Mencken on the Two Types of 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 the two types of democracy, pages 79-85. Below is an overview of his discussion of the two types of democracy; my comments are in brackets.
[Representative democracy and direct democracy are the two types of democracies that Mencken discusses.]
Mencken states, “Sovereignty is in him [the lowly Christian, i.e., the inferior man], sometimes both actually and legally, but always actually. Whatever he wants badly enough he can get. If he is misled by mountebanks and swindled by scoundrels it is only because his credulity and imbecility cover a wider area than his simple desires.” Continuing, Mencken writes, “The precise form of the government he suffers under is of small importance. Whether it be called a constitutional monarchy, as in England, or a representative republic, as in France, or a pure democracy, as in some of the cantons of Switzerland, it is always essentially the same. There is, first, the mob, theoretically and in fact the ultimate judge of all ideas and the source of all power. There is, second, the camorra of self-seeking minorities, each seeking to inflame, delude and victimize it. The political process thus becomes a mere battle of rival rogues. But the mob remains quite free to decide between them.” Occasionally and miraculously, the mob chooses the relatively honest and enlightened. More often, it chooses the thieves “because their words are words it understands and their ideas are ideas it cherishes.” Nevertheless, the mob “has the power to throw them off at will, and even at whim, and it also has the means.” [As the lowly Christian is now a minority of the mob in most democratic countries, if Mencken were to write this today, he would need to use another descriptor of the mob. Possibly, he uses “Christian” because he has a low opinion of Christians.]
Mencken contends, “A great deal of paper and ink has been wasted discussing the difference between representative government and direct democracy.” Many of these pundits conclude that representative government is full of defects. “Not only does it take the initiative in law-making out of the hands of the plain people and leave them only the function of referees; it also raises certain obvious obstacles to their free exercise of that function.” Being scattered and unorganized, the people are unable “to formulate their virtuous desires quickly and clearly, or to bring to the resolution of vexed questions the full potency of their native sagacity. Worse, they find it difficult to enforce their decisions, even when they have decided.”
Liberals cry over this fact. Their remedy is usually a “purer democracy.” That is, they propose “the recall, the initiative and referendum, or something else of the sort, and so convert the representative into a mere clerk or messenger.” Thus, they place “the final determination of all important public questions . . . in the hands of the voters themselves.” Only the voters “can muster enough wisdom for the business, and they alone are without guile. The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” [As witnessed in the United States, as the qualifications needed to be a voter has been lowered, the quality of government has declined. As the quality of government has declined, its power over and control of the people have grown.]
Mencken notes that more democracy has never cured the evils of democracy. He adds, “Certainly no competent historian believes that the citizens assembled in a New England town-meeting actually formulated en masse the transcendental and immortal measures that they adopted, nor even that they contributed anything of value to the discussion thereof.” Mencken remarks that this “notion is as absurd as the parallel notion, long held by philologues of defective powers of observation, that the popular ballads surviving from earlier ages were actually composed by the folk. The ballads, in point of fact, were all written by concrete poets, most of them not of the folk; the folk, when they had any hand in the business at all, simply acted as referees, choosing which should survive.” Likewise, “the New England town-meeting was led and dominated by a few men of unusual initiative and determination, some of them genuinely superior, but most of them simply demagogues and fanatics. The citizens in general heard the discussion of rival ideas, and went through the motions of deciding between them, but there is no evidence that they ever had all the relevant facts before them or made any effort to unearth them, or that appeals to their reason always, or even usually, prevailed
over appeals to their mere prejudice and superstition. . . . Some of the most idiotic decisions ever come to by mortal man were made by the New England town-meetings, and under the leadership of monomaniacs who are still looked upon as ineffable blossoms of the contemporary Kultur.” [What would one expect from Puritans?]
Nevertheless, “the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen.” [Thus, incumbents usually win elections.]
Mencken adds that “both forms of democracy encounter the difficulty that the generality of citizens, no matter how assiduously they may be instructed, remain congenitally unable to comprehend many of the problems before them, or to consider all of those they do comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner.” [This inability to comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner is also true of most members of Congress and State legislatures.]
Continuing, Mencken remarks that “the great masses of Americans of to-day, though they are theoretically competent to decide all the larger matters of national policy, and have certain immutable principles, of almost religious authority, to guide them, actually look for leading to professional politicians, who are influenced in turn by small but competent and determined minorities, with special knowledge and special interests.” [Liberals and progressives consider the people intelligent and competent enough to decide who will govern the country, at least until they elected Donald Trump, but they consider the people too stupid and incompetent to govern their own lives. The people need enlightened liberals and progressives whom they have elected to govern the country to govern their lives.] By this means, the plain people were shoved into World War I. “They were, in overwhelming majority, against going in, and if they had had any sense and resolution they would have stayed out. But these things they lacked.” [The same thing happened with World War II. Roosevelt maneuvered the people into war that most did not want by maneuvering Japan into attacking U.S. territory.]
In conclusion, the difference between representative democracy and pure democracy is more apparent than real.
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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