H.L. Mencken on the modern Republican Party

Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority: moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear.

Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority: moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear.

Actually, he was describing the American plutocracy, c. 1920.

The quotation is from “The National Letters.” The occasion was the contemporary “Red Scare.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “H.L. Mencken on the modern Republican Party”

  1. Plenty in that quotation to be taken in a general way about current situation(s). The best argument for universal literacy is the description of power plus ignorance.

  2. Thanks for a great quote. Folks here might enjoy Matthew Josephson's classic "The Politicos" which runs through the late 19th century antics of the Republican (and Democratic) machines. Depressing in a way, except for the fact that we somehow survived it. The thought that President Dubya might not ultimately do us any more harm than President Grant managed to do is mildly reassuring — at least in the longer run.
    But then Grant had a better record as a military leader, so it's still a competitive race.

  3. Mencken died sixty years ago. Nothing he said can be about the 'modern Republican Party.' You don't like the Reeps, fine, but Mencken is not an authority to which you can appeal.

  4. dave s, when you consider Mike Kelley's little hint it's clear that Mencken's quip is quite relevant to today's GOP, still the plutocrat's political party, still waving the bloody shirt, and still remembering the Maine by playing on our fears and waging the current "war on terror".

  5. Does anybody remember historian George Santayana's maxim? Loosly, "Those that do not study history are doomed to repeat it." Well, uber-geek engineer Marty Schrader [ahem] has a corollary to that, stated as Schrader's Corollary: "Those that study history are doomed to stand by and see it be repeated — in real time."
    'Nuff said.

  6. STS
    Grant didn't invade 2 foreign countries, with no clear exit strategy for either.
    Grant failed to resolve the problems of Reconstruction, when insurgent forces seized control in at least 2 southern states, imposing apartheid. This left Segregation as an open wound in the American side for another 100 years.
    The US was not crucially dependent on foreign oil in Grant's day. So political chaos abroad was unlikely to directly threaten the US economy and society, the way it does in the Middle East.
    The US was not, I don't think, the world's largest debtor nation under President Grant.
    So 'just being as bad as Grant' is 1). unlikely and 2). puts the US in a pretty bad position.

  7. Actually I think the description of the current Republican Party is inappropriate.
    They are highly motivated by ideology: to the disregard of fact, on the Middle East, on Global Warming, on the US current account and budgetary deficits.
    The Washington Monthly (Jonathan Rauch) had a good piece on this a couple of years back. They have absorbed the French philosophical notion (post modernist) that the only reality is the one you divine and create. Objective facts, aren't.
    For the Republican Party in all its different factions, there is a unity around a small number of touchstone points (lower taxes, less environmental regulation, aggressive foreign policy etc.) which are seen to be truths above and independent of data, feedback etc.

  8. Valuethinker – The tax-related touchstone is lower taxes on assets: capital gains and inheritance taxes. That's what they're rabid about. Because those matter to the plutocracy. When it comes to taxes for everyone else, their words and their actions are not so consistent.

  9. I think the Mencken piece that most appropriately describes the current Republican party is "The Sahara of the Bozarts" – his roast of Southern culture.

  10. Michael
    They cut top tax rates as well. Since a lot of the income of even top corporate executives falls under the category of income tax, they are keen to cut that as well.
    I would argue (I expect you would agree) that in the long run, your tax burden is exactly the government's share in the economy: run a big deficit now, pay for it later. So the effective commitment to lower taxes is open to question.
    But still lower marginal tax rates is a touchstone.
    We might summarise the modern Republican Party as 'just cut taxes'. Fiscal policy, foreign policy, moral policy: they differ (sometimes bitterly) on those- -social conservatives, evangelicals, traditional conservatives, neoconservatives, Reagan Republicans, Southern Republicans, libertarians– they all have their views.
    But on taxes, there is a unanimity of voice (and to a large extent, of action).

  11. Valuethinker: You're confusing income with payment for work. Relatively little of the richest Americans' income comes from wages or salary; it's tilted toward the capital gains, inheritance and other assets Michael mentioned.

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