H.L. Mencken on Reclaiming Democracy from the Mob Mentality That Masquerades for It
“This fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon… nowhere so horribly apparent as in the United States, perhaps the nearest approach to an actual democracy yet seen in the world.”
By Maria Popova
In a recent conversation with the smartest person I know, she suggested that society might have a certain threshold for the tolerable rate of change, past which people begin to shut down and push back on progress. As Bob Dylan put it, “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.” Perhaps it is that if we dismantle our crutches too quickly and attempt to leap forward, we end up falling backward — crutches though they may be, the limiting beliefs that exist in any given society at any given time exist for a reason, as a comfort and a hedge against the overwhelming uncertainty of progress and possibility. When a society has shed its crutches of inequality in a relatively short period — from finally recognizing the dignity of all love with marriage equality to finally taking stock of a generations-old wound with Black Lives Matter — vast swaths of the population are perhaps bound to find the rate of change intolerable, bound to find themselves tossed into a brave new world that feels incomprehensible and uncertain, and to react by facing backward rather than forward.
How are we to make sense of this primal and perilous human instinct?
The influential scholar, journalist, satirist, and cultural commentator H.L. Mencken (September 12, 1880–January 29, 1956), celebrated as “the Sage of Baltimore,” explored precisely that in an incisive article for the Baltimore Sun published in July of 1920 and later included in the posthumous Mencken anothology On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (public library).
A more politically wakeful and wokeful Twain, Mencken bridged rigorous scholarship with satire to dismantle the hypocrisies of populism. In some ways, like everyone who ever lived, he was a perfect product of his time flawed by present standards; in others, he was a deep and far seer into a future that has proven itself as today’s present. In this strikingly prescient piece, Mencken is writing just three weeks before women won the right to vote. (A decade later, he would fall in love with and marry Sara Haardt, a German-American professor of English and an Alabama native who had been on the front lines of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment in the Deep South.) Despite his dated gendered language, to which there remains only one adequate response, Mencken’s ideas remain at least as sobering today as they were nearly a century ago.
The weakness of those of us who take a gaudy satisfaction in our ideas, and battle for them violently, and face punishment for them willingly and even proudly, is that we forget the primary business of the man in politics, which is the snatching and safeguarding of his job. That business, it must be plain, concerns itself only occasionally with the defense and propagation of ideas, and even then it must confine itself to those that, to a reflective man, must usually appear to be insane. The first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes — to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.
It seems to me that this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon, and that it is nowhere so horribly apparent as in the United States, perhaps the nearest approach to an actual democracy yet seen in the world. It was Americans who invented the curious doctrine that there is a body of doctrine in every department of thought that every good citizen is in duty bound to accept and cherish; it was Americans who invented the right-thinker. The fundamental concept, of course, was not original. The theologians embraced it centuries ago, and continue to embrace it to this day. It appeared on the political side in the Middle Ages, and survived in Russia into our time. But it is only in the United States that it has been extended to all departments of thought. It is only here that any novel idea, in any field of human relations, carries with it a burden of obnoxiousness, and is instantly challenged as mysteriously immoral by the great masses of right-thinking men. It is only here, so far as I have been able to make out, that there is a right way and a wrong way to think about the beverages one drinks with one’s meals, and the way children ought to be taught in the schools, and the manner in which foreign alliances should be negotiated, and what ought to be done about the Bolsheviki.
A century and a half after Kierkegaard’s piercing insight into the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Mencken considers the codified conformity — or, per the vital distinction artist Ben Shahn made, conformism — that masquerades as democracy:
In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life.
Such tests arise inevitably out of democracy — the domination of unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. In private life no man of sense would think of applying them. We do not estimate the integrity and ability of an acquaintance by his flabby willingness to accept our ideas; we estimate him by the honesty and effectiveness with which he maintains his own… But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand…
The larger the mob, the harder the test.
Following this tendency to its logical end, Mencken concludes:
As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Mencken’s On Politics remains abrim with piercing and prescient insight on public life and its most deadening pathologies. Complement it with Leonard Cohen’s unreleased, remarkably timely verses on democracy, then revisit Walt Whitman on why literature is essential to a democratic society and John F. Kennedy’s sublime speech on poetry and power.
Published November 14, 2016