“The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind.”

— H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926

Way back when Mencken wrote this, it was a biting commentary by a powerfully intelligent cynic.  He thought the vast majority of people really were inferior sorts and that the Palmer raids, Scopes trial and Prohibition were pretty convincing evidence.  Probably most people believed it was an overstatement.

As polling techniques developed over the next 30 or so years, it turned out that maybe it wasn’t going too far at all.  It didn’t take long to find out that most Americans were perfectly happy with taking away the Bill of Rights for communists, atheists, and whoever else they considered bad.  Seminal academic works by Herbert McClosky and Samuel Stouffer established what would become rather widely accepted knowledge.  Most citizens simply don’t understand and have little attachment to the politics of rights, liberty, and law.  We depend on a narrow group of intellectual and political elites to maintain our freedom and form of government.

This is important to keep in mind as the hearings on NSA spying ramp up over the next few weeks. Glenn Greenwald, a civil liberties lawyer with an extremely well-written blog, is the best resource on this.  He’s been articulating the outrage so many of us feel at the administration’s theory that it simply does not have to follow any laws.  Recently, he created a list of questions for Alberto Gonzalez that will be forwarded to the Senate Judiciary committee. The theory of all this is that if we can just get the true story out, it will be possible to create public pressure.  If Americans only understood the outrageousness of what is happening, how the Bush regime is subverting our constitutional system, they would rise up in protest.

This theory is probably just wrong.  If Bush is unpopular enough, it might be possible to make a scandal stick.  This won’t happen because of the nature of the scandal, though, but from an emotional reaction.  No amount of reasoned explanation is likely to do it.

Mencken later would say that “if the American people really tire of democracy and want to make a trial of Fascism, I shall be the last person to object. But if that is their mood, then they had better proceed toward their aim by changing the Constitution and not by forgetting it.”  

Terrible as this sounds, it may end up being the best we can do.  As Tristero said on Digby’s Blog, “Another president like Bush and even the most cautious amongst us will be forced to conclude that the project of American democracy — or at least the version of it I learned about and, yes, admire — is over.”

I’m sorry to be so hopeless today.  But, as H.L. said, “The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.”

—Pete DeWan

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