The Democratic State

[from Notes on Democracy, 1926, by H. L. Mencken]

The American people, true enough, are sheep. Worse, they are donkeys. Yet worse, to borrow from their own dialect, they are goats. They are thus constantly bamboozled and exploited by small minorities of their own number, by determined and ambitious individuals, and even by exterior groups. The business of victimizing them is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and its quacks. Its lowest reward is a seat in Congress or a job as a Prohibition agent, i.e., a licensed blackleg; its highest reward is immortality. The adept practitioner is not only rewarded; he is also thanked. The victims delight in his ministrations, as an hypochondriacal woman delights in the flayings of the surgeon. But all the while they have the means in their hands to halt the obscenity whenever it becomes intolerable, and now and then, raised transiently to a sort of intelligence, they do put a stop to it. There are no legal or other bars to the free functioning of their will, once it emerges into consciousness, save only such bars as they themselves have erected, and these they may remove whenever they so desire. …

… They know what they want when they actually want it, and if they want it badly enough they get it. What they want principally are safety and security. They want to be delivered from the bugaboos that ride them. They want to be soothed with mellifluous words. They want heroes to worship. They want the rough entertainment suitable to their simple minds. All of these things they want so badly that they are willing to sacrifice everything else in order to get them. The science of politics under democracy consists in trading with them, i.e., in hoodwinking and swindling them. In return for what they want, or for the mere appearance of what they want, they yield up what the politician wants, and what the enterprising minorities behind him want. The bargaining is conducted to the tune of affecting rhetoric, with music by the choir, but it is as simple and sordid at bottom as the sale of a mule. It lies quite outside the bounds of honour, and even of common decency. It is a combat between jackals and jackasses. It is the master transaction of democratic states.


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