Daily Archives: November 29, 2016

H. L. Mencken: On Politics (Bayard vs. Lionheart)

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“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.” ~ H. L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880 – 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English.[1] Known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” he was one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. On July 26, 1920, Mencken published an op-ed in the Baltimore Evening Sun titled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” which was later included in a volume of his essays: On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe.

Mencken’s essay ponders how it is that political candidates are so often the worst of people—without honor or conviction. As Mencken puts it:

It is not often, in these later days of the democratic enlightenment, that positive merit lands a man in elective office in the United States; much more often it is a negative merit that gets him there.

One of the main reasons that the voters often choose the worst people to lead them is that the masses fear thoughtful people, people with deep and sophisticated ideas:

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.

And the voters have themselves to blame for the incompetent and immoral people they choose for public office. Voters are:

 … unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. … 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. …

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.

To be honest, I think that it is every bit as much moral vice as intellectual vice that will doom the American empire in our present moment. I truly fear that we are moving to an even more more fascist, plutocratic state than the one we are already in. I hope I’m wrong. But it is hard just so hard to see how the situation will change without radical intellectual and moral enhancement of human beings.