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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

The Paradox of Progress: Mencken's Take on Politics and the Masses


Mencken and Democracy vs. the Common Man

Something I read the other day got me thinking about the idea of progress but in the context of our current crazy political situation. I came across a quote from H.L. Mencken that feels timely today, a hundred years after he wrote it. Mencken was an American writer who made a career in part out of parodying the mediocrity of the common man and the kind of democracy it gave us.

Here's one cynical example from a Baltimore Evening Sun article he wrote in 1920. In this case, he was writing about the challenges of winning presidential elections in America.

"As democracy is perfected, the office [of President] 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

Mencken was referencing soon-to-be president and "Numskull" (his word) Warren G. Harding. Still, I suspect many may find the quote apt today, if not downright prophetic. To be sure, Mencken was an elitist, a snob, a racist, and someone who would have howled with laughter at the so-called wisdom of the common man.

For Mencken, the common man was more Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin than anything resembling the idea of a thoughtful and engaged citizen. The average person, Mencken believed, was a dolt. Democracy was nothing but the act of empowering the dolts to elect other dolts to govern in a kind of "doltocracy," i.e., the rule of the dim over the dim-witted.

Looking around at our political leadership across the ideological spectrum today, might we say he was onto something?


Is Progress Real?

But is this too harsh?

As a society, we have come a long way, even if it appears our democracy is run by legions of elite mediocrities. Zoom out, and the progress we've made is real enough to measure, though with some important caveats. Take Steven Pinker, one of today's most ardent defenders of the idea that almost everything about the world we live in is better than before.

And frankly, it's hard to argue with this premise.

Violence, war, and poverty are in long-term decline. Skin color and ethnicity no longer dictate destiny to the extent they did before. Since the nineteenth century, the ongoing rights revolution has brought marginalized groups into the political community as equals. Science and technology have made our lives more comfortable than ever before. The free market and the welfare state working in tandem remain the best engines we have for creating wealth and distributing it more equitably.

These are good things.

This, I would argue, is measurable progress.

So we must be doing something right, despite being governed by "morons" elected by the "collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Here's another tell-tale sign progress is real: glance back in time at how poorly some customs and norms have aged. When we do this, we shake our heads in disgust. Slavery and Jim Crow, the shameful servitude of women, the extermination of the indigenous populations in North America and Australia, the barbaric treatment of non-normative sexualities: all of these are bigotries and prejudices most of us condemn today, even though all were once norms blindly accepted by the majority.

Today those beliefs are condemned as not only reprehensible but also illegal. People now live in a time offering opportunities to pursue self-actualization in ways that would have been impossible just a few decades ago.

And yet, for all my evidence pointing to real, tangible progress, Mencken's century-old critique still resonates with me. The American presidency continues to produce leaders from one end of the talent spectrum to the other, from inspiring leaders like Roosevelt, Reagan, and Kennedy, to...well...the lamentable parade of fools we've seen in the last decade.

What we get is a reflection of the values and opinions of that part of the electorate big enough to choose a president. Nothing more. The lesson here is that democracies don't always pick better leaders. Often, they don't. In fact, sometimes they pick dolts.

Therefore, defining progress in political institutions appears to be more problematic.

Political progress can happen. After all, the examples of progress I listed above all needed the stamp of legislative authority to make them stick.

Yet, looking around at our current political landscape, can anyone see anything but a trend toward regression and disintegration? Can anyone argue our political institutions are still progressing toward something better? Or are they breaking down under the stress of bad actors? I don't know. Mencken wouldn't be surprised. He also wrote, "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

You see, democracy has no telos, no point toward which it is advancing. History doesn't either. Those are fallacies, but enduring ones propagated by influential thinkers like Hegel and Marx just to name a few I can think of right now. It's one thing to have faith in progress, looking back with pride at everything accomplished so far and looking forward to all that still can be.

It's quite another to think this is all inevitable going forward, as if it's part of some abstract, unstoppable historical process. It's not. Progress can be real and has been, but it is fragile, dependent on real people engaging in informed civic participation (voting, serving in local government, targeted activism, etc.). But that's a slow, fitful process, and the gains often feel tiny when only viewed in isolation. Taken together, though, it all adds up to building a better society.

But keep this in mind: What we take years to carefully build up can burn down in an hour.

Moreover, democracies are dynamic but also unstable, requiring constant care and attention from the citizenry. The American Founders understood this. They studied failed democratic and republican experiments like those of Athens and Rome. Looking at those failures, they tried to build a better system of government giving power to citizens while avoiding the pitfalls that ruined previous democracies.

They understood each generation must re-negotiate the terms of the government it will live under. The American system was made to evolve with the times, giving it a degree of adaptability previous republics lacked.

They also understood human nature today is no different than when Cleon led Athens or when Hitler became Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. We're made of the same flawed human material, echoing Kant's lament, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

The human weaknesses that destroyed democracies in the past still exist today. Look around, if you doubt me. American exceptionalism will not save us, so we should be on our guard. Democracy is best sustained by a populace fully engaged, informed, and invested in society's continued well-being. Not in conspiracies. Not in swimming immersed in the swamp of online discourse. Otherwise, the whole fragile ediface threatens to come crashing down as fear, hatred, grievance, mistrust, and partisanship trump our better civic natures.


Taking Stock - Optimism or Pessimism

So, where are we today? I'm not sure, to be honest. I believe our political system is becoming more dysfunctional. The current populist moment is the expression of the average citizen's vague awareness of this fact. The instinct is right, though it has been weaponized to undermine the democracy they all say they want to save. Unfortunately, here is the fatal vulnerability of all populist movements: they tend to get hijacked by opportunists skilled at leveraging discontent to sow poisonous division and advance narrow ideological agendas.

History shows democracy is vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. Demagogues divide us by constant appeals to grievances, undermining the very guardrails put in place to protect democracy. New oligarchies and plutocracies emerge to legislate and institutionalize their power while continuing to use the language of freedom and liberty to justify their actions.

They know money is power, and power begets more power, which begets more money, and then more power, and so on as true freedom and liberty swirl down the toilet. Aspiring authoritarians will drape themselves in flags and patriotism as they accumulate power that undermines democratic institutions. Mencken's type of doltish morons will follow them into the abyss.

A democracy's natural trajectory is toward having power consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Over time, a democracy transitions into an oligarchy and finally into an autocracy. This either continues until checked by the people or until only the hollowed-out husk of democracy remains.

Still, democracy's demise does not have to be our fate. While many current trends are troubling, others are reassuring. For every Potemkin Village democracy like Orban's Hungary, Weimar Germany, Erdogan's Turkey, Putin's Russia, or Maduro's Venezuela, many others remain bastions of open, pluralistic, liberal governance.

The stable democracies of Western Europe, the Scandinavian nations, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and many others come to mind as shining examples demonstrating the still-valid theory that democracy can work, and work well for everyone when good governance is a valued norm in society and not viewed as a contradiction in terms.

Progress can continue, or it can reverse. Nothing's decided. Do we take pride in our institutions and seek to make them better? Or, do we continue to elect bulldozers with nothing but contempt for the government they were elected to serve? If so, then we will end up with the government we deserve, which is one run by the morons and for the morons.


Supplementary Materials

A short version of Pinker's argument that things are actually pretty damn good today, despite all the gloom and doom we get carpet-bombed with every day in the media. A good reality check if you're someone on the receiving end of that daily carpet bombing.


But to end on a darker note, here's a talk on how democracy dies.



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