H. L. Mencken on where democracy leads

Just today, I received the following internet meme.


Since it is common for people on the internet to make up fake quotations that are relevant to contemporary events, ascribe them to eminent people to increase their credibility, and then have the meme go viral, I try to check for accuracy before passing them on. According to Snopes, this one is pretty close to what Mencken actually wrote.

H. L. Mencken was an acerbic writer and columnist for the Baltimore Sun. He was a deep skeptic of religion and his daily commentary during the Scopes trial of 1925 make for hilarious reading and have become the stuff of legend. I have quoted him many times before in my book God vs. Darwin and on this blog.

On July 26, 1920 in an article entitled Bayard vs. Lionheart he warned about that when the size of a democracy becomes too large for there to be direct contact between the voters and those seeking office, people who are worthy of the office find it harder to compete against vacuous competitors. The almost verbatim quote in the meme has been highlighted.

The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. 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.

If Mencken is right, democracy consists of an irreversible current towards increased mediocrity in our elected officials, not a cheery thought.


  1. says

    The US is not a democracy; what we are dealing with is the distillate of a degenerate oligarchy. The people, in a democracy, would have a hard time choosing worse.

  2. kevinalexander says

    This is one of the reasons that I use to advocate Lotto Democracy where the House of Representatives consists of a perfect representation of the people in that it consists of citizens chosen at random. I know this has been tried and has failed but I think it could work if structured right. The average citizen knows little outside of his own experience and so is not qualified to MAKE policy but he could if it were his full time job listen to professional civil servants who would make up the Executive branch to persuade him. Kind of like a giant jury.
    It’s astounding how many people get their whole version of reality from propaganda sources. It’s not surprising that they end up voting, not for the most qualified candidate but rather the one most able to win an election. These are two completely different skill sets, kind of like hiring a baker to fix your car.

  3. Mano Singham says


    I was not aware that it had been tried at all. Can you tell me where and when it was tried?

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Another good old writer is Alexis de Tocqueville. I’ve been reading his Democracy in America, because I happened to find it in the local library. The timing was bad -- it shouldn’t be read when the elections are in the news. It is a serious analysis of the USA in 1830s, not a collection of jokes.
    But it also is a good book for quote mining:
    “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”
    “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.”
    “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”
    More can be found here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/465.Alexis_de_Tocqueville

  5. kevinalexander says

    @3 Mano Singham

    IIRC it was in ancient Athens. A body of citizens chosen by lot would constitute the government but they just ended up squabbling.
    More recently it is quite common in the US to decide public policy by plebiscite; it’s why ballots in the US are so long. They’re not just deciding officers but are telling the officers what to do. It fails because most people are too uninformed so they end up selecting conflicting demands or they don’t understand the issues well enough to understand the consequences of their decisions. A good example of that occurred some years ago in California where the citizens voted to stop all increases in taxes with the result that schools, among other things went unfunded.
    I propose creating a body chosen by lot who would then take up the full time job of studying the issues so that they can vet the decisions made by a professional executive. The latest election is a sad reminder of why the current system fails and a wholly unqualified candidate was deleted over a vastly superior one.

  6. John Morales says

    Jörg, without indulging in the etymological fallacy or attempting to dispute your point, I note that Plato was writing about polities* (city-states), not nations as we understand them.

    The USA is not a direct democracy, it’s a Republic (it does have a weird form of representative democracy), and the electors of its representatives are not directly its citizens.

    (I don’t think the problem is that the USA is too democratic; I think it’s rather the opposite)

    * The Latin translation of his work was “De Re Publica”, from the original “Politeia”, and thus its title in English.

  7. Dunc says

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that Athenian democracy excluded the majority of the population…

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