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The Spectacle of Democracy: A Review of Mencken's "Notes on Democracy"

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RockyRaccoon Posted: Sat, Apr 4 2009 12:18 AM

"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. [...] When the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating."

That pretty much sums up Mencken's view of democracy, an opinion that he supports through a 206-page treasure trove of cleverly amusing satire. The system Mencken describes is one of mob rule, where small minorities scare the entire mob into scrambling for laws that benefit small fractions of the population at everybody else's expense to quell their fears:

"Democratic man, as I have remarked, is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness -- and the group, of course must have its leaders. [...] Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob's fears. It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans. [...] No man would want to be President of the United States in strict accordance with the Constitution. There is no sense of power in merely executing laws; it comes from evading or augmenting them."

Mencken considers the pandering of democratic politicians to the voters tantamount to bribery as a means to keep one's seat in office and argues that any professional politician ought to learn well how this is done, or he'll find himself "making hay, while the sun still shines":

"Why should democracy rise against bribery? [...] Its security depends wholly upon providing satisfactory bribes for the prehensible minorities that constitute the mob, or that have managed to deceive and inflame the mob."

And as a result, one should not be surprised at the corrupt politicians who consistently gain office, since afterall, only men and women who are willing to abandon their honor can possibly succeed in such a system:

"It is almost an axiom that no man may make a career in politics without stooping to such ignobility: it is as necessary as a loud voice. [...] It is the price that a man who loves the clapper-clawing of the vulgar must pay for it under the democratic system. [...] They are in the position of a chorus girl who, in order to get her humble job, has had to admit the manager to her person. [...] It has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God."

But rather than offer suggestions for a more perfect form of government or how to fix the errors of democracy, Mencken accepts the defects, musing that perhaps all forms of human government suffer from ills, and simply enjoys the show:

"In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself -- that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. [...] [Democracy] came into the world as a cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. Any boil upon the body politic, however vast and raging, may be relieved by taking a vote; any flux of blood may be stopped by passing a law. The aim of government is to repeal the laws of nature, and re-enact them with moral amendments. [...] Now each and every human problem swings into the range of practical politics. The worst and oldest of them may be solved facilely by traveling bands of lady Ph.D's, each bearing the mandate of the Legislature of kept men, all unfaithful to their protectors."

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J.R. replied on Mon, Apr 13 2009 3:34 PM

Thank you for this review.

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DavidI replied on Mon, Apr 13 2009 3:39 PM

Where can you buy this book? It sound very interesting and enjoyable.

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J.R. replied on Mon, Apr 13 2009 4:12 PM


Where can you buy this book? It sound very interesting and enjoyable.

The Mises store is one possibility.

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I like the term massarchy.  Democracy is a synonym for good in most people's vocab.

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Kakugo replied on Tue, Apr 14 2009 5:06 AM

Thanks for the review, I'll be ordering the book from since it's impossible to get a hold of it this side of the Atlantic.

By the way the original Greek word, Democratia (I am using the common spelling, e in this case is an eta and c is a kappa) had a slightly negative meaning. Demos had a slightly negative meaning outside of Attic, the cradle of democracy, meaning something akin to "rabble". In Attic it was originally a term akin to our "tribe" and as such passed into political language: the Demoi were nothing more than the administrative divisions of Attic. With Pericles it got nobilitated and became what we know today. Cratia means "ruling by force" or exercising power over others" and it's enough said. So Democratia means something akin to "Rabble's rule by force". 

Together we go unsung... together we go down with our people
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Dbsafc replied on Fri, Apr 17 2009 6:26 PM

A wonderful book.  You can also get it free via PDF file in the website's literature section.  That's how I read it.

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jrskar replied on Sun, Apr 19 2009 8:55 AM

Mencken is always a delight.  Another short masterpiece by HLM is In Defense of Women.  This is a marvelous satire of both genders.

In the end, Mencken is best on the attack, but he doesn't spend a lot of time on "solutions".  He does a good job of showing why government always makes things worse, but stops short of suggesting the obvious alternative of market anarchy.

Peace and Freedom

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