Saturday, December 06, 2008

Book Review: Notes on Democracy


This is a review of a book I recently finished titled Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken.

For the most part, when reading his Notes on Democracy, Mr. Menchken is a really good example of a person that has a lot to say about a specific subject and at the same time says very little about that particular subject.

When I opened the cover, the first thing I noticed was that the writing was originally published in 1926 so I began to doubt how something written over 80 years ago could possibly still be relevant to anybody in our time.  Times change. Government institutions evolve.

The first problem with the book is that it does not reach out and grab you. It is really hard in my opinion to get into a book if the first few pages already leave your mouth hanging wide open and drooling. That is, if those first few pages don't grab your interest.

However, for the sake of the subject, I soldiered on.

The book is basically a long-winded essay that attacks the ideology of democracy.  Okay, attacks might be too strong a word but you get the general idea.  I think that yes, there are problems with democracy, as there are problems with all political ideologies. Nobody has gotten it right yet.  Democracy is certainly no exception. But until somebody comes up with something better (that actually works that is), than I am all for it.

Anyway, it turned out that there is quite a bit of information in the book that ended up being quite relevant for the modern era.

For instance, he makes a point about the disproportional representation of the legislatures. Be it the House of Representatives or a state legislature. They are all disproportional. The states (or legislative districts in the case of state legislatures) with small populations have an equal vote and an equal say as those with more densely populated areas.  While I agree to this to some extent, everyone should have a say in the political process, it leaves some of the more densely populated urban areas with the same representation as a state like Montana or North Dakota or Alaska where there are much fewer citizens.

Another relevant point he makes is regarding how the members of the House of Representatives spend more time running for re-election than they do in Washington doing their actual job due to the shorter terms of their elected office.  While I am all in favor of term limits, the short, 2-year term of an elected official seems to be going a little overboard on the issue.  If we did have, for instance an actual 2 year term limit on the Representatives, it would make no sense for them to have to run for re-election, thus they might actually get more work done (of course, this would probably be more in the hopes of seeking higher office).

One of the things he mentioned that I found lacking much sense was how he thought that politicians representing a particular state, region, district, etc..should not have to be residents in their particular area.  In my opinion this defeats the whole purpose behind direct representation and seems to be somewhat contradictory of some of the other things he says in his book.

In conclusion, the biggest problem I really had with this book was the author's lack of ability to make any attempt at making the subject matter interesting.  Or to put it more bluntly, the guy is just a dreadful bore.  One of the quotes on the back of the book describes the author regarding his "bristling, sardonic humor..." I'm not sure what humor whoever wrote this quote was talking about. He must have been talking about another book...by another author.

In my opinion, if you really have to read this book, by all means go ahead. I would suggest against it though.

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