I discovered an excellent post on “Open Left” about H. L. Mencken the other day. The author, John Emerson, puts Mencken’s both elitism and allegiance to the Democrats in the context of a wing of the party I’d never heard of: the Bourbon Democrats:
…Mencken was a Bourbon Democrat. The Bourbon Democrats ruled the South and most of the big cities of the North. They (and their “stand-pat” Republican frenemies) were uniformly corrupt, cynical, elitist, anti-labor, and segregationist. During the 1890s they succeeded in destroying the Populist Party, and in the succeeding era they were under continual attack by progressives within the party, and they and the stand-pat Republicans fought to the death against reform. The Bourbons didn’t lose their power within the party until 1965 or so, and during the New Deal they supported FDR only grudgingly, if at all.
Emerson cites Mencken’s encomium to Grover Cleveland, “the most famous and most successful Bourbon Democrat.” Cleveland, students of American history will recall, sent troops to Chicago to put down the Pullman Strike.
Surveying today’s political landscape, Emerson remarks that
[T]oo many of the Democratic rank and file – what I call the “wonk demographic” — have bought into the anti-populism, cultural elitism, and administrative liberalism of the machine Democrats, and this cripples the party. In many contexts, becoming a liberal is a way of making yourself a better class of person, the same as buying a nicer pair of shoes or a better kind of cheese.
There’s truth to the that, but there’s another truth that’s even uglier to consider. Most of the American masses don’t want to hear about progress. They despise uplift. Anything that opposes their masters–the corporations, the State (especially the military), and the church–is evil and unpatriotic. Look at the response to health care reform. Look at how “socialist” has become a pejorative word. (Actually it’s been pejorative for decades, but now it’s on a level of “Satanist.”) Look at the cults of creeps like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.
It’s hard, very hard, to fight for people who don’t want to be liberated. To quote a passage from Notes on Democracy, what the common man mistakes liberty for, “nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upons his oppressors. He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.”
Bring back the Wobblies, I say.