Strongly recommend: an old collection of Mencken columns – H.L. Mencken on Politics, a Carnival of Buncombe (famous for a quote that modern libs consider prophetic). The portion I find most fascinating is the section of columns leading up to the 1932 presidential election. Mencken, also known as “the Sage of Baltimore,” was a brilliant writer, but his election predictions were rarely on the mark. He had no idea that Roosevelt would clobber Hoover until about a month before the election, and even then he was in denial about the impact of the economy on the vote. He thought the issue would come down to Prohibition politics, and he predicted the collapse of the eternally fragile Democratic coalition – as usual over a cultural clash. Even in the last days he continued to hammer on the Prohibition point, making light of the Depression as an issue, with the word “Depression” having failed to reach his columns until October of 1932.
But where Mencken’s observations are insightful is in the dynamics of intra-party politics, particularly in the Democratic Party – dynamics that persist to some degree to this day and account for the hemorrhage of the party of the south to the Republicans as the old segregationists have moved over beginning with Nixon’s “southern strategy” of 1968, and accounted for in the fact that the only Democratic presidents since have been southern. Mencken not only documents the culture war between the “big city” portions of the party and what he terms “the Methodists” (the south and midwest), he partakes in it arguing that the party should rid itself of the southern and midwestern influence altogether. Apparently Mencken was also not proficient in arithmetic. But he’s right about the tension between the “cultural elite” associated with the northeast, and the populists, which is how the Republican Party has always been able to exploit the divisions with race, homophobia, sexual politics, etc.
Mencken also missed the pending realignment with regard to the black vote. Up until FDR, the majority of black voters favored the Republican party for obvious historical reasons and because FDR would eventually bring some congruence between ideological politics (liberal vs. conservative) and party politics. Many of the Progressives and early liberals (in the modern sense) came from the Republican party. The lines were drawn when Roosevelt attempted to model our economy along western European social democratic lines, and the black vote was perceptive enough to pick up on it. But at the point Mencken is writing the following passages, the Democrats remained the “lilly-white” party.
December 8, 1930
Eighteen months and two weeks from today a gang of wise and patriotic men and women, white and black, will meet in a hot hall in some great city of the Republic and proceed by ballot to nominate a Republican candidate for the Presidency – maybe Lord Hoover and maybe another. Two weeks later another gang, this time unanimously Caucasian, will meet in another hall in some other city and nominate a Democratic candidate – maybe Governor Ritchie and maybe not. How times does fly!
I also find the above passage interesting for the timing. We always hear that the presidential race has crept earlier and earlier in time, but Mencken was writing about the election nearly 2 years in advance. I’m not sure the extended campaign is anything new.
The next passage is a year and half later, and Mencken is predicting an easy Hoover win. Why? Because the Democratic Party always self-destructs.
May 18, 1931
The trouble with them (the Democrats) is that they do not constitute a party at all, but consist merely of a loose alliance of two desperate and naturally hostile gangs, each of which dislikes the other more than it dislikes Republicans. The one gang is made up of big city men and women, chiefly in the East, who tire of the Methodist hegemony, and long to see it upset at any cost. The other gang is made up of the peasants who are its main stalwarts, and view any attack upon it as an attack upon God. What the difference amounts to in practice was shown brilliantly in the last campaign. The big cities supported Al Smith with fanatical devotion, but the dung-hills were even more fanatically against him, and so, despite the 15,000,000 votes cast for him, he was beaten by 5,000,000.
Al Smith was of course the first Catholic nominee of a major party, which raises and important point. The intra-party dispute maybe needs to be understood in terms of culture rather than ideology. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” didn’t have much usage at the time, although Mencken does occasionally use the term “Liberal.” But it would be a mistake to assume the “big city” folk were more liberal than the “Methodists.” Pat Buchanan’s father, who once held a flame to young Pat’s hand to teach him about eternity in Hell, was an Al Smith supporter. According to Mencken, it was the Smith faction that fell “dry” on the Prohibition issue rather than “wet.” It seemed to Mencken that the Smith faction and the Methodist “dry” faction would overwhelm the urban “wets” even though the latter had supported Smith in 1928’s loss to Hoover.
