Friday, October 7, 2016

H. L. Mencken ~ "Presidential Elections"

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on September 12, 1880.  He was the grandson of a German immigrant.  In 1899, he was hired by the Baltimore Herald as a reporter.  It was the beginning of a long career in writing.  The following are excerpts from his essay on American politics titled "Generally Political."

 “Whenever democracy really functions, and a new majority proceeds to inflict its ideas on a new minority, without compromise or concession, we have what is really a revolution and there is a good deal of trouble.  A long while ago John C. Calhoun wrote a ‘Discourse of the Constitution and Government of the United States’…that deserves to be resurrected.  In it he argued with great plausibility that actual democracy is almost as bad a government by divine right – that giving a chance majority an unrestricted franchise to work its wicked will upon the whole country, regardless of the interest and desires of the minority, is simply setting up an irrational and irresponsible tyranny.  Other sages have pointed out the same thing, but we are lucky that our actual political system saves us from such evil consequences.

“The majority, despite its theoretical omnipotence, is hobbled by various practical considerations.  One is the fact that the public, having only a very feeble development of the mind, changes what little it has very often.  Another thing is the fact that the public always tires of its messiahs, and soon or late invariably turns them out, whether they be good, which is uncommon, or bad, which is the rule.  The third factor that saves us from being saved too often, at a too great expense, is the fact the professional politicians seldom believe in reform, and almost never in the reforms they advocate.
“If you think that all this is pessimism, then you are mistaken.  For democracy in general, I have no great taste.  But there are some things in it that seem to me to be very valuable.  I enjoy living in a country where government is a creature of purely delegated powers, with no inherent rights of its own.  And I enjoy the right of free speech, even when it is employed to argue – and prove – that I am in the pay of Wall Street.
“Our system of checks and balances, the pride of our trusting hearts, is really not between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, but between the people and the politicians of the country, which is to say, between its fools and its rogues.  The people keep the politicians from stealing too much, and the politicians keep the people from getting too crazy.
“Let us be content with what we have, and thank God it is not worse.  Say what you will against it, you must always admit in the end that it makes a great show.  A national campaign is better that the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”

Henry Louis Mencken “Generally Political” ca. 1940 from the book Mencken on Mencken by S. T. Joshi

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