Mencken on the Popular Will
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 popular will, pages 85-97. Below is an overview of his discussion of the popular will; my comments are in brackets.
No distinction can be made between representative democracy and pure democracy in practice with the “constant conflicts between what is assumed to be the popular will and the self-interest of small but articulate and efficient groups, and that theoretical variety which would liberate and energize the popular will completely. The latter must remain purely theoretical for all time.” Moreover, an energized and liberated popular will is unlikely to change the “main outlines of the democratic process.”
“What is genuinely important is not that the will of mankind in the mass should be formulated and made effective at all times and in every case, but simply that means should be provided for ascertaining and executing it in capital cases — that there shall be no immovable impediment to its execution when, by some prodigy of nature, it takes a coherent and apposite form. If, over and beyond that, a sufficient sense of its immanent and imminent potency remains to make politicians walk a bit warily, if the threat always hangs in the air that under x circumstances and on y day it may be heard from suddenly and devastatingly, then democracy is actually in being.” Mencken believes this is the case in the United States and Northwest Europe.
Mencken notes that the people and the Pope checked the monarch’s power. If he oppressed his people too much, they could rise against him. Although a king, he was still “biologically only a man, with but one gullet to slit; and if the people were feeble or too craven to be dangerous, then there was always His Holiness of Rome to fear or other agents of the King of Kings; and if these ghostly mentors, too, were silent, then he had to reckon with his ministers, his courtiers, his soldiers, his doctors, and his women.” Thus, the power of the most despotic autocrat is limited. [Stalin probably died at the hands of his doctors while he was planning another purge. Hitler’s generals almost assassinated him.] Mencken remarks that the “Merovingian kings were certainly absolute, if absolutism has ever existed outside the dreams of historians; nevertheless, . . . their sovereignty was gradually undermined by the mayors of the palace, and finally taken from them altogether.” Likewise, the emperor of Japan “succumbed to the shoguns, who succumbed in their turn to a combination of territorial nobles and city capitalists.”
Mencken comments “that the common people, under such a democracy as that which now prevails in the United States, are more completely sovereign in fact as well as in law, than any of these ancient despots. They may be seduced and enchained by a great variety of prehensile soothsayers, just as Henry VIII was seduced and enchained by his wives, but, like Henry again, they are quite free to throw off their chains whenever they please, and to chop off the heads of their seducers.” They can throw off their chains merely by “intimidating Congress, which never fails to leap when their growl is palpably in earnest. And if Congress stood out against them, they could do it anyhow, under protection of the jury system. The executioners, once acquitted, could not be molested more, save by illegal processes.” [Nearly all the common people underestimate the power that they have as a juror. A juror is accountable to no one — not the judge, the Supreme Court of the State or the United States, and certainly not the governor or president. If a juror finds that a law is repugnant or that it is being used unlawfully, he merely finds the accused not guilty — and if he has the courage, no power on earth can legally or lawfully force him to change his mind.]
Next, Mencken comments on a paradox of democracy. Democrats often argue that democracy is incomplete if certain classes of people are not allowed to vote. Mencken remarks, “To argue thus is to argue against democracy itself, for if the majority has not the right to decide what qualifications shall be necessary to participate in its sovereignty, then it has no sovereignty at all.” Usually, the disfranchised class “is not actively eager, as a whole, for the ballot, and that its lack of interest in the matter is at least presumptive evidence of its general political incompetence.” Democracy came into existence by being “forced upon its beneficiaries by a small group of visionaries, all of them standing outside the class benefited.”
As an example, Mencken uses giving women the vote. “The great masses of women in all countries were indifferent to the boon, and there was a considerable body that was cynically hostile. Perhaps a majority of the more ardent suffragists belonged biologically to neither sex.” He continues, “Giving women the ballot . . . has brought in none of the great reforms promised by the suffragists. It has substituted adultery for drunkenness as the principal divertissement at political conventions, but it has accomplished little else.” Moreover, “[t]he majority of women, when they vote at all, seem to vote unwillingly and without clear purpose; they are, perhaps, relatively too intelligent to have any faith in purely political remedies for the sorrows of the world. The minorities that show partisan keenness are chiefly made up of fat women with inattentive husbands; they are victimized easily by the male politicians, especially those who dress well, and are thus swallowed up by the great parties and lose all separate effectiveness. . . . The extension of the franchise has not changed the general nature of the political clown-show in the slightest. Campaigns are still made upon the same old issues, and offices go to the same old mountebanks, with a few Jezebels added to the corps to give it refinement.” [Little has changed since Mencken wrote this. What change that has occurred has been mostly for the worse. Often fear and security sells slightly better to women than to men, but probably not enough to make any real difference.]
Mencken adds, “There is little reason for believing that the extension of the franchise to the classes that still remain in the dark would make government more delicately responsive to the general will. Such classes, as a matter of fact, are now so few and so small in numbers in all of the Western nations that they may be very conveniently disregarded.”
Next, Mencken discusses the Black voter. Blacks who are actually disfranchised “may remove their disability by the simple device of moving away, as, in fact, hundreds of thousands have done. Their disfranchisement is thus not intrinsic and complete, but merely a function of their residence.” [For most Blacks that meant moving North since most Blacks lived in the South. However, the Yankee did not want them to move North; they wanted them to stay in their place.] Moreover, “the theory of the fundamental law is that the coloured folk may and do vote. This theory they could convert into a fact at any time by determined mass action.” [This was done in the 1960s through the fronts of the Communist party as part of the Second Reconstruction, when the United States again reminded the Southern States that they were merely conquered provinces of the United States.] If Blacks were not willing to fight for the vote, they did not deserve it. Not fighting for the vote, “convicts them of unfitness for citizenship in a democratic state, for the loftiest of all the rights of the citizen, by the democratic dogma, is that of the franchise, and whoever is not willing to fight for it, even at the cost of his last drop of gore, is surely not likely to exercise it with a proper sense of consecration after getting it.”
No one argues that democracy in the United States is destroyed when millions of White citizens who are eligible to vote fail to do so. “The difference between these negligent whites and the disfranchised Negroes is only superficial.” For example, he writes, “In New York City thousands of freeborn Caucasians surrender it in order to avoid jury duty; in the South thousands of Negroes surrender it in order to avoid having their homes burned and their heads broken. The two motives are fundamentally identical; in each case the potential voter values his peace and security more than he values the boon for which the Fathers bled. He certainly has a right to choose.” [If one wants to avoid jury duty, he can accomplish that without giving up his vote. He merely lets the judge or prosecutor know that he believes in jury nullification. That belief will get him removed from the jury pool. However, this tactic may not work for civil suits as the violation of a law is usually not involved.]
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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