Democratic Despotism

When you hear the word “despot” or “tyrant” what comes to your mind? Do you picture an angry king sitting upon a massive throne ordering the death of all who disobey him? What if you were asked to think of a specific despot from history? Who would you picture? Adolf Hitler? Joseph Stalin? Genghis Khan? Fair enough. But what if I asked you to think of a despot from a democratic nation? Perhaps you could, but I think it would take a bit more time.

I ask these questions to point that when we think of despotism or tyranny, we typically envision one person — someone who embodies the qualities of a tyrant. We do this because, quite frankly, it is easy to do. It is easy to gather up all of the world’s evil, give it a name and a face (e.g., Thanos), and direct our anger against it. That person is the bad guy who is destroying the world and needs to be stopped. Avengers, assemble!

But reality is much more complicated than the movies. Even in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, it was not just one man playing the part of a tyrant. It was a host of individuals, at all levels of society, who formed those monstrosities. This does not mean that individuals like Hitler and Stalin were insignificant. Not at all. But they did not arise out of a vacuum and they were not alone in their efforts.

With that in mind, how should those of us in strongly democratic nations understand tyranny and despotism? Are we immune to such things? Does having a constitutional republic or a democratic form of government protect us from despotism? If the past two years are any indication, the answer is, “No.” There have been plenty of examples of despotism, even if we cannot give it a name or a face.

The reason that it is difficult to point out tyrants in democracies is due to the nature of democracies. Since the structure of the government is more decentralized, with power shared among more people, despotism takes on a different form. It becomes more administrative and more bureaucratic. It becomes a nameless and faceless entity that takes on a life of its own.

Interestingly, in 1651 the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a book on government titled Leviathan. In this work, Hobbes argued that the chaotic, selfish, and sinful masses of humanity are of such a state that only an absolute ruler, wielding near-unlimited power, could maintain order.

The image designed for the book depicted that ruler as a gigantic crowned figure whose body was made up of a mass of individual persons. In a sense, out of the masses of society is to come a despotic figure who is both comprised of the people and who wields unlimited power over them. As for the name Leviathan, Hobbes purposefully drew that from Job 41, where Leviathan, the great serpent, is described as having no equal to his power on earth. Ironically — whether Hobbes realized this or not — the Bible always depicts Leviathan as an object of evil. It is the serpent, or the great dragon (i.e., Satan), that wages war against God and his people.

Looking at the very origins of the word “Leviathan,” the name seems to be derived from the Hebrew root word lavah (“to join” or “to be joined”) and the word tannin (“serpent” or “sea monster”). We also see that the root lavah forms the basis of the Hebrew word livyah (“a garland” or “a wreath”). This then combines with tannin to form the Hebrew word livyathan from which we get Leviathan — “the coiling or twisting serpent.”

Hobbes’ use of the biblical Leviathan to describe a despotic human government is not to be overlooked. The Bible often uses pictures or images to describe key concepts. For instance, the sea is often associated with chaos and the mass of humanity (Revelation 13:1 and 17:15). Out of the sea arises ferocious and mighty beasts (Revelation 13:1), with beasts typically referring to powerful and vicious governments or rulers (Daniel 7:3–8, Daniel 8:1–8, and Proverbs 28:15).

Of course, the Leviathan of Hobbes and the beasts of the Bible tend to be persons with a face and a name (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar or Alexander the Great). But what about democracies? Can they have beasts and does Leviathan live among them?

If we fast forward about 180 years from Thomas Hobbes, we come to a man named Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was a Frenchman who, after having lived through the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon, came to the United States in order to understand and assess our form of democracy. His book Democracy in America, written in 1835, is still considered to be one of the best analyses of our constitutional republic.

