H.L. Mencken‘s 1927 book Notes on Democracy is an interesting document. On the one hand it is a candid expression of a proud elitist worldview. Mencken spends considerable space explicitly denigrating the average person. In short:
There are men who are naturally intelligent and can learn, and there are men who are naturally stupid and cannot. (p. 17)
Such views cannot be expressed in polite society today, and although it is pretty clear that Mencken is aware that his stridency is politically incorrect, it is also pretty clear that he is expressing ideas that were acceptable, even conventional wisdom, in elite circles of his time.
On the other hand, Mencken devotes much attention to the problems of the electoral process as well (which he identifies with democracy). His anti-democratic attitude allows him to criticize the electoral system in a way that those with commitments either to the existing system or to democracy usually cannot afford. As Mencken damns voters for being stupid and electoral politicians for being scoundrels, Mencken points at several problematic fundamental characteristics of the system, belying his main thrust which focuses on personal characteristics. Here, for example, is the principle of distinction:
Democratic man is stupid, but he is not so stupid that he does not see the government as a group of men devoted to his exploitation that is, as a group external to his own group, and with antagonistic interests. (p. 197)
Mencken’s treatment of “direct democracy” – the standard remedy for the problems of the electoral system – is rather insightful:
A great deal of paper and ink has been wasted discussing the difference between representative government and direct democracy. The theme is a favourite one with university pundits, and also engages and enchants the stall-fed Rousseaus who arise intermittently in the cow States, and occasionally penetrate to Governors’ mansions and the United States Senate. It is generally held that representative government, as practically encountered in the world, is full of defects, some of them amounting to organic disease. Not only does it take the initiative in law-making out of the hands of the plain people and leave them only the function of referees; it also raises certain obvious obstacles to their free exercise of that function. Scattered as they are, and unorganized save in huge, unworkable groups, they are unable, it is argued, to formulate their virtuous desires quickly and clearly, or to bring to the resolution of vexed questions the full potency of their native sagacity. Worse, they find it difficult to enforce their decisions, even when they have decided. Every Liberal knows this sad story, and has shed tears telling it. The remedy he offers almost always consists of a resort to what he calls a purer democracy.
That is to say, he proposes to set up the recall, the initiative and referendum, or something else of the sort,and so convert the representative into a mere clerk or messenger. The final determination of all important public questions, he argues, ought to be in the hands of the voters themselves. They alone can muster enough wisdom for the business, and they alone are without guile. The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.
The truth is that the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen: they become politicians ex officio, and usually end by selling such influence as remains after they have used all they need for their own ends. (pp 80-83)