Home > Applying Political Science, San Joaquin Valley, University of the Pacific > All the King’s Men and Local Politics

All the King’s Men and Local Politics

Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren

Image via Wikipedia

What Robert Penn Warren and All the King’s Men

Tells us about Local Politics

Bob Benedetti

In recent years many communities have selected a book annually which citizens are encouraged to read and discuss. This year (2011) San Joaquin County selected All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.  Those making the decision may have been influenced by the fact that one of two movie versions was shot in Stockton and on the Delta. Moreover, the book is arguably a great American novel and one of the few to focus on local politics. What does Penn Warren tell us about the way democracy works at the grassroots?

At first glance, the picture is not a pretty one.  All the King’s Men recounts the career of Willie Stark, a small town farmer who aspires to public life.  He takes a correspondence school route through law school and runs for local office.  He loses, but uncovers shady construction practices in the building of a local school, which later collapses.  A statewide political “machine” recruits him to run for Governor to split the rural vote.  When he realizes the stratagem, he campaigns for the machine’s opponent and, in the next election, runs against the machine and the incumbent, winning on a populist platform.  Subsequently, he uses blackmail and the promise of lucrative contracts to solidify his political position. While his policies gratify the poor, he manipulates voters with fiery rhetoric and pressures those who oppose him with all means available to him, including those of questionable legality and morality.

However, he attracts loyal followers whom the author describes sympathetically. They are torn between his attention to projects for the poor and his disregard for the standards of reasoned debate and ethical behavior.  This tension is dramatized by the interaction between Willie Stark and Adam Stanton, a young doctor from an established local family.  Stark uses one of Stanton’s friends and his sister to convince Adam to direct a new hospital.  However, when Stanton realizes that Stark has had an affair with his sister, has uncovered unsavory information about his father, and is awarding construction contracts for political gain, he shoots Stark and is killed by Stark’s bodyguard in return.

One would think that Penn Warren would settle for telling a simple morality story in which the corrupt politician gets what is coming to him for breaking the rules of fair political practice and rational policy discourse.   However, his analysis is more subtle and suggestive. He implies that Stark and Stanton are extremes between which American politics fluctuate.  He indicates that the better course of our democracy would be a balance between political realism and political idealism, between necessary compromises to get projects accomplished and the dictates of reason and conventional morality.

If we take his point and apply it to state and local politics today, we may become more sympathetic to recent governors who have seemed to be braking some promises to accomplish others.  This is not to say that Penn Warren does not see a role for principled behavior in politics.  He clearly does, but he is also aware the appeals to principle often benefit one class or group more than others.  If the public good is to be done, all classes and groups need to receive benefits.  In moderation, he would allow politicians to break eggs to make an omelet.

In sum, democracy at the grassroots is an attempt to negotiate a middle ground between the real needs of all citizens and an honoring of traditional practice and rational debate.  Penn Warren thinks it is mythic for citizens to believe that everything necessary for the polity can be accomplished by ordered deliberation.  He accepts, even dignifies, the practice of logrolling where policy is not accomplished by an agreement on merits, but by politicians mobilizing support through trading benefits across policies and, in some case, across policies and personal needs or wants.

Rational choice theory, now quite popular in political science, easily accommodates the idea of “side payments” which are conceptually akin to the practices that Penn Warren is sanctioning here.  However, such theories may not give adequate weight to the moral/rationalist/utopian strain in American democratic politics.  A more fulsome theoretic would accord equal time to the reform impulse in America, to the League of Women Voters as well as to the political machine.  All the King’s Men reminds use to look for a balance between these impulses, both empirically and normatively, as we sift through the politics running along our city streets and across our Capitol malls.

For more discussion of the book see: http://mainehumanities.org/podcast/archives/tag/all-the-kings-men


  1. Hillary
    October 11, 2011 at 8:10 am

    I guess this emphasizes that politicians cannot keep all the promises they make due to pressures from the people directly around them.

