Acton Institute Powerblog

William Barr on how to resist ‘soft despotism’

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Throughout the recent battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, the party’s drift from liberalism to progressivism has become abundantly clear, aptly representing our growing cultural divide between ordered liberty and what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called “soft despotism.”

For example, in Senator Bernie Sanders’ routine defenses of the Cuban Revolution and Chinese communism, he insists that he is only praising the supposed “goodsof socialism while rejecting its more “authoritarian” features. “I happen to believe in democracy,” he says, “not authoritarianism.” Yet Sanders’ preferred policies and programs rely on plenty of government intrusions, restricting a range of individual and institutional freedoms (including voluntary charity). Democratically conceived or not, despotism it is.

In a speech to the 2020 National Religious Broadcasters convention, Attorney General William Barr examines the trend toward these policies. He explains how milder manifestations of authoritarianism are bound to increase if we fail to secure fundamental freedoms while cultivating virtue across civil society.

Although the concluding focus of the speech centers on freedom of the press, Barr connects it to this larger theme, discussing the sources of political and social division, the mediating influence of religious and communal life, and the importance of Christian anthropology in shaping a healthy vision of political and economic liberty.

To illuminate the problems with democratic despotism, Barr contrasts the “liberal democracy” of the American founding with the “totalitarian democracy” of the French Revolution.

Although many of us typically associate words like “authoritarian” or “totalitarian” with regimes that openly promote state-sanctioned violence or political persecution, the underlying impulses are more prevalent than we think across various political expressions:

This [totalitarian] form of democracy is messianic in that it postulates a preordained, perfect scheme of things to which men will be inexorably led. Its goals are earthly, and they are urgent.  Although totalitarian democracy is democratic in form, it requires an all-knowing elite to guide the masses toward their determined end, and that elite relies on whipping up mass enthusiasm to preserve its power and achieve its goals.

Totalitarian democracy is almost always secular and materialistic, and its adherents tend to treat politics as a substitute for religion. Their sacred mission is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society according to an abstract ideal of perfection. The virtue of any individual is defined by whether [he or she is] aligned with the program.  Whatever means used are justified because, by definition, they will quicken the pace of mankind’s progress toward perfection. … All is subsumed within a single project to use the power of the state to perfect mankind, rather than limit the state to protecting our freedom to find our own ends.

To counter these forces, Barr urges a return to the framework of liberal democracy, one which recognizes human imperfection and human dignity while limiting government and “preserving personal liberty”:

Precisely because [liberal democracy] recognizes that man is imperfect, it does not try to use the coercive power of the state to recreate man or society wholesale. It tends to trust, not in revolutionary designs, but in common virtues, customs, and institutions that were refined over long periods of time. It puts its faith in the accumulated wisdom of the ages over the revolutionary innovations of those who aspire to be what Edmund Burke called “the physician of the state.”

Liberal democracy recognizes that preserving broad personal freedom, including the freedom to pursue one’s own spiritual life and destiny, best comports with the true nature and dignity of man. It also recognizes that man is happiest in his voluntary associations, not coerced ones, and must be left free to participate in civil society, by which I mean the range of collective endeavors outside the sphere of politics.

There are three keys, Barr emphasizes, to preserving such a vision and resisting the “slide toward despotism”: religion, “decentralization of government power,” and freedom of the press. “The sad fact is that all three have eroded in recent decades,” he says. “If we are to preserve our liberal democracy from the meretricious appeal of socialism and the strain of progressivism … we must turn our attention to revivifying these vital institutions.”

Religious life strengthens civic resilience in a number of ways, but primarily by instilling moral values. “Experience teaches that, to be strong enough to control willful human beings, moral values must be based on authority independent of man’s will,” he says. “In other words, they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being. Men are far likelier to obey rules that come from God than to abide by the abstract outcome of an ad hoc utilitarian calculus.”

Further, a transcendent vision of the human person and humanity’s purpose gives us a “built-in antidote to hubris,” enabling us to resist the conceits of “messianic secular movements.” By putting first things first, we realize our “mission is not to make new men or transform the world through the coercive power of the state,” Barr explains. “On the contrary, the central idea is that the right way to transform the world is for each of us to focus on morally transforming ourselves.”

By infusing virtue and humility, religion empowers us to properly inhabit a decentralized society and fully appreciate the diversity and flourishing that it brings. Pointing to the principle of subsidiarity – the notion “that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest competent authority” – Barr notes the importance of direct ownership over our unique spheres and local communities. Far more important than spurring economic growth, decentralization paves the way to a more vibrant, diverse, and cooperative society. Whereas top-down government edicts “undercut a sense of community and give rise to alienation,” decentralization (paired with religion) creates an environment “where communities can coexist and adopt different approaches to things,” Barr explains. With the loss of decentralized civil society, we lose diversity, and “that, too, erodes an important check on despotism.”

This all ties into Barr’s final point about freedom of the press and free speech. As Tocqueville observed, a free press does much to prevent oppression and authoritarianism. In early American life, “a free and diverse press provided another form of decentralization of power that, as long as it remained diverse, made it difficult to galvanize a consolidated national majority.”

In assessing Barr’s recommended solutions, I’m reminded of one of the key argument from Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: “We face the problems of a fractured republic, and the solutions we pursue will need to call upon the strengths of a decentralized, diffuse, diverse, dynamic nation.”

While modern progressives see fragmentation as an opportunity for conformity and control, we ought to strive for a renewed cultural unity that comes from the bottom up. We have the chance and the channels to inspire renewal across civil society and public life. Far from needing to yield to the latest iteration of “milder” authoritarianism, we ought to start by better inhabiting our communities and protecting the very freedoms that allow us to create and collaborate in the first place.

(Photo credit: U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs. CC BY 2.0.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.