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A Man Without Divisions

Notes on Democracy

By H.L. Mencken
Introduction by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Afterword by Anthony Lewis
Dissident Books, 2012

H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, reissued this year by Dissident Books, was published in 1926, a year after The Great Gatsby, four years before The 42nd Parallel, and three years before Black Tuesday. It was a time known for escapism, for putting the carnage of a world war behind and embracing a newfound and seemingly limitless prosperity. But if it is the pundit’s task to face unpleasant facts, speak ugly truths, and to take great pleasure in doing so, the Roaring Twenties was very much Mencken’s decade. He spread displeasure with jovial sadism. “I enjoy democracy immensely,” Mencken states toward the conclusion of Notes on Democracy. “It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” The book was every bit as polarizing as Mencken had likely hoped. Many reviewers hated it on principle, while Walter Lippmann compared it favorably to The Social Contract and The Rights of Man. Edmund Wilson read it as a prose poem, the anti-Leaves of Grass. It gained a wide array of fans from New York flappers to the dethroned Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It proved a near-perfect coda for Mencken’s career, the work of which would fall out of favor after the Crash. Nevertheless, Mencken’s views had a wide, generation-spanning appeal, which, rendered in fine prose, made him one of that rare breed of pundit who outlasts his own zeitgeist. Though not massively popular today, he commands a certain awe among young, rough-and-tumble journalists and bloggers. His verbal agility, lack of manners and total disregard for party lines still attracts as much as repels.

By the mid-1920s it was clear that H.L. Mencken had had his fill of American folly, if not America altogether. He had endured controversy that led to costly legal battles over the right to publish his magazine The American Mercury; he had witnessed firsthand the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial and become one of the nation’s most trenchant critics of America’s growing war machine. Though he’d tackled these separately in his columns and magazine pieces (many by that time collected in his classic Prejudices series), in Notes on Democracy he mounted a more comprehensive assault on America’s promise.

In keeping with the tradition of the pamphlet, Mencken’s first priority was not necessarily persuasion so much as shock attack, lampooning and bludgeoning. As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers writes in her introduction, many of the topics had been Mencken’s pet subjects for some time. “[T]he many facets of Mencken’s character,” Rodgers writes, “were tied to a single principle: ‘I am strongly in favor of liberty and I hate fraud.’ This then ran through all of his writings, whether literary criticism or political polemic.” His strategy had much in common with that of today’s most abrasive demagogues, like Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza. But where they skin their enemies Mencken removes their clothes, hogties them, and parades them around town; where they are shamelessly partisan he is shamelessly rogue; and where they are humorless he is ribald. Where they pander to a demographic he is, shall we say, less reassuring:

The American people, true enough, are sheep. Worse, they are donkeys. Yet worse, to borrow from their own dialect, they are goats. They are constantly bamboozled and exploited by small minorities of their own number, by determined and ambitious individuals, and even by exterior groups. The business of victimizing them is a lucrative business, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art … Its lowest rewards is a seat in Congress, or a job as a Prohibition agent … its highest reward is immortality.

Walter Bagehot once wrote that “the most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale … is much stupidity.” In examining the democratic, or “inferior,” man, Mencken found a great deal of stupidity, as well as fear, envy and stunted maturity. What was rarely in evidence was an developed understanding of liberty. “Liberty is unfathomable to him,” Mencken writes. “He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honor. What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is the right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors.” When notions of liberty are encountered they are met with hostility:

[Pangs of liberty] make him uncomfortable; they alarm him; they fill him with a great loneliness. There is no high adventurousness in him, but only fear. He not only doesn’t long for liberty; he is quite unable to stand it. What he longs for is something wholly different, to wit, security, he needs protection. He is afraid of getting hurt. All else is affectation, delusion, empty words.

