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Richard Nordquist

Buncombe Adjourned: H.L. Mencken on the U.S. Election

By October 27, 2008

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As Americans stagger toward Election Day, dazed by incessant sound bites, robocalls, and attack ads, we'd like to offer an antidote of sorts--a corrective to the hype, hooey, and balderdash we've had to endure over the past year. The remedy? Crackling good prose. And the author? Legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, whose 84-year-old essay on "The Politician" still sounds fresh and fiercely pertinent.

With characteristic hyperbole, parallelism, and prohibition-era analogies, Mencken offers this plan to foster "public contentment and happiness":

Under my scheme there would be no more false hopes, and hence no more painful surprises, no more bitter resentment of fraud, no more despair. Politicians, in so far as they remained necessary, would be kept at work--but not with any insane notion that they were archangels. Their rascality would be assumed and discounted. Machinery would be gradually developed to limit it and counteract it. In the end, it might be utilized in some publicity profitable manner, as the insensitiveness to filth of garbage men is now utilized, as the reverence of the clergy for capitalism is now utilized. The result, perhaps, would be a world no better than the present one, but it would at least be a world more intelligent. . . .

What I plead for, if I may borrow a term in disrepute, is simply Realpolitik, i.e., realism in politics. I can imagine a political campaign purged of all the current false assumptions and false pretenses--a campaign in which, on election day, the voters went to the polls clearly informed that the choice between them was not between an angel and a devil, a good man and a bad man, an altruist and a go-getter, but between two frank go-getters, the one, perhaps, excelling at beautiful and nonsensical words and the other at silent and prehensile deeds--the one a chautauqua orator and the other a porch-climber. There would be, in that choice, something candid, free and exhilarating. Buncombe would be adjourned. The voter would make his selection in the full knowledge of all the facts, as he makes his selection between two heads of cabbage, or two evening papers, or two brands of chewing tobacco. Today he chooses his rulers as he buys bootleg whiskey, never knowing precisely what he is getting, only certain that it is not what it pretends to be. The Scotch may turn out to be wood alcohol or it may turn out to be gasoline; in either case it is not Scotch. How much better if it were plainly labeled, for wood alcohol and gasoline both have their uses--higher uses, indeed, than Scotch. The danger is that the swindled and poisoned consumer, despairing of ever avoiding them when he doesn't want them, may prohibit them even when he does want them, and actually enforce his own prohibition. The danger is that the hopeless voter, forever victimized by his false assumption about politicians, may in the end gather such ferocious indignation that he will abolish them teetotally and at one insane swoop, and so cause government by the people, for the people and with the people to perish from this earth.
(from Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924)

Is it likely that Mencken's scheme will ever come to pass? Certainly not. But fortunately his ebullient prose endures.

More by H.L. Mencken:

Image: H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

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