May 2, 1932
The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, always do their fighting in public, and seem to like nothing better than a prolonged an implacable combat, with both sides reduced to tatters. They even fight desperately when there is no serious issue. But this time there will be a serious issue, and I see no way, short of divine intervention, to compose it.
The truth is the Democratic Party, as I have often pointed out in this place, is no party at all, but simply and illogical and uncomfortable compound of irreconcilable factions. Between the urban wets who constitute its chief voting strength and the rustic drys who still intimidate its councils there is no more possibility of peace than there is between cats and rats, Babbitts and intelligentsia, or the Sacred College and the Ku Klux Klan. The two sides hate each other with a hatred that is bitter and incurable. Each on occasion has gone over to the Republicans, openly and with loud hosannah’s to beat the other. Neither would hesitate to do it again tomorrow.
Later in the same column, Mencken sizes up Roosevelt’s chances.
At the moment the Hon. Franklin D. Roosevelt, LL.D., seems to have the edge on the other Democratic aspirants, but the returns from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania show that he still has a heavy fight on his hands, and we may have every confidence that fight will be carried on in beserker and suicidal fashion. No one, in fact, really likes Roosevelt, not even his own ostensible friends, and no one quite trusts him. He is a pleasant enough fellow, but he as no more visible conscience than his eminent kinsman, Theodore Dentatus. His chief strength at this moment does not lie among people of his own place and kind, but among the half-witted yokels of the cow and cotton States, and these hinds prefer him, not because they have any real confidence in him, but simply because they believe they can split New York, and so beat Al Smith and the Pope. That beating Al and the Pope will also, in all probability, involve losing New York altogether, and maybe most of the other essential Northern States with it – that fact since they are Democrats, does not concern them for an instant.
And then in the same column Mencken makes his modest proposal.
I see no way out save for the Democratic Party to throw overboard all its half-civilized country jakes, whether Southern or Middle Western, and start off anew as the party of the big cities. If it did that it would attract millions of Republicans instantly, and thus gain more than it lost. Moreover, it would acquire a coherent and plausible platform, and be free to develop competent and honest leaders. At one stroke it would get rid of all its Bryans, McAdoos, Roosevelts, Heflins, and Huey Longs, and at the same stroke it would force the Republicans irrevocably into the arms of the yahoos. Not only would the party itself escape the yahoos, but the country as a whole would escape them.
What chance is there that anything of the sort will happen? I see next to none. The Democrats seem to be committed irretrievably to fraud and imbecility.
It makes for hilarious reading to turn the page and find just a couple of months later, Mencken is singing a different tune:
October 10, 1932
The collapse of Dr. Hoover is one of the most curious phenomena ever seen in American politics.
This is the column in which Mencken brings up the Depression only to dismiss it as an issue. It’s not necessarily crucial to my point about the eternity of intra-party dynamics, but it contains some great Menckenesque prose so I’m dropping it in for your entertainment.
The Democrats having gone the whole hog, could appeal only to the wets, and in that quarter they faced the bitter discontent of the Al Smith men, who were strongest in the big cities, precisely where votes were the most needed…. It looked like walkover for Hoover, and the betting odds on him went up 5 to 1. But now they are running the other way….
Thus the Des Moines speech, despite its flowing periods, was largely compounded of hooey, and it seems unlikely that it made him any substantial number of votes. Those it convinced were simply those who were already eager for conviction. Even the farmers who heard it must have smiled at the statement that “the farmers of America are not selfishly interested in their own industry alone.” Farmers as a class are a dumb lot, but they never forget which side of their bread is buttered. If indeed they have any politics beyond their own self-interest, then on one has ever heard of it.
Like most other politicians, Hoover greatly underestimated the public fury against Prohibition…. All the achieved by it (his decision to take a wimpy neutral position on Prohibition) in fact, was to turn most of the honest drys against him, and to make the wets more suspicious of him than ever before.
In a later column, Mencken sees the light. Sort of.
October 24, 1932
They do not in fact blame him for causing the Depression….they simply blame him for failing so miserably to cure it.
Mencken wasn’t dense, just stubborn.
“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”—“Epitaph”, Smart Set, 1921-12-03, p. 33 (yeah, it’s sexist, but still…)
Photo source – The Mencken Society