Notes on Democracy

Title: Notes on Democracy

Author: H.L. Mencken

Copyright: 1926

I have quoted a number of passages from H.L. Mencken’s Notes On Democracy,1926. H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was an American Journalist and author of the first half of the 20th century. As is often the case on a political treatise I use a few quotes by the author rather than do a clumsy attempt to convey a message by someone whose literary talent is far beyond my capabilities. It was republished by Dissident Books New York, New York. This edition has a section with comprehensive annotations.

He is cynical, caustic and witty and calls it like he sees it. Recommended reading. An Easy read and not a long book but will keep you chuckling at his accurate observations.

“What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by some sort of seraphic intuition. Their yearnings are pure; they alone are capable of a perfect patriotism; in them is the only hope of peace and happiness on this lugubrious ball. The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy!”

“This notion, as I hint, originated in the poetic fancy of gentlemen on the upper levels – sentimentalists who, observing to their distress that the ass was overladen, proposed to reform transport by putting him into the cart.”

“Everywhere its fundamental axioms are accepted: (a) that the great masses of men have an inalienable right, born of the very nature of things, to govern themselves, and (b) that they are competent to do it.”

“Of one mind we may say with some confidence that it shows an extraordinary capacity for function and development – that its possessor, exposed to a suitable process of training, may be trusted to acquire the largest body of knowledge and the highest skill at ratiocination to which Homo sapiens is adapted. Of another we may say with the same confidence that its abilities are sharply limited – that no conceivable training can move it beyond a certain point. In other words, men differ inside their heads as they differ outside. There are men who are naturally intelligent and can learn, and there are men who are naturally stupid and cannot.”

“An intelligent man is one who is capable of taking in knowledge until the natural limits of the species are reached. A stupid man is one whose progress is arrested at some specific time and place before then.”

“Some men can learn almost indefinitely: their capacity goes on increasing until their bodies begin to wear out. Others stop in childhood, even in infancy. They reach, say, the mental age of ten or twelve, and then they develop no more. Physically, they become men, and sprout beards, political delusions, and the desire to propagate their kind. But mentally they remain on the level of schoolboys.”

 “This complex of prejudices is what is known, under democracy, as public opinion. It is the glory of democratic states.”

“Its content is best studied by process of analysis – that is, by turning from the complex whole to the simpler parts. What does the mob think? It thinks, obviously, what its individual members think. And what is that? It is, in brief, what somewhat sharp-nosed and unpleasant children think. The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it.”

“What brings it to futility is simply the fact that the vast majority of men are congenitally incapable of any such intellectual progress.”

“In a previous work I have adverted to the appalling development of this wolfishness among peasants. They may be safely assumed, I believe, to represent the lowest caste among civilized men. They are the closest, both in their avocations and in their mental processes, to primeval man. One may think of them as the sediment remaining in the filter after the stream of progress has gone through.”

“All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs.”…………”When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage.”

“…………….the concept of liberty, with all its disturbing and unnatural implications, may be so much grasped-that such ideas cannot be implanted in the mind of man at will, but must be bred in as all other basic ideas are bred in.”

“The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit.”

“It takes quite as long to breed a libertarian as it takes to breed a race-horse. Neither may be expected to issue from a farm mare.”

“The truth is that the difference between representative democracy is a great deal less marked than the 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 have the means at hand to do and get what they will. ………….. 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.”

“The voters of a large urban center, for example, are able to act together far more promptly and effectively than their colleagues of the wide flung farms. They live in close contact both physically and mentally; opinions form among them quickly, and are maintained with solid front. In brief, they show all of the characters of men in a compact mob, the voters of the rural regions, dispersed and largely inarticulate, cannot hope to prevail against them by ordinary means. So the yokels are given disproportionately heavy representation by the way of make weight: it enables them to withstand the city stampede.”

“Public policies are determined and laws are made by small minorities playing upon the fears and imbecilities of the mob……………..”

“No educated man, stating plainly the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state,………………..”

“The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.”

“But the common man longs for in this world, before above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace – the peace of a trustee in a well-managed penitentiary.”

“Capitalism under democracy has a further advantage; its enemies, even when it is attacked, are scattered and weak, and it is usually easily able to array one half of them against the other half, and thus dispose of both.”

“My business is not prognosis, the diagnosis. I have not engaged in therapeutics, but in pathology.”

“For all I know, democracy may be a self-limiting disease, as civilization itself seems to be. There are obvious paradoxes in its philosophy, and some of them have a suicidal smack.”

“Democracy, in fact, is always inventing class distinctions, despite its theoretical abhorrence of them.”

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