Mencken’s inferior man acts in total defiance to the “superior man,” whom Mencken characterizes as some less bloated version of Ernst Jünger’s “anarch”: civilized, honorable, individualistic, not swayed by majority opinion, demagoguery or party lines. (Anyone like Mencken, I reckon.) By contrast the inferior man is, as Rodgers notes, like the hopeless Yahoo of Gulliver’s Travels. Mencken distinguishes the two species further by dividing them into two cultures: the rural fundamentalist or “yokel” and the urban progressive or “proletariat.” The former is filled with evangelical fervor to stamp out “heretics” and quash vice of any kind, the latter driven by economic envy, public services, and “politics, drink and the radio.” “When the city mob fights,” writes Mencken, “it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage. When it wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not directed wholly to that end.”

Throughout Mencken’s visceral account are details that have transcended his own time, though they would be given more scholarly attention by Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter. Nevertheless Mencken’s critiques prove useful in recounting the mutating ideologies of American political parties during his era. Before the rise of his nemesis Franklin Roosevelt, Mencken could not be bothered much by party loyalty; indeed, those few presidents he actually liked were not limited to one party. He wrote that Grover Cleveland was a “good man in a bad trade” and admired Calvin Coolidge for having “no ideas.” These judgments represented his small government principles, which were undergoing a shift from one party to the other. Cleveland split the Democrats after his second term, giving way to the rise of William Jennings Bryan. Teddy Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for reform did not transfer to Taft, creating a window of opportunity for Woodrow Wilson to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt.

Mencken pays special attention to Bryan, who crusaded against “everything [the superior minority] regarded as sound sense and intellectual decency” once he realized his chances at the White House had evaporated. Bryan, Mencken felt, was driven more by hatred than by religious fervor:

If Bryan had confined himself, in 1896, to the chase of the bugaboo of plutocracy, it is very probable he would have been elected … It was his cross-of-gold speech that nominated him, it was his cow State political economy that ruined him. Bryan was a highly unintelligent man, a true son of the mob, and thus never learned anything by experience.

That people fell so deeply in love with Bryan over the course of several elections hardly shocks Mencken, who felt that Bryan was one in a long line of figures who were easy slavers of those who “still believe in ghosts”:

Behind all the great tyrants and butchers of history [the inferior man] has marched with loud hosannas, but his hand is eternally against those who seek to liberate the spirit of the race. He was in favour of Nero and Torquemada by instinct, and he was against Galileo and Savonarola by the same instinct. When Cagliostro dies he is ready for a Danton; from the funeral of a Barnum he rushes to the triumph of a Bryan.

Christ himself and his Christianity have fallen victim to the “eternal mob” as well:

The mob, having heard Christ, turned against Him, and applauded His crucifixion. His theological ideas were too logical and too plausible for it, and his ethical ideas were enormously too austere. What it yearned for was the old comfortable balderdash under a new and gaudy name, and that is precisely what Paul offered it.

St. Paul, in Mencken’s estimation, is the Godfather of the demagogues, “the prophet of the sewers.”

But Nero and Danton had real political power, even if they weren’t successful at managing it. Bryan offered himself as President three times from 1896 to 1908 and fell short to his elitist competition. St. Paul may have bastardized Christ’s teachings, just as Lenin did to Marx’s and everyone did to Nietzsche’s, but his efforts made an enduring institution of them, and with greater intellectual variety than Mencken gives it credit for. Bryan’s crusades against alcohol and Darwinism boast no such achievements, unless one counts the War on Drugs. Though Bryan had clearly fallen from grace by the time the book was published, it was still too soon afterward to understand the limits of fanaticism.

Mencken calls the American public “sheep,” but they’re sheep who like to wander, especially at the polls. In the 1928 presidential election, populist New York Governor Al Smith was destroyed by Herbert Hoover, who in turn was defeated by the rich, Harvard-educated and decidedly non-Irish-Catholic New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt—who then used Al Smith’s policies as a foundation for the New Deal. Likewise Barry Goldwater’s preference of extremism over moderation was rejected in favor of the Just Society in 1964, but resurfaced more successfully in the Thomas Paine quoting B-movie actor Ronald Reagan. Americans prefer true believers but elect pragmatists, and rather than rejecting superior men they embrace great men who are very similar but more tolerable of other people.