  2. Sarah B.
    October 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I think that the public sometimes forgets that politicians promise things that are sometimes unattainable. Therefore, we look down on them without realizing that they can’t satisfy everyone.

  3. Daniel Kemether
    October 12, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    its this ksliver of hope for kind of dirty politics that gives capitalism a bad name… I think election camapaigns go too far ad get too stressful that polititions start promising anything they think there is a sliver of hope for just so they can get elected. this puts them in a bind if they are elected and canot fulfill said promises. this goes to show there is still so much to improve on with out government and politicians.

  4. Yesenia Gutierrez
    October 13, 2011 at 8:54 am

    People expect their elected officials, such as a mayor or governor to enact legislation quickly that will benefit them, but this seldom happens over night because the process takes time. I agree with Professor Benedetti, in regards of the balance there needs to be between what the people want and what “the machines” want as well. When this occurs then people will begin to understand that it is not the elected officials fault, as she/he is just another actor in the system trying to obtain some sort of change.

  5. Emma Fonseca
    October 13, 2011 at 10:36 am

    It seems to show that politics, specifically politicians, have not changed. It is a dirty lying game where people have to literally either go big or go home. People should not expect as much as they do from politicians and I think the more they mess up and break their promises, the more general public realizes they should not have full faith in the politicians they vote into place.

  6. Jocelyn
    October 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I believe that politicians make promises to the people to get their vote and I don’t think that they aren’t necessarily going to fulfill those promises; it just takes longer than what the politician might have expected to fulfill different duties. People should respect that things are not going to be done right away and they should wait patiently.

  7. Jennifer
    October 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    this supports the idea of politcs and the way it is, people want immediate results and that does not always happen

  8. Ana Waskiewicz
    October 13, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I think people always expect too much from politicians and politicians sometimes prromise something that’s actually easier to say than do and this is where dirty politics comes in. People get their bad view of politicians because they expect to get whatever they want.

  9. Richard Munoz
    October 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I think that the trading of benefits among individuals within is a legitimate tool, and like any true tool, is something which can and should be utilized for a responsible purpose. The fact that it’s treated as a taboo is what causes it to be a taboo and what often makes the act appear to be one of corruption. However, if we are speaking realistically, we have to concede that without incentive to act, individuals will generally settle for the status-quo. Sad as it is to say, in this day and age, politicians, even every day people, need a tangible reason to act to change policy, regardless of the rationale or ideals behind such policy.

  10. Mitchell
    October 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I agree that there needs to be a certain balance between political realism and idealism. We don’t want corrupt politicians, but at the same time, they have to reach a deal, and in order to fulfill their promises or policy goals, they have to result to tactics that may not be entirely corrupt, but certainly isn’t “clean”.

  11. Irain J.
    October 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    People need to realize that just by electing a new official does not necessarily mean legislation will be enacted immediately. Not only that but promises made by officials do not always come through.

  12. Samuel Park
    October 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    People need to give policy and leaders time for change to happen. People need to also realize that politicians can’t do everything they promised to do.

  13. Lauren Barrera
    October 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Change takes time, especially in our government. The founding fathers purposely set up a system full of checks and balances, so any major change within the system will take time- because of this, when politicians promise to make change, and are unable to do so within their term, the public is quick to criticize.

  14. Hannah Perkins
    October 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I think that people forget that politicians are people too and that they can only do so much. I think people expect way too much out of politicians. Conversely, politics is obviously a dirty business so it’s almost expected that the public be manipulated somehow

  15. Chris McHenry
    November 15, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Politicians tell the public what they want to hear, it is sort of a trade off in my opinion because politicians want to be elected and the people want a politician that will give them what they want and make good decisions that benefit them. Currently people want a politician that promises to better the economy and the canidates or politicians make future promises to better the economy in which people want to hear that. People should realize that these promises politicians make almost never happen right away.

  16. Neil S.
    December 8, 2011 at 12:22 am

    Things can’t just happen overnight when someone is elected. There is a process that you have to go through to get things done, the sooner people realize that, the better they will be able to voice themselves.

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