Given the widespread idiocy and mean-spiritedness of the 2016 presidential race, one of my favorite H.L. Mencken quotes has been making the rounds on social media:
“As democracy is perfected, the office 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.”
Though I am happy to see people exposed to Mencken’s invective in any dosage no matter how small, I worry many are not quite getting the point. I fear they may only be wading into the shallow end of the pool. So, allow me to now baptize them in the depths of Mencken’s political cynicism. Forgive me if you are reading this and have already been christened in these waters. And if so, I say bravo! Encore! I suppose it won’t hurt to be christened again. I try to do so weekly. One can never be too certain about one’s intellectual soul.
A Moron Adorns 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The modern use of Mencken’s “moron” quote almost always seems to focus on the hilarious punchline – the “downright moron” label applying to a particular president or candidate – without paying enough attention to the setup. Not only is a potential president being called idiotic; so too is the whole democratic ideal itself.
According to Mencken, mass democracy and the culture it produces marches us towards conformity, folly, and stupidity. So, the question remains – why, as “democracy is perfected,” does the inner soul of the people reflect morondom?
Well, Mencken provides a full answer in his 1920 essay (the source of his “moron” quote) on the presidential election of that year, “Bayard and Lionheart.” Given the way he speaks of the candidates – Warren Harding and James Cox – he might as well be describing Clinton and Trump: “Neither candidate reveals the slightest dignity of conviction,” writes Mencken. “Neither cares a hoot for any discernible principle. Neither, in any intelligible sense, is a man of honor.”
However, Mencken then takes a turn. He shifts his focus away from the gladiators in the arena and onto the blood-thirsty spectators. He reminds us that democracy is not about the propagation of diverse and sound ideas, but winning votes at all costs. And how does one win votes?
Exalt any person or idea too much – say, a given president or democracy itself – and you will probably lose your critical faculties along with the rest of your chosen fan club.
“Of the two candidates, that one wins who least arouses the suspicions and distrusts of the great masses of simple men,” writes Mencken. “Well, what are more likely to arouse those suspicions and distrusts than ideas, convictions, principles? The plain people are not hostile to shysterism, save it be gross and unsuccessful… But they shy instantly and inevitably from the man who comes before them with notions that they cannot immediately translate into terms of their everyday delusions; they fear the novel idea, and particularly the revolutionary idea, as they fear the devil.”
Mencken goes on to venture that this fear of ideas is a “peculiarly democratic phenomenon” which has been perfected in America, a country who has developed the doctrine of “right-thinking” with a “singular passion for conformity” and “dread of novelty and originality in almost every aspect of life.” If one is not in agreement with the right thinking of the time, then one is immediately suspect. “...any novel idea, in any field of human relations, carries with it a burden of obnoxiousness, and is instantly challenged as mysteriously immoral by the great masses of right-thinking men.”
“Such tests arise inevitably out of democracy – the domination of unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob emotions. In private life no man of sense would think of applying them. We do not estimate the integrity and ability of an acquaintance by his flabby willingness to accept our ideas; we estimate him by the honesty and effectiveness with which he maintains his own. All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our own. But when a candidate for public office faces the 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, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental – men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost.”
I Love You, You Love Me, We’re One Big Moron Family
That said, we can now craft a simple formulation for why the White House will one day “be adorned by a downright moron.”
- Democracy offers power to the masses.
- With power on offer, the masses come to care more about winning that power than the free expression of ideas.
- With winning as the goal, all novel ideas take a back seat to conformity, virtue signaling, and emotional appeals.
- With the rules of the mob now set as such, only the most empty-headed or hucksterish politicians rise to the top.
- And finally, as this process is perfected and the democratic populace expanded, fewer and fewer ideas will matter until we have reached the land of Morondom with the president as our idiot idol.
So, the next time you wish to quote Mencken to call Trump or Clinton a moron, feel free, but I hope you understand it is the American people’s common love of mass democracy that has brought us to this “great and glorious day.” Our presidents act like morons in public because they see the people acting like morons in the same arena.
In the shallows of politics, imbeciles are always and everywhere.
What we hold in common – our hollow love of democratic power, our demand for conformity in ideas, and our mere signaling of virtues on social media and elsewhere – is not only transforming us into divided rivals, but nincompoops en masse. Exalt any person or idea too much (say, a given president or democracy itself) and you will probably lose your critical faculties along with the rest of your chosen fan club. Our politics, it seems, only brings us together as a collection of morons and lickspittles.
Nonetheless, I suspect such nincompoopery is not unique to democracy, though it is heightened by it. Again, put any person or idea on a pedestal, especially in a democratic society, and expect to atrophy one’s mind while creating enemies even out of friends. Dare I say, some of us who exalt liberty in the current political arena may be fooling ourselves stupid, but this is not unique to libertarians.
In the shallows of politics, imbeciles are always and everywhere. Nitwits are pervasive no matter the school of thought. They have been with us time immemorial. Get used to it. Scream it at the top of your lungs: I'm surrounded by nincompoops! These people are our neighbors, our family members, and our friends. And you never know: an ignoramus may stare back at you in the mirror this very morning. In fact, as I stared into my mirror this morning, I could hardly stop myself from saying “I have met the boob and he is me.”
Now, if I had to choose between a mob of dunderheads and oafs exalting democratic power or a herd of clobs and imbeciles extolling liberty, I would choose the latter every time. Idiots with a shared love of power are much more dangerous than idiots with a shared love of liberty. If I am to support any idiot adorning the White House, at least make him one of my ilk.
I imagine such a president would at least say, “Be your own kind of idiot in your own way,” and that is all that I ask for – the freedom to be stupid alongside friends just as stupid as I, rather than the freedom to choose the next moron to occupy the White House.