Title: Notes on Democracy (Large Print Edition)
Author: H. L. Mencken
On the one hand, Mencken, a German, believed in the superiority of his people, leading him to take a pro-German stance during World War I, though he turned against Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. Many of the statements in his diaries smack of racism and anti-Semitism. In addition, he had a general elitist and aristocratic tendency that manifested itself in his disdain for the American public as a whole. Author Fred Siegel’s recent “Revolt Against the Masses” covers Mencken in all his odiousness.
On the other hand, Mencken routinely lampooned groups like the Ku Klux Klan, attacked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his refusal to accept Jewish refugees, and took a number of pro-liberty positions, from unmercifully savaging the New Deal, to consistently harping on the dangers of mob rule under a democracy — a position consistent with the Founders which led them to develop the American system as a Republican one.
What is undeniable however is that he was one of the great satirists of the 20th century, and politicians were one of the groups of people that he particularly loved to lambast.
Below are 10 quotes from his “Notes on Democracy,” published in 1926, that perfectly characterize America’s political class.
1. ”The politician…is the courtier of democracy…it was of the essence of the courtier’s art and mystery that he flattered his employer in order to victimize him, yielded to him in order to rule him. The politician under democracy does precisely the same thing.”
2. ”His business is never what it pretends to be. Ostensibly he is an altruist devoted whole-heartedly to the service of his fellow men, and so abjectly public-spirited that his private interest is nothing to him. Actually he is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips. His technical equipment consists simply of an armamentarium of deceits.”
3. ”It is his business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.”
4. ”His ear is ever close to the ground. If he is an adept, he can hear the first murmurs of popular clamour before even the people themselves are conscious of them. If he is a master, he detects and whoops up to-day the delusions that the mob will cherish next year.”
5. ”There is in him, in his professional aspect, no shadow of principle or honour. It is moral by his code to get into office by false pretences, as the late Dr. [Woodrow] Wilson did in 1916. It is moral to change convictions overnight, as multitudes of American politicians did when the Prohibition avalanche came down upon them. Anything is moral that furthers the main concern of his soul, which is to keep a place at the public trough. That place is one of public honour, and public honour is the thing that caresses him and makes him happy. It is also one of power, and power is the commodity that he has for sale. I speak here, of course, of the democratic politician in his role of statesman – that is, in his best and noblest aspect.”
6. ”The art of politics, under democracy, is simply the art of ringing it. Two branches reveal themselves. There is the art of the demagogue, and there is the art of what may be called, by a shot-gun marriage of Latin and Greek, the demaslave. They are complementary, and both of them are degrading to their practitioners. The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots. The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself. Every man who seeks elective office under democracy has to be either the one thing or the other, and most men have to be both. The whole process is one of false pretences and ignoble concealments.”
7. ”Out of the muck of…swinishness the typical American law-maker emerges. He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot-polish. He has suffered kicks in the tonneau of his pantaloons.
He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense. His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretences. He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him. I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.”
8. ”It is almost an axiom that no man may make a career in politics in the Republic without stooping to such ignobility: it is as necessary as a loud voice. Now and then, to be sure, a man of sounder self-respect may make a beginning, but he seldom gets very far. Those who survive are nearly all tarred, soon or late, with the same stick. They are men who, at some time or other, have compromised with their honour, either by swallowing their convictions or by whooping for what they believe to be untrue.”
9. ”It is an axiom of practical politics, indeed, that the worst enemies of political decency are the tired reformers – and the worst of the worst are those whose primary thirst to make the corruptible put on incorruption was accompanied by a somewhat sniffish class consciousness. Has the United States ever seen a more violent and shameless demagogue than Theodore Roosevelt? Yet Roosevelt came into politics as a sword drawn against demagogy.”
10. ”I do not say that a gentleman may not thrust himself into politics under democracy; I simply say that it is almost impossible for him to stay there and remain a gentleman…If he retains his rectitude he loses his office, and if he retains his office he has to dilute his rectitude with the cologne spirits of the trade…the man of native integrity is either barred from the public service altogether or subjected to almost irresistible temptations after he gets in.”