Demagogue and Demaslave

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Henry Louis Mencken was a contemporary and acquaintance of Albert Jay Nock.  In The Superfluous Men, a volume of comparative essays compiled by Robert M. Crunden (ISI Books, 1999), Mencken is described as “an enormously prolific writer and editor of newspapers and magazines” who “had great impact on college students and the educated young adults of the first three decade of the twentieth century.”  For H. L. Mencken, “American life was a comedy of conformity, envy, and plutocracy.”  This passage is from Mencken’s Notes on Democracy (Knopf, 1926).


The winds of the world are bitter to Homo vulgaris.  He likes the warmth and safety of the herd, and he likes a bell-wether with a clarion bell.

The art of politics, under democracy, is simply the art of ringing it.  Two branches reveal themselves.  There is the art of the demagogue, and there is the art of what may be called, by a shot-gun marriage of Latin and Greek, the demaslave.  They are complementary, and both of them are degrading to their practitioners.  The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.  The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself.  Every man who seeks elective office under democracy has to be either the one thing or the other, and most men have to be both.  The whole process is one of false pretences and ignoble concealments.  No educated man, stating plain the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle…

The typical American law-maker… knows the taste of boot-polish…  His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretences.  He is willing to embrace any idea, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.  I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.


H. L. Mencken seemed to enjoy the exposure and notice afforded him by the privilege of writing editorials, (which is not to understate the effect of his articles and books).  Albert J. Nock, also an editor and author, seemed content, on the other hand, merely to lay his thoughts on paper and take no heed whether he had made an impression or a difference.  But both men were sharp observers of the behavior of people under the influence of demagogues, and both came to approximately the same dismal prognosis for democracy in America.  -David A. Woodbury-

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