Before tyranny can cripple a nation, it must first lure the citizenry to sleep.

It must numb them to the dangers of government control.

Then, when the populace has grown too accustomed to subservience, too apathetic to being endlessly regulated, tyranny strikes.

Thus were the cautionary observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, in his magnum opus, “Democracy in America.”

Consider “Democracy” Tocqueville’s MasterClass on American Exceptionalism. (In fact, the phrase “American Exceptionalism” is often attributed to Tocqueville’s book: “The position of the Americans is… quite exceptional,” he wrote, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”) As an outsider looking in (Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to observe the young nation’s prison system but eventually broadened his aim to reflect on America more generally), the political philosopher possessed a keen understanding of what set us apart from the rest of the world.

He took particular interest in the unprecedented power we granted to our people. “The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe,” he said.

Due to our unique, citizen-oriented system of governance, however, he noted that tyranny would beset us in a unique, more understated way:

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“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; 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.”

In short, despotism would never declare itself openly.

At least not at first.

Tocqueville warned that “this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful… could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not [emphasis added] be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.”

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What makes Tocqueville’s “soft tyranny” so insidious is that it maintains “forms” of freedom. “[I]n the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people,” would-be authoritarianism’s  “small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules” infiltrate the nation’s psyche, conditioning the populace to accept overreach and overregulation — all the while still having “freedom.” Gradually — perhaps over many decades — they would become so inured to government control that a subtle slide into actual tyranny would not be that much of a shift; so desensitized to being shepherded by government that being suddenly treated like cattle would hardly elicit an outcry. 

Tocqueville believed this was the only way despotism would ever take root in America. The people would have to fall asleep, lulled by a million minor incursions on their rights rather than one gross, unmistakable violation.

In his words, it would come “little by little.”

Alarmingly, this is exactly what has happened in America over the past several decades. Our government’s “small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules” have touched on shower heads, Amish farmers, surgical masks, and vaccine mandates. We have almost become acclimatized to living under a nanny state.

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Interestingly, Tocqueville argued that the government would use crises (i.e. a global pandemic) as a pretext for its rules. He warned that the “dogma of political necessity” would be the grounds for “sacrificing particular interests without scruples and… trampling individual rights underfoot.”

In other words, government will always have a “good reason” to keep growing, keep expanding, keep suppressing. This, of course, accentuates the deceptiveness of tyranny. We the People will consent to government’s growth because it is “necessary” for our safety and security.

Indeed, the parallels between Tocqueville’s discourse on despotism and America today are staggering. The lines between his hypothesis and our reality are blurred. Perhaps inane shower head regulations are not evil in and of themselves, but perhaps they are indicative of a Machiavellian trend. Perhaps they are indicative that government as nanny shall soon be replaced by government as king.

Our defense against this drift toward oppression is vigilance. We must stay on guard. Government can never make us numb if we are alert to its insidious motives. Tocqueville’s roadmap to a shepherding government is only possible if we resign ourselves to a sheep-like mindset.

Remember, before tyranny can cripple a nation, it must first lure the citizenry to sleep. Now, while it is still within our power to win, we must wake up.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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