Were democracy not so charming–were it not such a cursed magical mirror always doing the work of transforming, in the eyes of the public, the most disfigured faces into beauties and the most unthinking, huddled herds into fields of naturally wise wild flowers–my task of persuading my fellow Americans of its absurdity would be all the more easy.

Yet democracy–for all its buffooneries and pitfalls, for all its volatility and contradictions, for all its hee-hawing rah-rahs, parades of false promises, and fits of unearned hosannas in its honor–does remain eternally charming. And by this charm, it must be said, democracy endures; for charm often trumps truth-telling, flattery often conquers criticism, and the promise of happiness is often more alluring than actually achieving happiness itself. Democracy is always skipping from pasture to pasture, hopping the fences of its good neighbors, in search of greener grasses.

As H.L. Mencken noted in 1926, “What we now call democracy came into the Western World to the tune of sweet, soft music. There was, at the start, no harsh bawling from below; there was only a dulcet twittering from above.”

That “sweet, soft music” might as well be in D-minor; it might as well be Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, galloping through history, playing the role of the second best, not quite sure of itself, yet always trudging ahead whatever may come, just as Bruckner did in shadow of Wagner. As the degenerate, gutter poet Bukowski said of Bruckner,

there are times when we should

remember

the strange courage

of the second-rate

who refuse to quit

when the nights

are black and long and sleepless

and the days are without

end

Such is how I view democracy: second-rate on paper and in practice, yet charming and note-worthy in its resilience to persevere. But this is as far I can go in praising the democratic system. Though it may be quite beguiling, democracy is still a farce–a farce that fancies itself serious and solemn. This absurdity, again, only adds to its charms. Democracy: a grand inside joke that too many take too seriously.

At bottom, my main issue with the democratic system is the idea that “the people” know what they want and accordingly are fit to rule in order to achieve these desired ends. It is never suggested that the people may be ignorant of what they want, or if they really do know what they want, that they don’t know how to pull it off.

For instance, in the context of the United States of America, it can be said without much controversy that the American people agree on this: Americans want what they want and they want it how they want it. To suggest they may not know what they want is heresy.

“The people,” of course, do not exist as some mystical entity akin to a god on earth. The collective known as “the people” is just that, a collective; it is not a singular entity able of carrying out its conscious will. When I hear anyone appealing to the “will of the people” it is often obvious they are not speaking of the collective will of the whole body, but rather, are appealing to the will of some segment of people in the name of the whole body.

I am tempted to call this trick dishonest, but I will not. I think most who appeal to the “will of the people” do so as honest hucksters, i.e. they do not even know they are hucksters in the first place and really do believe in the power of the herd to remedy the political questions of the day. Here, and in other ways, democracy reveals its tendency to operate on a foundation of bad faith. That is, I find democracy to always be contradicting itself whilst forever fooling itself blind to this fact.

And it fools itself by accepting the theoretical role of “the people” once laid down to the sound of “sweet, soft music.” Where others failed to rule in the past, say, divine kings and their fine nobles, the people will take up this mantle to rule and will do so humanely, justly, and nobly in the name of protecting the people’s liberty–or so the theory goes.

In practice, the people have hardly been humane, just, or noble in ruling over themselves.

Daft to freedom, the rabble has rendered their own chains, and with gilded hope and love, they have given themselves “the reins.”

But don’t they know, the tyrant in you is the tyrant in me?

Where’s the liberty?

It is not so much that I lack faith in the people. Where I lack faith is in the very idea that someone–whether an emperor, a king, an aristocracy, or the people–must rule. The path of ruling over others, to seek the seat of sovereignty, is perilous to everyone’s freedom. And to seek such power by democratic means is to march liberty to the scene of the guillotine, and in the name of liberty, swiftly sever its head–the mind–from its body to the sound of a hungry mob’s raucous jeers and cheers. When Oscar Wilde said, “…each man kills the thing he loves yet each man does not die” he might as well have been talking of democracy.

In this light, H.L. Mencken, a man I owe a great deal intellectually, had it right when he said:

Democracy always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves…liberty, the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic…Try to imagine monarchy jailing subjects for maintaining the divine right of Kings! Or Christianity damning a believer for arguing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God! This last, perhaps, has been done: anything is possible in that direction. But under democracy the remotest and most fantastic possibility is a common-place of every day. All the axioms resolve themselves into thundering paradoxes, many amounting to downright contradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule the rest of us—but it must be rigorously policed itself. There is a government, not of men, but of laws – but men are set upon benches to decide finally what the law is and may be. The highest function of the citizen is to serve the state – but the first assumption that meets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonour. Is that assumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows the more glorious.

More glorious, indeed.