Mencken on Politics under Democracy
In 1926, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) wrote Notes on Democracy in which he expressed his views on democracy and related issues. He was a journalist, satirist, and critic and a libertarian and one of the leaders of the Old Right. In his book, he describes politics under democracy, pages 29-35. Below is an overview of his discussion on politics under democracy; my comments are in brackets.
Since fear controls politics under democracy, politicians use it to manipulate the mob. “The demagogues, i.e., the professors of mob psychology, who flourish in democratic states are well aware of the fact, and make it the corner-stone of their exact and puissant science.” Thus, “[P]olitics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper.” The whole history of the United States “has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholics, Simon Legree, the Slave Power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell-hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, General Weyler, Pancho Villa, German spies, hyphenates, the Kaiser, Bolshevism.” [Many of these threats were real; however, politicians exaggerated them to terrorize the mob. Politicians used this tactic of fear to get the American people to beg for the police state following 9-11. Fear has been used to terrorize the people to demand just about every enslaving program that the US government have ever adopted.]
Under democracy, the plain people “never vote for anything, but always against something.” Consequently, the democratic state tends “to pass over statesmen of genuine imagination and sound ability in favour of colourless mediocrities. The former are shining marks, and so it is easy for demagogues to bring them down; the latter are preferred because it is impossible to fear them.” [The demagogue is a democratic man and is, therefore, part of the mob. Thus, being one of them, the plain people understand him and do not fear him. Does this explain the rabid fear that the common Democrat and many Republicans have of President Trump and especially his supporters and their embracement of Hillary Clinton?] Mencken continues, “The demagogue himself, when he grows ambitious and tries to posture as a statesman, usually comes ignominiously to grief, as the cases of Bryan, [Theodore] Roosevelt, and Wilson dramatically demonstrate.”
Using Bryan as an example, Mencken shows the rise and fall of a demagogue. “If Bryan had confined himself, in 1896, to the chase of the bugaboo of plutocracy, it is very probable that he would have been elected. But he committed the incredible folly of throwing most of his energies into advocating a so-called constructive programme, and it was thus easy for his opponents to alarm the mob against him. That programme had the capital defect of being highly technical, and hence almost wholly unintelligible to all save a small minority; so it took on a sinister look, and caused a shiver to go down the democratic spine.” [Consequently, most political campaigns consist almost entirely of slogans and mudslinging with little or no details about what the candidate plans to do if he wins.] Continuing, Mencken writes, “It was his cross-of-gold speech that nominated him; it was his cow State political economy that ruined him.”
According to Mencken, “[g]overnment under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm. Its processes are most beautifully displayed at times when they stand most naked — for example, in war days.” He uses World War I, which was then known as World War, to illustrate the use of fear to manipulate mob psychology. “[T]he World War is simply a record of conflicting fears, more than once amounting to frenzies. The mob, at the start of the uproar, showed a classical reaction: it was eager only to keep out of danger. . . . In 1916, on his fraudulent promise to preserve that boy from harm, Wilson was re-elected.” Then came the task of the demagogue to convert the people to warmongers. “The problem was to substitute a new and worse fear for the one that prevailed — a new fear so powerful that it would reconcile the mob to the thought of entering the war.” Right after the election, all agencies of the US government began clamoring for war. “No ship went down to a submarine’s torpedo anywhere on the seven seas that the State Department did not report that American citizens — nay, American infants in their mothers’ arms — were aboard. Diplomatic note followed diplomatic note, each new one surpassing all its predecessors in moral indignation. The Department of Justice ascribed all fires, floods and industrial accidents to German agents. The newspapers were filled with dreadful surmises, many of them officially inspired, about the probable effects upon the United States of the prospective German victory.” As a result, the mob became convinced “that a victorious Germany would unquestionably demand an accounting for the United States’ gross violations of neutrality.” Thus, the demagogue gave the mob a choice of fears. “The first was a fear of a Germany heavily beset, but making alarming progress against her foes. The second was a fear of a Germany delivered from them, and thirsting for revenge on a false and venal friend.” The second fear won. Soon the mob “was reconciled to entering the war — reconciled, but surely not eager.” Now the demagogues had the task “of converting reluctant acquiescence into enthusiasm.” A new fear was the solution. Thus, the government strove to throw “the plain people into a panic. All sense was heaved overboard, and there ensued a chase of bugaboos on a truly epic scale. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the world before, for no democratic state as populous as the United States had ever gone to war before.” By the end of 1917, the American people “were in such terror that they lived in what was substantially a state of siege, though the foe was 3,000 miles away and obviously unable to do them any damage.” Only the draft “gave them sufficient courage to attempt actual hostilities. That ingenious device, by relieving the overwhelming majority of them of any obligation to take up arms, made them bold.” Mencken continues, “Before it was adopted they were heavily in favour of contributing only munitions and money to the cause of democracy, with perhaps a few divisions of Regulars added for the moral effect. But once it became apparent that a given individual, John Doe, would not have to serve, he, John Doe, developed an altruistic eagerness for a frontal attack in force. For every Richard Roe in the conscript camps there were a dozen John Does thus safely at home, with wages high and the show growing enjoyable.” Mencken concludes, “So an heroic mood came upon the people, and their fear was concealed by a truculent front. But not from students of mob psychology.” [Today, the same use of fear is being used to manipulate psychology in the War on Terrorism with all agencies of the government and their collaborators in the media inciting war. President Bush’s inane remark that “if we do not fight them over there, we will have to fight them here” was an insult of the highest magnitude of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. How could anyone with no air force and no navy attack the United States, unless the Bush regime let them into the country?]
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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