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All the King’s Men and Local Politics

October 8, 2011 16 comments
Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren

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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:


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