but there is no doubt that Congress is better equipped than the Court to represent the people’s will.
OCLC WorldCat record
Soft despotism, democracy’s drift : Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville & the modern prospect
Author: Paul A Rahe
Publisher: New Haven : Yale University Press, 2009.
Edition/Format: Book : English
Summary: Presents an investigation into the thinking of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville. This book argues that these political thinkers anticipated the modern liberal republic’s propensity to drift in the direction of soft despotism, a condition that arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power undermines the spirit of self-government.
New York City • Government/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Thursday, November 03, 2011 • Permalink