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Variations | American democracy (2)!

TO make American democracy more democratic, H.L. Mencken wrote in “Notes on Democracy (1926),” reformists have proposed the recall, the initiative and referendum, “or something else of the sort,” such as primaries, so that the “final determination of all important public questions…[will] be in the hands of the voters themselves. They alone can muster enough wisdom for the business, and they alone are without guile. The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.”

The result? “Every time anything of the kind is tried it fails ingloriously,” Mencken said. “Nor is there any evidence that it has ever succeeded elsewhere, today or in the past.”

Take New England’s town-meetings, for example. Such public meetings are supposed to give citizens a chance to be heard — to air their concerns. But Mencken said the New England town-meetings were actually “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….”

Giving women the ballot, Mencken said, was supposed to improve American democracy. But it “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.”

The “popular will,” Mencken said, “must remain purely theoretical for all time; there are insuperable impediments, solidly grounded in the common mind, to its realization. Moreover, there is no reason for believing that its realization, if it should ever be attained by miracle, would materially change the main outlines of the democratic process.”

After all, he added, the American people “are sheep…constantly bamboozled and exploited by small minorities of their own number, by determined and ambitious individuals, and even by exterior groups. The business of victimizing them is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and it has its quacks. Its lowest reward is a seat in Congress…; its highest reward is immortality.”

The typical citizen, Mencken said, “is quite willing to exchange any of the theoretical boons of freedom for something that he can use. 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 American people, Mencken said, “know what they want when they actually want it, and if they want it badly enough they get it. 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.”

As for the typical American lawmaker, “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 pretenses. 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.”

The U.S. House of Representatives, Mencken said, “is comparable to a gang of bootleggers” in terms of “intelligence, information and integrity.” A typical congressman dreams “to be chosen to go on a…junket, i.e., on a drunken holiday at government expense. His daily toil is getting jobs for relatives and retainers. Sometimes he puts a dummy on the pay-roll and collects the dummy’s salary himself.”

The U.S. Senate, for its part, “has cursed the country with such bucolic imbecilities as Prohibition.” In the whole history of human lawmaking, Mencken added, “there is no record of a failure worse than that of Prohibition in the United States.” (He didn’t live long enough to witness the more violent, more costly, and more idiotic war on drugs.)

As for the U.S. judiciary, it “sinks quite as low.” Mencken said “one seldom hears [judges] protesting, either ex cathedra or as citizens, against the extravagances and absurdities that fast reduce the whole legal system of the country to imbecility.”

All politics, under democracy, he added, “resolves itself into a series of dynastic questions: the objective is always the job, not the principle.”

As for the argument that decent and honorable men and women should go into politics to “clean it up,” Mencken said this is like saying “that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdy-houses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to be virgins.”

To be continued

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