|There's a lot to like about Mencken. He had a salty sense of humor and wrote vigorously and well. He mostly wrote about literature, music, and politics, but he had come up through the ranks as a newspaperman and had a broad range of experience to draw upon. He was thoroughly secular and a religious skeptic, and one of his specialties was ridiculing people who he felt need to be ridiculed. Even though he didn't like jazz, during the Jazz Age and the Prohibition era he was the acknowledged leader of the liberated and the forward-looking, and he helped bring a number of new realist authors to the attention of the American public. During the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations he heaped scorn on the ruling Republicans, and for that reason he remains a hero to many eighty years later.
It thus seems a little odd when you find that Mencken was a Roosevelt-hater who opposed almost everything about the New Deal. There are actually two good explanations, though. The first is that Mencken was primarily a cynic, a contrarian, and a misanthrope who rejected democracy as a matter of principle, thought that the vast majority of men were complete idiots ("boobs") who deserved nothing but contempt, and above all, hated every kind of do-gooder and reformer like the plague.*
The second explanation is that Mencken was a Bourbon Democrat. The Bourbon Democrats ruled the South and most of the big cities of the North. They (and their "stand-pat" Republican frenemies) were uniformly corrupt, cynical, elitist, anti-labor, and segregationist. During the 1890s they succeeded in destroying the Populist Party, and in the succeeding era they were under continual attack by progressives within the party, and they and the stand-pat Republicans fought to the death against reform. The Bourbons didn't lose their power within the party until 1965 or so, and during the New Deal they supported FDR only grudgingly, if at all.
The most famous and most successful Bourbon Democrat was Grover Cleveland, who was perhaps the most anti-labor President in an anti-labor era and who, as President, was personally responsible for driving the Populists out of the Democratic Party.
Thirty-six years years after Cleveland had left office, at the beginning of the New Deal, Mencken wrote a fulsome piece on Cleveland ("A Good Man in a Bad Trade" in A Mencken Chrestomathy, p. 227) in which he regretted that the ignorant masses admired Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln far more than they did the much superior Cleveland. And to Mencken the most admirable thing about Cleveland was his sternness toward the people who supported him.
In Mencken three legs of the anti-populist Democratic Party are already in place: cultural elitism, the "counterintuitive" contempt for the party base, and "realism". (Mencken was not exactly pro-corruption, but as a cynic and misanthrope he thought that it was inevitable, and he bitterly hated reformers as such.)
To Mencken all goody-goodies were the same: many of the political progressives of the 19th and early 20th century had a Christian background, and among the progressives causes like anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, and women's suffrage often were mixed in with to Prohibition, health cults, and sometimes even nativism.
Thus, if Mencken were alive today he would thoroughly enjoy the scandals and the imbecilities coming from the two parties, and he would be perfectly happy to note the corruption and boodling of the Democrats and the Republicans, but the ones he would really hate would be the Naderites, the Chomskians, and the few remaining honest liberals.
Mencken, however, was not a miliarist. He opposed World War One and was very doubtful about World War Two. (He had real difficulty deciding who he despised most: Roosevelt, Hitler, the isolationists, the leftists, or the pacifists.
Over at the New Republic, however, you had the fourth leg of Cold War liberalism. The New Republic liberals were educated, tough-minded, and sophisticated. They shared Mencken's contempt for the populists and the churchy progressive reformers, and like Mencken they were sophisticates who despised the culture both of the masses and of the genteel middle class. Unlike Mencken, however, they believed in the power of government to improve things - as long as it was scientific, tough-minded, and top-down. And unlike Mencken, they strongly supported the First World War, even though they had trouble figuring out why. (As Lasch said, at the beginning they didn't know what their war policy would be, but they knew that it would be a tough policy.)
Between Mencken and the New Republic liberals, all of the elements of the Cold War liberalism that still controls the Democratic Party were in place by 1920: anti-populism, administrative elitism, militarism, "tough-mindedness", and culturalism.***
However, something had been lost. One key element of the New Deal Democratic Party did not survive WWII: the various independent, third-party, and dissident Republican and Democratic populists / progressives (mostly from the West and Midwest) who forced Roosevelt to do (more or less) the right thing. Most of them thought Roosevelt moved too cautiously, and many of them were isolationists, and while Roosevelt knew that couldn't have accomplished what he did domestically without strong pressure from his left, during the war a national unity government was put in place and the progressives faded from view.
After the war there were little twitches of progressivism here and there, but the party was purged of leftists during the pre-McCarthy and McCarty eras. The party leaders didn't want any more of that grief, and by and large the Democratic Party became a pro-business, pro-war corporate-liberal organization. Intellectuals like Richard Hofstadter** helped out by portraying the odious Joe McCarthy as the true heir of the populists and progressives who had given the machine Democrats so much trouble during the fifty years beginning in 1890.
The pro-business, pro-war wing of the Democratic Party has always been there, and so have the elitist, cultural liberals, and often they've been allied against the populists and progressives. When Wellstone said "I'm from the Democratic branch of the Democratic Party", he wasn't being quite accurate, and he knew it. What he really should have said (though it would have been too wonky) was that he was from the Farmer-Labor branch of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (the official name of Minnesota's Democratic Party, which came into existence in a merger of the old Democrats with the radical Farmer Labor Party).
So what's my point? First, during their best years the Democrats were heavily dependent on dissident progressive frenemies of various sorts, but in recent decades they've lost that resource and exclusively associate with Republicans. The results haven't been pretty. The corporate anti-populism of today's Democrats alienates them from one of their sources of strength and makes them poor representatives of the American people.
And second (a point I haven't been able to develop very well today), too many of the Democratic rank and file - what I call the "wonk demographic" -- have bought into the anti-populism, cultural elitism, and administrative liberalism of the machine Democrats, and this cripples the party. In many contexts, becoming a liberal is a way of making yourself a better class of person, the same as buying a nicer pair of shoes or a better kind of cheese. The only hope is that sometime in the future the economic crisis will take such a big bite on the multitudinous pseudo-wonks in the party that they will grudgingly waken to the fact that they really aren't all that, and are really just nothing but People like everyone else.
*Mencken also thought that most women were idiots and didn't think that they should be given the right to vote, but in his condescending way he sort of liked them. This hatred of reformers and do-gooders can also be seen in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes the ex-Abolitionist (see Menand's The Metaphysical Club) and in a less political form in Mark Twain.
(Final edit 2:45. Sorry, folks!)
**Many people have been generous enough to explain to me that Hofstadter didn't do this single-handed. Thank you, many people!
***In The New Radicalism Lasch shows how a lot of the adulation Kennedy received was not for any real merits he had, but just because he was cooler and more attractive than other politicians.
A Mencken Chrestomathy, H. L. Mencken, Knopf, 1949.
The New Radicalism in America, Christopher Lasch,Vintage, 1965.
The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch, Norton, 1991.