Mencken on Disproportional Representation
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 disproportional representation, pages 97-107. Below is an overview of his discussion on disproportional representation; my comments are in brackets.
Disproportional representation “is intimately bound up with this question of disfranchised classes, for it must be plain that a community whose votes, man for man, count for only half as much as the votes of another community is one in which half of the citizens are, to every practical intent, unable to vote at all.” An example is the U.S. Senate. Regardless of population, each State has two Senators and no more. Moreover, the votes of Senators from States with small populations are the same as States with large populations. [Some democrats have proposed proportioning Senators among the States based on population. With no Constitutional authority, the U.S. Supreme Court imposed its democratic desires on the States by requiring them to proportion the legislative districts of both houses based on population. Before that ukase, most States proportioned at least one house of their legislature based on nonpopulation considerations. Also, before the Supreme Court ruling, rural areas and urban areas had approximate equality in State legislatures. After the ruling, rural areas lost their equality as urban areas gain control of both houses in most State legislatures.] Mencken comments on this issue of disproportional representation in State legislatures.
To overcome disproportional representation, “certain romantic fuglemen of so-called pure democracy . . . [came] forward with complicated remedies, all of which have been tried somewhere or other and failed miserably.” Mencken notes “that disproportional representation is not a device to nullify democracy, but simply a device to make it more workable.” Thus, in the United States, “the sovereign people have voluntarily sacrificed a moiety of the democratic theory in order to attain to a safer and more efficient practice.” [In a true republic, the majority lacks the power that Mencken describes. In a true republic, absolute political power resides in no individual or body — not even the largest majority. Checks and vetoes always exist to everyone’s and every group’s power.] If they so desire, they could get rid of all disproportional representation. [Lacking the patience to allow the people to change their disproportional representation systems in the States, the U.S. Supreme Court usurped their power and did it for them. Obviously, the Supreme Court did not trust the people with this decision for fear that the people would not abolish disproportional representation.]
Most people prefer disproportional representation because of a “wish to counterbalance an advantage lying in the very nature of things.” It “is not a wish to give one voter an advantage over another.” [Apparently, the U.S. Supreme Court believed otherwise. Based on its philosophy of “one man, one vote,” it swept away disproportional representation of the State legislatures.] Mencken explains that urban areas have a natural advantage over rural areas. The proximity of people in urban areas enables them to form opinions more quickly and uniformly and to maintain a solid front than people in rural areas, who are spread out more. Thus, people in urban areas “show all of the characters of men in a compact mob, and the voters of the rural regions, dispersed and largely inarticulate, cannot hope to prevail against them by ordinary means. So the yokels are given disproportionally heavy representation by way of make-weight: it enables them to withstand the city stampede.” In spite of disproportional representation, “the majority under democracy remains the majority, whatever laws and constitutions may say to the contrary, and when its blood is up it can get anything it wants.”
Mencken remarks, “Most of the so-called constitutional checks, in fact, have yielded, at one time or other, to its pressure. No one familiar with the history of the Supreme Court, for example, need be told that its vast and singular power to curb legislation has always been exercised with one eye on the election returns.” Early Supreme Court decisions have been “completely reversed afterwards, as the second thought of the plain people has differed from their first thought. This responsiveness to the shifts of popular opinion and passion is not alone due to the fact that the personnel of the court, owing to the high incidence of senile deterioration among its members, is constantly changing, and that the President and the Senators, in filling vacancies, are bound as practical politicians to consider the doctrines that happen to be fashionable in the cross-roads grocery stores and barbers’ shops. It is also due, and in no small measure, to the fact that the learned and puissant justices are, in the main, practical politicians themselves, and hence used to keeping their ears close to the grass roots.” [Thus, the United States have the “rule of men” and not the “rule of law,” which exists independent of even the largest majority.]
Mencken writes, “In boom times, indeed, democracy is always very impatient of what used to be called natural rights. The typical democrat is quite willing to exchange any of the theoretical boons of freedom for something that he can use.” Continuing, Mencken adds, “In most cases, perhaps, he is averse to selling his vote for cash in hand, but that is mainly because the price offered is usually too low. He will sell it very willingly for a good job or for some advantage in his business. Offering him such bribes, in fact, is the chief occupation of all political parties under democracy, and of all professional politicians.” [The welfare state has given the politician another avenue of offering legal bribes at the taxpayers’ expense.]
Whether ideal or not, democracy “works, and the people are actually sovereign.” The system works: “Any conceivable change in the laws could be effected without tampering with the fundamental scheme.” Therefore, the “inferior American [is hostile] to the thing called direct action — the darling of his equals in most other countries. He is against it, not merely because he is a coward and distrusts liberty, but also, and maybe mainly, because he believes that revolution, in the United States, is unnecessary — that any reform advocated by a respectable majority, or even by a determined minority, may be achieved peacefully and by constitutional means. In this belief he is right. The American people, keeping strictly within the Constitution, could do anything that the most soaring fancy suggested. They could, by a simple amendment of that hoary scripture, expropriate all the private property in the land, or they could expropriate parts of it and leave the rest in private hands; they have already, in fact, by tariff juggling, by Prohibition and by other devices, destroyed billions of dollars of property without compensation, and even without common politeness, and the Constitution still survives.” Mencken identifies many other things that the American people can do if they so willed. He provides a list of the horrendous actions that the sovereign people can lawfully do: “They could enfranchise aliens if they so desired, or children not taxed, or idiots, or the kine in the byres. They could disfranchise whole classes, e.g., metaphysicians or adulterers, or the entire population of given regions. [They disfranchised Southerners following the War for Southern Independence.] They have done such things. . . . Finally, they could, if they would, abandon the republican form of government altogether and set up a monarchy in place of it: during the late war [World War I] they actually did so in fact, though refraining from saying so frankly. They could do all of these things freely, and even legally, without departing in the slightest from the principles of their fundamental compact, and no exterior agency could make them do any of them unwillingly.” [Thus, they can make the likes of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot look like saints.]
Mencken adds, “The people, if they are actually sovereign, have a clear right to be wanton when the spirit moves them, and indifference to an issue is an expression of opinion about it. Thus . . . the masses are that part of the state which doesn’t know what it wants.” Next Mencken discusses what the people want: “What they want principally are safety and security. They want to be delivered from the bugaboos that ride them. They want to be soothed with mellifluous words. They want heroes to worship. They want the rough entertainment suitable to their simple minds. All of these things they want so badly that they are willing to sacrifice everything else in order to get them. . . . The science of politics under democracy consists in trading with them, i.e., in hoodwinking and swindling them. In return for what they want, or for the mere appearance of what they want, they yield up what the politician wants, and what the enterprising minorities behind him want.” [Since 9-11, most people have wanted security. The powers behind the politicians, i.e., big money, the military-industrial complex, and the security complex, want ever-expanding wars and ever-expanding police state. In the name of security, the American people have received more wars and a growing police state. Thus, liberty dies under democracy.]
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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