Mencken: The two kinds of democracy

H.L. Mencken‘s 1927 book Notes on Democracy is an interesting document. On the one hand it is a candid expression of a proud elitist worldview. Mencken spends considerable space explicitly denigrating the average person. In short:

There are men who are naturally intelligent and can learn, and there are men who are naturally stupid and cannot. (p. 17)

Such views cannot be expressed in polite society today, and although it is pretty clear that Mencken is aware that his stridency is politically incorrect, it is also pretty clear that he is expressing ideas that were acceptable, even conventional wisdom, in elite circles of his time.

On the other hand, Mencken devotes much attention to the problems of the electoral process as well (which he identifies with democracy). His anti-democratic attitude allows him to criticize the electoral system in a way that those with commitments either to the existing system or to democracy usually cannot afford. As Mencken damns voters for being stupid and electoral politicians for being scoundrels, Mencken points at several problematic fundamental characteristics of the system, belying his main thrust which focuses on personal characteristics. Here, for example, is the principle of distinction:

Democratic man is stupid, but he is not so stupid that he does not see the government as a group of men devoted to his exploitation that is, as a group external to his own group, and with antagonistic interests. (p. 197)

Mencken’s treatment of “direct democracy” – the standard remedy for the problems of the electoral system – is rather insightful: Continue reading