Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mencken the Prophet? Democracy and the Moron

Hearken to the words of H.L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. 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.”

I suppose some would say that day has already come and gone.  I'm uncertain about that, but if it has not one can make a good case that it will, soon enough. 

Mencken had little or no faith in democracy, as may be expected from a lover of Nietzsche.  Democracy was for Mencken what Christianity was for Frantic Freddie, I believe; that is to say, an institution the purpose of which is to impede and restrict as far as possible the "superior man."  Mencken's regard for the preening Nietzsche, that relentless purveyor of exclamations, pronouncements and rhetorical questions, was his great fault in my opinion.  But in a way his elitism was understandable then and still is now. 

Ultimately, in politics and other things, we get what we deserve if not what we want.  So if elect a moron we will most certainly deserve him.  Are we destined to elect one?  Was Mencken right about democracy?

The question whether democracy is a desirable form of government has been asked for quite some time.  Democracy was of course rejected by Plato.  He preferred that we be led on a grim, dreary death-march to perfection, unfettered by art and amusement, grouped in closely regulated ranks separated one from the other though we would be able to advance if we show promise in our steps, perhaps even attaining, eventually, the ranks of the Guardians marching before us.

An enlightened despotism has been the dream of many intellectuals, and was even for a time at least favored by such a friend to liberty as J.S. Mill.  As I recall, he thought that this happy dictatorship would represent a stage in our development.  Our ignorance and brutish character would be limited while molded by a despot or despotism of an elite until that glorious day when we would be able to think for ourselves.  Then, I think, we might be able to vote, even, though certain votes would count for more than others.

There have been relatively few democratic nations over time; perhaps there have been none, really, since the days of the Greek city-states.  Even God's favorite country, the United States, is not a democracy, nor was it intended to be one.  It is a republic.  The Founders didn't want a true democracy, fearing the tyranny of the majority, fearing more the mob, the common folk.  They would have been horrified by universal suffrage. 

So, Mencken wasn't right, strictly speaking, to think of this nation as a democracy.  The shrewd lawyers and merchants, and rich farmers, who created this nation were careful in their efforts to make certain that there would be no democracy so long as the Constitution and institutions they created persevere.  The fabled checks and balances we learned of in school (or learned of once, in any case) are there not only to limit the powers of any one branch of our government, but also to prevent majority rule.

Thus we may take heart from the fact that the moron we may be fated to elect as president won't be entirely a moron unleashed.  We may want the moron to have the power to ignore Congress and the courts and, perhaps more importantly, the special interest groups who carry politicians around in their pockets like Don Corleone, but much as we would like this to happen  (or think we do), it will not.  The moron may think it will happen, being a moron, but that won't make it so.

Someone like Mencken may say that republic or not, we elect morons at all levels.  Our representatives are morons as well as our President, or will be.  And so our judges will be morons.   The ascendancy of morons is inevitable, eventually, whenever election outcomes are based on majority vote.

Well, that may be.  But in that case we'll tire of the morons, and start all over again, running through the various forms of government.  Perhaps democracy is a kind of end of government.  It may lead to chaos, which will lead us to impose an autocracy, thence to an oligarchy, and etc.  We will be a phoenix rising from the ashes, then burning, then rising again.

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