Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect Paul Anthony Rahe

Publication date:
27 Apr 2010
Yale University Press
400 pages: 235 x 156mm
Sales territories:

An insightful reading of early democratic philosophers and how America and other modern democracies have  veered too far from their fundamental roots

In 1989, the Cold War abruptly ended and it seemed as if the world was at last safe for democracy. But a spirit of uneasiness, discontent, and world-weariness soon arose and has persisted in Europe, in America, and elsewhere for two decades. To discern the meaning of this malaise we must investigate the nature of liberal democracy, says the author of this provocative book, and he undertakes to do so through a detailed investigation of the thinking of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville.

Paul A. Rahe 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 expands and gradually undermines the spirit of self-government. Such an eventuality, feared by Tocqueville in the nineteenth century, has now become a reality throughout the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. So Rahe asserts, and he explains what must be done to reverse this unfortunate trend.

Paul A. Rahe is professor of history and political science at Hillsdale College and author of Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution and Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic.

?In this impressive work of scholarship, Rahe brings together detailed readings of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, a command of the historical context in which they wrote, and a sensibility to the literary challenges and requirements of such an understanding.??Michael Gibbons, University of South Florida

"Acute analysts of emergent commercial republicanism found much to praise, even while foreseeing (and showing how one might avert) its slide into mindless self-absorption. With this expert, engrossing account, Paul Rahe joins that honorable company who resist the further degradation of democratic souls."?Ralph Lerner, The University of Chicago

"This is an exemplary deployment of great past thinkers in an intensely provocative, deliberately controversial meditation on the profound strengths and weaknesses or dangers in our political culture."?Thomas L. Pangle, author of Montesquieu's Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws

"A remarkable book."?Kenneth Minogue, Times Literary Supplement

?Valuable. . . impressive and provocative. . . deserves to be widely read. . . a fine book.??William Voegeli, National Review

?Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees.??Harvey Mansfield, Weekly Standard

?Intelligent [and] well-reasoned.??Cynthia Grenier, Human Events

"Outstanding."?David Gordon, The Mises Review

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine

A "well-written and scrupulously annotated analysis."?Samuel Moyn, American Historical Review

"Rahe's volume does the further service...of exposing this dilemma regarding how to break through the amnesia of the late-modern liberal era without reinforcing its disdain for those backward minds that have not yet caught the wave of egalitarian and perpetually self-constructed liberation."--Paul O. Carrese, Journal of the Review of Politics