Democracy is not democratic

mencken2Democracy, as we all know, is a Greek word. Literally, it means “rule of the people.” To a proponent of democracy, then, it is not unfair to ask, “How have the people been ruling themselves?” In these days of election fever (or exhaustion), it is amusing, if not illustrative to remember that one prominent American openly proclaimed that the people stink and that democracy is a joke. I’m thinking, of course, of H.L. Mencken. Surveying the teeming hordes of American citizens, Mencken called them the “booboisie.” The booboisie is composed of idiots and mental children. “Ideas,” Mencken noted, “leave them unscathed; they are responsive only to emotions, and their emotions are all elemental — the emotions, indeed, of tabby-cats rather than of men.”

Mencken wrote these thoughts down in 1926’s Notes on Democracy (recently published in a new edition through Dissident Books with an introduction by Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers). Fear, Mencken thought, is the essential force driving human beings. The vast majority of us look simply to quell the terror in our hearts with basic comforts. Give us sweet things to eat and some light pornography and we crawl back to our domiciles awaiting further instruction. Rarely, a human being will be able to conquer that basic fear and take a stab at truth or beauty. Rarely.

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