Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Over the last two years, many of us have been surprised and troubled at how eagerly millions of citizens have surrendered their freedoms to the shifting, contradictory, nakedly politicized diktats of various “experts” and government agencies. Coerced vaccinations, boosters, masks, and social distancing continue to be mandated and just as eagerly obeyed, even in the case of the mild Omicron covid variant. The technocratic Left currently ruling the country has wrung every ounce of unconstitutional power from the sovereign people, a large cohort of whom, especially the cognitive elites, have willingly gone along with every new crisis and command.
As the year ends, signs of a pushback are multiplying. But will such resistance reach the critical mass of voters necessary for liberating us from such “soft despotism” and its wardens?
We shouldn’t be surprised that progressives have seized the opportunity to aggrandize themselves through serial changes on the pretext of an exaggerated crisis. It has long been a truism of history that, as James Madison said in 1788, “there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of power, than by sudden usurpations.”
Nearly half a century later, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw an even more insidious stealth despotism that could arise in American democracy: “An immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [the people’s] gratifications and to watch over their fate.” And he prophesized that the bureaucratic regulatory state would be the instrument of this “soft despotism”: a power “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild” that “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform.” The goal is “to keep [the people] in perpetual childhood,” for this power is “well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.”
The last hundred years have seen such a regime gradually become reality. Crises such as the Great Depression, Two World Wars, and other conflicts and recessions provided the pretexts for expanding and concentrating the powers of federal agencies and their “network of small complicated rules.” And like children, too many citizens have accepted these encroachments, willingly ceding their autonomy and freedom to overseers who bribe them with the redistribution of other people’s money, and with promises “alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate” from the cradle to the grave ––what we call “entitlements” but think are unalienable rights.
Moreover, our unprecedented wealth has obscured the dangers of this dependence and weakening of the habits of self-government. But the contrary bad habits of prioritizing comfort, pleasure, and security insidiously erode our tolerance for risk and suffering, the nonnegotiable, eternal constants of human existence. The covid pandemic has graphically revealed this intolerance for risk, which the “managerial elite” has exploited to leverage more power and authority.
Hence the government and its agencies such as the CDC hyped the dangers of an infectious disease whose victims overwhelmingly comprised the elderly already dying of something else. It didn’t take long to see that the typical victim was 80-years-old and possessed multiple comorbidities like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Children and the young––unlike during the Spanish flu––were spared. Masks, lockdowns, and social distancing were mostly pacifiers for soothing anxiety and creating the illusion of control, rather than protecting the vulnerable, even as those measures damaged the economy, impaired education, and multiplied “deaths of despair” like suicide and addiction.
Meanwhile, in Sweden and in states like Florida, the absence of such mandates did not lead to “super-spreader” events, but rather fewer fatalities than countries like England or states like New York with their draconian lockdowns.
These outcomes will surprise no one who understood from the start that after a few months of uncertainty in early 2020, the issue was not the pandemic, but how the pandemic could provide the pretext for expanding government power, and damaging a president whose policies pushed back against the progressives program to “fundamentally transform” the United States. And the way to do that is to erode our unalienable rights and our political freedom, the indispensable tools for checking tyranny and holding office-holders accountable to the people.
Now, however, there are multiple signs that voters are getting fed up with the whole covid endless crises triggered by variants and spikes in infections, a datum that creates big dramatic numbers and increases, but isn’t as significant as death rates. They’re sick of their children’s schools serially opening and shutting, demanding useless masks, and making grammar school kids eat lunch outside in the cold. They’ve had it with the endless parade of “experts,” especially government functionaries unaccountable to either the voters or the market, playing the endless loop of virus porn.
Nor are they fooled by the Dems’ proposed electoral “reform” legislation, which would hijack elections from the states, and put into law many of the shady practices we saw in the 2020 presidential election. And for a year they’ve watched Biden’s feckless incompetence weaken the nation’s prestige and interests abroad as both decline in the face of Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon, China’s threatening Taiwan and our regional allies, and Russia’s positioning tens of thousands of troops and weapons on its border with Ukraine––all the consequences of our shameful skedaddle from Afghanistan that cost 13 dead American troops, left behind billions of dollars in materiel, and stranded hundreds of American citizens and Afghan allies.
Finally, growing numbers of voters have soured on progressives’ “cancel culture” and strong-arm tactics––their “relentless moral condescension, the messianism of mass protests, physical intimidation, social ostracism and demands that you simply shut up”––as the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger describes the treatment of renegade Democrat Senator Joe Manchin, who stopped their Build Back Better binge of green pork and welfare lucre.
Throw in the Biden administration’s abysmal record of failure on every important issue like inflation and border security, and things are looking grim for the Dems. Biden’s approval numbers have been tanking for months, and now even usually reliable constituencies are disgruntled. An Economist and You.gov poll finds fewer than 3 in 10 adults under 30 approve of the job Biden’s doing. A Zogby poll’s approval numbers for independents, the most critical swing-vote, are particularly ominous. They favor Republican control of Congress by 23 points. And another critical constituency for Democrats, Hispanics, are moving towards Republicans. According to a Wall Street Journal poll in early December, Hispanic support in Congressional races is split evenly at 37% for each party.
As of now, these portents suggest a midterm “shellacking” of the Dems, as Barack Obama called the debacle of the 2010 midterms that hamstrung his ambitions to remake America. And Obama was a well-liked president with tons of voter good will, not a cognitively impaired mediocre grifter.
But let’s not be hasty. The Dems still possess the commanding heights of media, entertainment, popular culture, sports, government agencies, and universities. They’re still addled by their humiliation at the hands and tweets of Donald Trump, and still thirsting for revenge against him and his supporters, the “bitter clingers,” “deplorables,” and “smelly Wal-Mart shoppers” who refuse to accept the superiority of self-proclaimed “brights” who feel entitled to push them around.
The ruling elite are not going to surrender power without a fight, and we’d better be ready. Next year will determine whether “soft despotism” is our future, or the love of freedom and our unalienable rights will triumph once again.