While Tocqueville had many positive things to say about democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, perhaps the most insightful part of his book is his description of democratic despotism found in Chapter 6 of the book’s second volume. He begins his inquiry into democratic despotism by highlighting how it would look different from despotism under a monarchy:

“It seems that, if despotism came to be established among the democratic nations of today, it would have other characteristics; it would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them…Democratic governments will be able to become violent and even cruel in certain moments of great agitation and great dangers; but these crises will be rare and passing.”

Tocqueville’s analysis is important to keep in mind, especially as we consider the nature of despotism. While we typically think of an absolute monarch ordering all dissidents to be beheaded, democratic despotism is both milder and broader in scope. Monarchs can rage intensely but can typically on harm those who are closest to them. Even then, the king’s anger might settle down after a short time. But in a democracy, despotism spreads out and creeps in, rarely exploding into bursts of anger. This is because the despot is not one person, but a mass of people:

“I want to imagine under what new features despotism could present itself to the world; I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.”

This mass of citizens is described by Tocqueville as “an innumerable crowd.” Everyone is equal yet everyone is focused on gaining and maintaining earthly pleasures. And while the crowd of people communicate with one another and are interconnected, there is no community. The idea of a country is lost, since each person only seeks what is best for himself or, at most, for his family and friends. After describing the mass of humanity — a chaotic sea of individuals — Tocqueville then describes the beast that comes forth to reign over it:

“Above those men arises an immense and tutelary power that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficult of living?”

Notice that this beast is not full of rage and menace like one would expect from a typical despot. No, this one is paternal — acting the part of a father. Yet it does not want its citizens to grow into maturity. Rather, it wants citizens to stay focused on entertainment and pleasure. While the citizens seek pleasure, the beast not only tries to keep them pleased but happily takes over handling everything of importance. Ultimately, the people no longer need to think about anything serious, since all difficulties and troubles are handled for them by the paternalistic State. At first this might not seem like much of a problem, but Tocqueville points out just how powerful and dominating this beast becomes:

“After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; in certain moments of great passions and great dangers, the sovereign power becomes suddenly violent and arbitrary. Habitually it is moderate, benevolent, regular and humane, it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

What Tocqueville describes is the slow spread of democratic despotism. Rather than the raging beast that we typically imagine with tyranny, this beast slowly strangles and subdues the people. It is continually feeding, growing stronger as more people are swallowed up by it. As Tocqueville points out, its despotism is not seen in its sudden bursts of violence and wholesale executions. It is seen in its complicated and contradictory web of regulations that address every area of life. This is perhaps worse than traditional tyranny, since it drains people over the course of their lives, always opposing them but never destroying them.

The result is that the people become docile and fearful, like domesticated animals. The government does not need to become violent with them, so long as they stay in line and do not cause problems. And as long as the people are kept unthinking and continuously entertained, they will happily go along with what the State requires.

With this situation established, Tocqueville describes the final shape, or structure, of this new democratic despotism:

“I suppose that a democratic nation, after destroying within it all the secondary powers, establishes in its midst a very inquisitorial, very extensive, very centralized, very powerful executive power, that it confers on this power the right to conduct all the details of public affairs and to lead a part of private affairs, that it puts individuals in a strict and daily dependence on this power, but that it makes this executive power itself depend on an elected legislature which, without governing, traces the principal rules of the government.”

Here we see that the new despotic democracy harmonizes centralized power with democratic processes. As the people increasingly live as individuals focused only on their own pleasures, the central government accumulates greater power and responsibility to itself. This ends up destroying secondary, or intermediate, powers such as the family, church, local community, and even state governments. While the power of the new beast remains dependent upon the people through the legislature, its authority is all-encompassing and unlimited. At this point, Tocqueville highlights the inherent conflict that exists within this system:

“Our contemporaries are incessantly tormented by two hostile passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either the one or the other of these opposite instincts, they work hard to satisfy both at the same time. They imagine a unique, tutelary, omnipotent power, but elected by the citizens. They combine centralization and sovereignty of the people. That gives them some relief. They console themselves about being in tutelage by thinking that they have chosen their tutors themselves. Each individual endures being bound, because he sees that it is not a man or a class, but the people itself that holds the end of the chain. In this system, the citizens emerge for a moment from dependency in order to indicate their master, and return to it.”

