(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This article originally ran on Forbes.com on April 2, 2009.)
America's wealthy elite could use a latter-day Sage of Baltimore to shield them from populist wrath.
These are hard times for elitists. On the left and on the right, populist mobs are lighting torches and passing out pitchforks. Soon they may start herding plutocrats onto tumbrels and rolling them toward Wall Street, the new home of the Place de la Revolution. Amid such dire portents, who will dare to take a stand for aristocracy?
H.L. Mencken comes to mind, at least as a model. The last time populism crested, back in the 1930s, the so-called Sage of Baltimore sided with America's oppressed patricians and poured scorn on the overweening hoi polloi. Mencken was no worshiper of Wall Street, but he instinctively sided with the few against the many. Especially when he sensed a witch hunt in the offing. "The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary," he wrote.
Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a newspaper pundit, literary critic, magazine editor and agent provocateur. He first rose to prominence as a Progressive Era dissenter who ridiculed the very notion of uplift as laughably naive. What ailed America, he announced, was "the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic or government control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob--a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy."
Mencken derided the common man for envying the rich. "He hates the plutocrats of the cities, not only because they best him in the struggle for money, but also because they spend their gains on debaucheries that are beyond him," Mencken wrote in his caustic classic Notes on Democracy (1926). "The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: He can never get rid of the naive delusion--so beautifully Christian!--that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow."
Mencken was hugely influential during the roaring '20s, when he functioned as a bipartisan scold, flaying socialists and Rotarians alike. But the Great Depression pushed the country to the left and stranded Mencken on the right. As a libertarian, he viewed the New Deal with horror. His eloquent denunciations of Franklin Roosevelt alienated many former admirers but presumably earned him the gratitude of those aristocrats who considered Roosevelt a traitor to his class.
These days, with the Wall Street bailout fueling populist rage, there is an opportunity for a new Mencken to show his mettle. But is there anyone among the current crop of right-wing pundits who can bear comparison to the Sage?
"Absolutely nobody," declares Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, who edited Mencken's posthumous memoir My Life as Author and Editor.
"These people are self-important pipsqueaks," Yardley said, via e-mail. "I don't respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M. I do have a measure of respect for David Brooks, whose knee doesn't seem to jerk in his sleep, but he's no Mencken and I suspect he'd be the first to say so."
Naturally, there are those on the right who would reject Yardley's assessment. "I think I am the right-wing Mencken," Ann Coulter asserted on CNN in 2006. (For good measure, she also claimed to be the right-wing Mark Twain.) R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor in chief of The American Spectator, has been compared to Mencken, as have the Canadian writer Mark Steyn and humorist P.J. O'Rourke. (O'Rourke gets bonus points for being the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.)
Meanwhile, many on the left still cherish Mencken as a humorist, an iconoclast and a masterful stylist, even as they deprecate his "survival of the fittest" philosophy. In liberal precincts, the Mencken label has been affixed to such writers as Gore Vidal, Lewis Lapham and Alexander Cockburn.
Victor Navasky, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former editor and publisher of The Nation, illustrated the protean nature of the Sage's enduring appeal. When polled by Forbes, Navasky offered three extremely diverse nominees for the "latter-day Mencken" title: Calvin Trillin (who writes verse for The Nation), Mark Steyn (who is anathema to The Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (a former Nation mainstay who left after his support for the Iraq War alienated its liberal readership).
Hitchens, as a proud contrarian, might be tempted to interpose himself, Mencken-like, between the current populists and their well-heeled prey. "Populism, which is in the last instance always an illiberal style, may come tricked out as a folkish emancipation," he once wrote in an essay about Mencken. "That is when it most needs to be satirized."
That old saw "vox populi, vox dei"--the voice of the people is the voice of God--is "a treacherous saying that has often been used to cement alliances between the plutocracy and the mob," Hitchens wrote. "It helps, of course, in resisting the populi bit, if you are convinced that the dei part is nonsense also. Thus we have Mencken, in his heroic period, defending Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette, not because they were tribunes of the plebs but because they were individuals of integrity who stood out against the yelling crowd as well as against the oligarchy."
But neither Hitchens nor any other current pundit can truly fill Mencken's shoes, because none espouse the Sage's gleeful brand of social Darwinism, which animated almost everything he wrote. These days, anyone admitting to such mean-spirited views is relegated to marginal publications. Was Mencken's extreme elitism a pose, something he exaggerated for effect? Not according to Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.
"Mencken was every bit as heartless as he made out," Teachout said, via e-mail. "Not on an individual level--he was capable of great personal kindness--but everything that he wrote in Notes on Democracy should be taken seriously as an expression of how he thought the world worked. Another way to put it is that he believed that politics existed in order to block the otherwise inevitable operation of social Darwinism. For that reason, he didn't have any serious expectation that his ideas would ever be adopted in America: He knew that elitism has no appeal in a democracy."
"It's important to keep in mind, though, that Mencken was the furthest thing from a practical political thinker," Teachout added. "He was essentially a literary artist who played with ideas. This doesn't mean that he wasn't serious about those ideas, but it would never have occurred to him to think through how they might be made to work in the real world. That wasn't what he understood to be his job--he was a critic, period."
As such, Mencken left his mark on America, even if he failed to thwart the New Deal. Truth be told, his libertarian crusade had little practical effect, other than to put a severe crimp in his popularity. But at least it boosted the aristocrats' morale as they made their way to the Trans-Lux newsreel theater to hiss Roosevelt. Today's upper-crust types may get little love from today's pundits, but they can still order themselves a copy of Notes on Democracy and let it lift their spirits. We'll give the last word to the Sage himself:
"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776 and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government and even to civilization itself--that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating."
Mark Lewis is a former Senior News Editor at Forbes.com.