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


“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.

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7 thoughts on “H. L. Mencken: On Politics (Bayard vs. Lionheart)

  1. OMG, that quote is so perfect! Talk about being right, right, right! I’ve already stolen it for use on my Facebook page.

    Yes, there’s a serious problem with democracy, a problem that grows greater as our society grows more complex: the average voter finds it harder and harder to understand the forces at work in our society, and therefore plumps for a simplistic solution.

    It could be argued that a truly free and fair election would have given the win to Ms. Clinton; it has been established beyond any doubt that Republican voter suppression schemes were crucial to Mr. Trump’s victory. This would suggest a sliver of hope for democracy.

    But I do not believe that democracy can properly address the increasingly complex problems that our society faces. When I look at the huge chasm between reality and the beliefs of the Trump voters, I must conclude that they simply cannot comprehend reality.

    This leads to the conclusion you mention: that our society is heading towards a darker future. Yet I think it worthwhile to consider what alternatives, if any, would work. One proposal I rather liked was a Constitutional Amendment requiring citizens to pass a basic citizenship test in order to be allowed to vote. That test would be presented at a fairly advanced level. For example, in today’s world, one would need to know where Aleppo is and what is happening there, or the current state of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, or a familiarity with the concept of the Gini Coefficient.

    The flaw with this idea is that whomever writes the test controls the election. Presumably a bipartisan commission could draw it up, but administering it would be a huge pain. There are a million ways this could go wrong. Given Republican efforts at vote suppression, one can only imagine what they’d do to such a test.

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  2. Thanks for the comments Chris. I do think voters should have to have some basic knowledge and, as you know, I definitely favor qualifications for holding public office. Interesting you mention the Gini Coefficient. When I taught I found that most university students vastly underestimate the amount of wealth inequality in the USA. Still I”m holding out for the Singularity! JGM

  3. We must be careful that we do not become the thing we rail about.

    For instance the idea that most people are too stupid to vote therefore we should give them a test or that us elites should run things for them. Smacks of one thing. Tyranny!

    I believe we do have a serious moral problem, but the solution is not tyranny.

  4. Mr. Michalak, there are many forms of government; we are not forced to choose between Jeffersonian democracy and tyranny. Indeed, the writers of the Constitution clearly rejected Jefferson democracy for a republic with a number of layers protecting the government from popular crazes. However, the election of Mr. Trump demonstrates that this system has failed. There are many ways to correct the problem; none of them are politically feasible. The USA is heading towards dissolution.

  5. Chris

    I glad you pointed out the false dichotomy and I agree, although I hope we’re wrong, with your conclusion.

  6. Hey, love the Mencken quote. Reread Orwell’s columns & essays often so to not feel so alone. I’m a real baby boomer, 1946, living in Europe, mostly in Italy since 85. Got to your page looking for some advice from our mutual friend, Epictetus. Would visit the states often but now, not since 2014, my now dystopian home town, Atlantic City. You’re in Belgium? My first tappo was in Rixensart, staying with a girl I’d met on Santorini…. Admire & respect your efforts here. Pity that not enough alumni followed Ken Burns advice though the alternative was hardly palatable. Italian corruption is really Mickey Mouse compared to American legislation for the few, the clever, the….
    BTW, I do believe we get the Government’s we deserve (most of the time), Ciao from Monte Grappa, Tom

  7. Thanks for the comments Tom. No I’m in Seattle. Always wanted to live abroad and die an expat, and it might still happen but I’m getting older and its tougher. You made a good move getting out of here. It isn’t the country we grew up in.

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