Mencken’s anti-populism has had a tenuous effect, if any, on our political conversation; it has, however, managed to echo a great distance intellectually and in more than one direction. There is a wide gulf between Ayn Rand and Richard Hofstadter in ideology, temperament and talent, but is bridged by their admiration of Mencken. The superior man is reborn into almost operatic proportions in Rand’s novels, while Mencken’s eternal mob proves ever undying in Hofstadter’s studies of right wing populism and anti-intellectualism. Both have eclipsed Mencken in time, Rand dazzling budding young antisocialists, Hofstadter’s academic credibility and more restrained prose style adding authority to anti-Tea Party columns and blog posts.

Where Mencken has managed not to be outdone, though, is in civil liberties. He stands out because he supported them unambiguously and regardless of consequence. At the center of this book, and indeed his entire oeuvre, is a disdain for authority that far outshines his disdain for the people who cheer it on even at their own expense. Mencken is probably one of the last people in America to use the term Puritan to categorize a subset of the country, but it fits in describing a disposition that still clings to American society:

The Puritan, discussing [his legislation] voluptuously, always tries to convince himself (and the rest of us) that it is grounded in altruistic and evangelical motives … Such is the theory behind Prohibition, comstockery [sic], vice crusading, and all its other familiar devices of oppression … The Puritan’s actual motives are (a) to punish the other fellow for having a better time in the world and (b) to bring the other fellow down to his own unhappy level.

If fascism and communism are the systems of devils then democracy is the system of schoolyard bullies:

In many American States … it is almost a literal fact that the citizen has no rights that the police are bound to respect. These awful powers are not exercised against all citizens. The man of influence with the reigning politicians, the supporter of the prevailing delusions—these are seldom molested. But the man who finds himself in an unpopular minority is at the mercy of the Polizei, and the easiest way to get into such a minority is to speak out boldly for the Bill of Rights. Men have been clubbed and jailed in Pennsylvania for merely mentioning it; scores have been jailed for protesting against its violation.

Stripped of his more specific animosities, Mencken’s critique of populism stands on solid ground. Popular discourse today is fixated on majorities, specifically majorities against an elite minority. It exists across the political spectrum, from Glenn Beck’s incantations of “we surround them” on the right to the 99 percent movement on the left. But these, in truth, represent very few people. True majoritarian power rests in the center. People have poured millions of dollars and lent their notable names to groups such as No Labels and Americans Elect which, in haughty Lincolnian terms, seeks to mend the wounds of a divided nation. The PC centrist credo dictates that one must not say anything unless it is said in a “civil” tone. This has infected even the likes of satirists like Jon Stewart, whose apparent liberal irreverence is more and more undercut by his impulse to find a moral high ground through a Clintonian middle route.

It then becomes a problem that H.L. Mencken is still revered as mostly an iconoclast alone and not as a progenitor of iconoclasts. He has his descendents of course: Alexander Cockburn, Ellen Willis, Bill Hicks, etc., but most of them go largely unnoticed in this country (Cockburn’s recent death was met with very little commemoration). Each election year brims with cynicism and skepticism regarding our political process, but just as often end with relief that the system did not cave in on itself. Americans are more fatigued than cynical. In the end they emerge from the battle royale of political disputes simply wanting people to be nicer to each other and maybe, just maybe, voting Democrat. Mencken made no such efforts at comity:

The mob man, acting as a citizen, gets a really a feeling that he is really important in the world—that he is genuinely running things. After this maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a vast and mysterious power—which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, the conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters—which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done—which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.

All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last. The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is forever coming down with a thump.

Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.

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