Americans of all political persuasions seem to sense that the country is at a crossroads: Either we’ll permanently lock ourselves into a future as a European-style social democracy or we’ll dramatically turn away from that course.

The Affordable Care Act and the debate it’s provoked is, of course, a central illustration of the choice before us. The law is proving to be such an unworkable monstrosity that it must either give way to a single-payer system or to an assortment of decentralized, un-European, marketplace and/or state-level solutions.

Which way will America turn? Let’s consider some words of wisdom — and warning — from a Frenchman who last visited the United States in the 1830s. Near the end of his great work, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville penned an essay with a rather ominous title, “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear.”

A democratic despotism? Such a thing has to be a contradiction in terms. Not so, thought Tocqueville. In fact, he speculated that the reach of such a regime might well be more extensive than any tyranny of old. The burdens of the latter “fell most heavily on some,” but they “never spread over a great number.” Tocqueville’s democratic despotism, on the other hand, would be “more widespread” and yet “milder.” It would “degrade men rather than torment them.”

It was Tocqueville’s contention — and insight — that a democracy’s drive for equality would at once fuel despotic government and temper it. The result would be a soft despotism, featuring officials who ruled more like “schoolmasters” than “tyrants.” And they would be schoolmasters of a very modern sort, since their goal was to preside over a regime which “gladly works for the happiness of its people.” Under their tutelage, their subjects would “enjoy themselves,” if only because they would be thinking “of nothing but enjoyment.”

Today we live in a society awash in entertainments of all varieties, few of which Tocqueville could have imagined. And yet, our French visitor was clearly onto something, even if he was only warming up. Here is the key paragraph of this essay:

“Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful embrace and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform … . It does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, actions; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

It’s hard to read these words without wincing. What are 2,000-page “laws” and their attendant bureaucracies if not a “network of petty complicated rules?” In the name of advancing equality we have created a federal government bent on doing nothing less than taking the trouble out of life in so many ways. And in so doing, such a government inevitably “enervates, stifles, and stultifies.”

Of course, that same government wants us to think of ourselves as “hardworking.” As do we. But it also encourages distractions — and timidity. All the better to shepherd even the hardest of workers.

So, will we be “timid and hardworking animals?” Or will we be a free and hardworking people? Which future did Tocqueville think would prevail? He was far from sanguine about our ability to escape this soft form of despotism. In fact, he suggested that a future American democracy might eventually combine an “orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery” with the “external forms of freedom” (as opposed to freedom itself).

That’s because he thought Americans were uniquely “prey” to two conflicting passions: a need for guidance and a desire to be free. This is the same Alexis de Tocqueville who was struck by an American individualism, which emphasized a desire to be “disassociated” from one another, rather than a drive to be different from one another.

Earlier in “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville hinted that perhaps it was our very longing to be left alone that fed this need for guidance. Isolated from one another, we may paradoxically be less inclined to trust ourselves — and more susceptible to being shepherded.

This was a powerful insight for its time. Imagine what Tocqueville might have to say about today’s mass-media-saturated world, a world in which we are at once home alone and all too connected.

To be sure, Tocqueville saw Americans trying to reconcile these conflicting passions. One possible answer was the democratic process. Then voters could at least “console themselves” with the knowledge that they had chosen their own “schoolmasters.” And if the result was ever greater “centralization,” at least it has been ratified by the “sovereignty of the people.”

Did Tocqueville actually believe that we could be both dependent and free? In a word, no. A people who had essentially “given up managing their own affairs” would not be likely to choose good leaders. To be blunt, a nation of “servants” would not wind up with “wise government.”

As his essay continued, Tocqueville’s pessimism seemed to deepen: The strongest likelihood was that the “vices of those who govern” would combine with the “weaknesses of the governed” to bring the American experiment to “ruin.”

But in the end Tocqueville could not quite embrace his own pessimism. Poised on the brink of ruin, the American people still had a choice. They would either “create freer institutions or fall back at the feet of a single master.”

Perhaps, then, we truly are at a crossroads. Perhaps there still is time to create those “freer institutions” and avoid the fate that Tocqueville spelled out for us nearly two centuries ago. If so, this is all the more reason to read Tocqueville, ponder his words, and continue the debate, so long as we do so civilly but not timidly.


Chuck Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.