This description by Tocqueville is quite insightful. Humans always have and always will struggle with the need to be led and the desire to be free. But without a proper foundation, or grounding, those passions will become unbalanced. The desire to be led and controlled — to see all problems resolved — will result in the formation of an omnipotent human government. Yet the desire to be free and unbound — to have no one prohibit us from doing what we want — will result in us demanding some sort of accountability through the election process. In other words, we have no problem being enslaved as long as we occasionally get to choose the master. But since the master is not really just one person but a nameless, faceless entity (i.e. the will of the people), we end up tolerating being placed in a position of dependency.

But before we toy with the idea that such a situation might not be so bad, let us consider Tocqueville’s final words on the matter:

“It is, in fact, difficult to imagine how men who have entirely given up the habit of directing themselves, could succeed in choosing well those who should lead them; and it cannot be believed that a liberal, energetic and wise government can ever come out of the votes of a people of servants. A constitution that would be republican at the head, and ultra-monarchical in all the other parts has always seemed to me an ephemeral monster.”

The point Tocqueville makes is key. If the people are unable and unwilling to govern themselves and take responsibility for their own lives, how can they be expected to choose wise leaders to rule over them? If the people already function as slaves, and are essentially enslaved to their passions and pleasures, the leaders they select will be a reflection of that. They will be masters over a nation of servants. On the one hand, the head of the government will be republican and democratic, perhaps even having a constitution. On the other hand, the agencies and departments of that government will be unelected and increasingly powerful. The beast that ends up emerging from this chaotic sea of people will be, as Tocqueville puts it, “an ephemeral monster.”

And now, nearly 200 years since Tocqueville’s prediction, we have found ourselves in the exact situation that he warned about. While our government remains, at its head, democratic and theoretically constitutional, its departments and agencies have become ultra-monarchical. There is no longer any separation of powers, since these agencies can make their own rules, interpret their own rules, and enforce their own rules. The secondary powers of our nation, such as the family, church, and state governments, are being eroded while the central government increases the size and scope of its power. Finally, the web of contradictory and complicated rules and regulations now touches every aspect of human life, to the point that no one seems to be able to disentangle themselves from it. And all the while, we the people pursue pleasure and entertainment — even hoping and expecting that the government will provide it.

But if this is indeed the case — if Tocqueville’s ephemeral monster has emerged — what can be done about it? Well, the first step we must take is to repent. We must repent of our sins and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. We must repent of our obsession with earthly pleasures and of our abdication of our responsibilities. We must repent of demanding that the State solve our problems for us, since our hope is in the Lord, not Caesar.

People are slaves to sin before they become slaves to the State. Tocqueville said as much when he asked how a nation of servants could ever make a wise choice in its leaders. The key, therefore, in defeating the monster of despotism is to first be set free from sin. This is only possible in Christ, for if the son sets us free, we will be free indeed (John 8:36). So, if we desire at all to experience earthly, temporal, freedom, we must first experience spiritual freedom. From there, we can begin to take responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities, producing the spiritual fruit of self-control.

In the end, the only one who can defeat the ephemeral monster of despotism — that great beast arising from the sea of chaos — is Jesus Christ. It is the Lord alone who can slay Leviathan and redeem his people (Isaiah 27:1). And how does he do this? By the gospel. By the word of his mouth, which is a sword that is sharper than any man-made two-edged sword (Revelation 19:15 and Hebrews 4:12). So if you want to fight despotism, pick up your Bible and start reading.

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Husband, father, Air Force veteran, and elder at Hilltown Baptist Church.

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Eric Luppold

Eric Luppold

Husband, father, Air Force veteran, and elder at Hilltown Baptist Church.

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