​Henry Louis Mencken: THE CUNNING POLITICIAN UNDER DEMOCRACY

THE ART OF POLITICS

I find myself quoting the German economist, Professor Robert Michels. The politician, he said, is the courtier of democracy. This was a most profound saying – perhaps more profound than the professor, himself a democrat, realized. For it was of the essence of the courtier’s art and mystery that he flattered his employer in order to victimize him, yielded to him in order to rule him. 

The politician under democracy does precisely the same thing. His business is never what it pretends to be. Ostensibly he is an altruist devoted whole-heartedly to the service of his fellowmen, and so abjectly public-spirited that his private interest is nothing to him. Actually he is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips. His technical equipment consists simply of an armamentarium of deceits. It is his business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground. If he is an adept, he can hear the first murmurs of popular clamor before even the people themselves are conscious of them. If he is a master, he detects and whoops up to-day the delusions that the mob will cherish next year.

There is in him, in his professional aspect, no shadow of principle or honor. It is moral by his code to get into office by false pretences, as the late Dr. Woodrow Wilson did in 1916. It is moral to change convictions overnight, as multitudes of American politicians did when the Prohibition avalanche came down upon them. Anything is moral that furthers the main concern of his soul, which is to keep a place at the public trough. That place is one of public honor, and public honor is the thing that caresses him and makes him happy. It is also one of power, and power is the commodity that he has for sale.

I speak here, of course, of the democratic politician in his role of statesman – that is, in his best and noblest aspect. He flourishes also on lower levels, partly subterranean. Down there public honor would be an inconvenience, so he hawks it to lesser men, and contents himself with power. What are the sources of that power? They lie, obviously, in the gross weaknesses and knaveries of the common people – in their inability to grasp any issues save the simplest and most banal, in their incurable tendency to fly into preposterous alarms, in their petty self-seeking and venality, in their instinctive envy and hatred of their superiors –in brief, in their congenital incapacity for the elemental duties of citizens in a civilized state.

The modern politician, everywhere in the world, has peculiarly become the state as the citizens apprehend it; around him clusters all the romance that used to hang about a king. He is the fount of honor and the mould of form. His barbaric code, framed to fit their gullibility, becomes an example to their young. The boss is the eternal reductio ad absurdum of the whole democratic process. He exemplifies its reduction of all ideas to a few elemental wants. And he reflects and makes manifest the inferior man’s congenital fear of liberty – his incapacity for even the most trivial sort of independent action. Life on the lower levels is life in a series of interlocking despotisms. The inferior man cannot imagine himself save as taking orders – if not from the boss, then from the priest, and if not from the priest, then from some fantastic drill-sergeant of his own creation.

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 shotgun 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 plainly 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. His frankness would arouse fears, and those fears would run against him; it is his business to arouse fears that will run in favor of him. Worse, he must not only consider the weaknesses of the mob, but also the prejudices of the minorities that prey upon it. Some of these minorities have developed a highly efficient technique of intimidation. 

The cunning politicians not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters. 

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