Review of "On Politics" by H. L. Mencken

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This book is a collection of Mencken essays/articles written about party conventions and national elections.  Specifically, the book focuses on the elections between 1920 and 1936 (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt).

Obviously, Mencken’s writing is great.  Some of the book seems a bit dated, but Mencken generally manages to shine through.  One can’t help but wish that some of Mencken’s writings on politics, more broadly, had been added to the collection.  Alas, this focused exclusively on convention and election reporting.

Some themes stand out: the perils of Democracy, the stupidity and inherent limitation of the average person, the uselessness of intellectuals, the importance of dearth of honor and the worthlessness of politicians.  Mencken offers support for Monarchy as a political system that is not beholden to the inadequacies of the average person.  Mencken’s political predictions are not great, but they are certainly amusing.  The reader can’t help notice that Mencken, in many ways, contradicts himself regularly.  These contradictions don’t seem to bother him – perhaps they are part of life for him.

Here are some quotes to illustrate his themes:

But when a candidate for public office faces 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 . . . We move toward a lofty ideal.  On some great and glorious day the plan folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.


                We suffer most when the White House busts with ideas.


But if the great masses of the plain people, in such grave and difficult matters, are apt to err, there is no evidence that the statesmen who ride them so dashingly are much better.  We have had two dictatorships in the past, one operated by Abraham Lincoln and the other by Woodrow Wilson.  Both were marked by gross blunders and injustices.  At the end of each the courts were intimidated and palsied, the books bristled with oppressive and idiotic laws, thousands of men were in jail for their opinions, and great hordes of impudent scoundrels were rolling in money.


Here is where public opinion tends to be unjust.  On one hand it condones and even insists upon a political system which makes it a sheer impossibility . . . for a man to get into the White House without involving himself in hopeless obligations to rogues.  And on the other hand it holds him, once has got there, to a standard of conduct which amounts, in the last analysis, to repudiating and forgetting most of the men who put them there.

And, a few timely ones:

But even the best dictatorship ought to have clearly defined limits, and its end ought to be kept in sight from the beginning.  If the American people really tire of democracy and want to make a trial of Fascism, I shall be the last person to object.  But if that is their mood, then they had better proceed toward their aim by changing the Constitution and not by forgetting it.  And they had better remember that Fascism means not only rough usage for crooked bankers but also rough usage for multitudes of far better men.


For the small-town American, whatever he may be otherwise, is always and primarily a taxpayer.  Whether he lives in an actual small town, or in a big city, or on a selfsustaining farm, he is the sort of fellow who still practises and believes in the virtues hymned by Benjamin Franklin, the Ur-Coolidge.  There is nothing of the horse-leech’s daughter about him.  He is willing and eager to pay his own way in the world, and nine times out of ten he manages to do it.  He never buys anything he can’t pay for.  He never borrows if he can avoid it.  When misfortune overtakes him, he bears it without whining.  When he is lucky, he ascribes 99% of his luck to his own merit—just as you do and I do, just as Dr. Roosevelt and the Brain Trust professors do.  And when he has collared a dollar, he believes, and with considerable plausibility, that he ought to be consulted politely before any plans are laid to spend it.  Taxes are his nightmare, for it is his experience that they are laid out by the politicians, in most cases, not to benefit him but to injure him.


The have-not, B, may ask only a larger measure of power over the life and liberty of A; on the other hand, his yearning may be for a share of A’s property.  IN either case, it is the chief present business of government, which is to say, of politicians, to give him what he wants.  And in both cases it may be given to him only by taking away something that belongs to A.

There was a time when this forced transfer of goods lay quite outside the sphere of government, and was regarded with abhorrence by the prevailing governmental philosophers. . . . Its true purpose is always the same, and likewise its true effect.  That purpose is to keep a gang of politicians in control of the government, and that effect is to pillage unmercifully all persons who venture to challenge them.

How long this sort of thing can go on remains to be seen.


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