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Noted in Passing: The Prophecies of H. L. Mencken

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. He may slide into office once or twice, but soon or late he is bound to be held up, examined, and incontinently kicked out. This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes. There is room for two sorts of them—first, the blank cartridge who has no convictions at all and is willing to accept anything to make votes, and, secondly, the mountebank who is willing to conceal and disguise what he actually believes, according as the wind blows hot or cold. Of the first sort, Harding is an excellent specimen; of the second sort, Cox.

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. All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our 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. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm, of self-respect, it is cruelly hard. But if he is, like Harding, a numskull like the idiots he faces, or, like Cox, a pliant intellectual Jenkins, it is easy.

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. 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.

From BAYARD vs LIONHEART – Apologies Demanded

[HT: Rob De Witt]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • enn ess May 14, 2021, 9:34 AM

    I really hate being an A**, but I am increasingly infuriated by people using the term “Democracy” to define the principles our nation operates under. It is NOT a democracy. It is a Constitutional Republic and operates by rule of LAW, not by majority. Once we return to believing in that a good many of our social issues will disappear I believe. There is a huge difference between “Rule of Law” and democracy. As also there is a difference between democracy and “Democratic Principles”.

  • Kevin in PA May 14, 2021, 10:14 AM

    Mencken was only about 100 years early.

    enn ess said; “It is NOT a democracy. It is a Constitutional Republic and operates by rule of LAW, not by majority.”

    Bingo and Thank You!

    This country was never intended to be a Democracy. The Founders understood well the perils of Democracy. “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Ben Franklin.

  • Richard May 14, 2021, 10:30 AM

    On his best day, the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania, merely got a bit closer to mediocrity. What’s eagerly waiting in the wings is an order of magnitude worse. When it’s considered that one half of the population is at or below so-called average, it isn’t surprising that morons select morons. Another big part of the problem is that decent people are repulsed by politics, while the nettlesome and self-aggrandizing are drawn to public office.
    The American Experiment has been a unique one-off. Those who founded it implicitly understood that it could only work if moral, self-sacrificing people were found at its core. The precise opposite of what we have today. Everything necessary was in place at its inception and Providence smiled upon it. Catching lightning in a bottle is extremely rare. It will not be replicated.

  • John Fisher May 14, 2021, 11:37 AM

    And Mencken in his later years was an early victim of what we now call ‘Cancel Culture’.

  • PA Cat May 14, 2021, 2:14 PM

    Mencken on FDR in 1933: “The republic proceeds towards hell at a rapidly accelerating tempo. With the debt burden already crushing everyone, Roosevelt now proposes to relieve us by spending five or six billions more. I am advocating making him king in order that we may behead him.”

    I can only imagine what Mencken would think of Jo-Jo’s increasing the national debt by several trillions . . . . Alcatraz is closed now, but making Jo-Jo clean the poop off the streets of San Fran would be a good start.

  • I.C.Nielsen May 14, 2021, 2:37 PM

    My favorite Mencken bon mot is…..

    “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”-H. L. Mencken

  • Kevin in PA May 14, 2021, 4:41 PM

    PA Cat said; “. . . Alcatraz is closed now, but making Jo-Jo clean the poop off the streets of San Fran would be a good start.”

    I believe he may be too far gone even for that. He may regress to playing in it.

  • Casey Klahn May 14, 2021, 7:03 PM

    It is a dismal day when you realize that great men do not run your country. I echo what’s written here: the institution of the POTUS is run through with mediocrity, on its best days, and outright corruption on most days. A Trump, a Reagan, a Lincoln…these men are or were outstanding leaders, but made all the more rare by the agonizing bores who try to be politicians.

    While I’m at it, I’m rather turded up about the fukn clowns in business nowadays. Don’t get me started on doctors.

    We’re a nation with greatness in our bloodline, but I’ll assert that the greatness is spread thin, and found among common men and women. Jan 6th was upsetting to all, in the very near term of our understanding. A hundred years from now, if we think of it historically, it will be the perfect representation of a fed-up population clawing at the face of its oppressive and toadly government in DC.

  • Tom Hyland May 14, 2021, 8:49 PM

    I’ve been reading Mencken a long time and have collected a bunch of his quotes. This is one of my favorites…. “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed; and hence clamorous to be led to safety; by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

  • Rob De Witt May 15, 2021, 7:46 AM

    Tom Hyland,
    Like you I’ve long been a fan of H.L. Mencken. A particular favorite is his rumination on the demise of Franklin Roosevelt, to be found here:


    “He had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes…..He was always a mile ahead of them, finding new victims to loot and new followers to reward, flouting common sense and boldly denying its existence, demonstrating by his anti-logic that two and two made five, promising larger and larger slices of the moon.”

    Mencken’s transparent distrust of American politics and the Babbitts who inhabit it were a source of great inspiration to me as early as my teens.

  • Tom Hyland May 15, 2021, 2:56 PM

    @ Rob De Witt…. Mencken saw right through the bastards. I graduated in 1973 from high school. Never attended university. Stopped watching television about 20 years ago. I read a lot. My freshman year history teacher said one day, rather quietly and I was sitting on the front row, “Some day you will learn that Franklin Roosevelt was the biggest communist to ever occupy the White House.” I was amazed to hear that and I asked him to explain further. He said, “You’ll find out if you pay attention. I could lose my job talking this stuff if the Principle or another teacher overhears. Enough said.”