Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, oil on canvas, 1836, Collection of The New-York Historical Society

Writing near the end of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed an apprehension that this new form of government in the United States might eventually yield to a new kind of despotism under which a central authority would minister to the wishes of the people while depriving them of the independence required for active citizenship. Tocqueville foresaw a “soft” despotism that, as he wrote, “does not break men’s will but softens, bends, and guides it; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders,...