BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
This election season, I haven’t been reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker or the National Review. Not too much anyways. I’ve been reading All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s political saga about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a pig farmer turned Governor based on Louisiana’s Huey Long. It has been, in turns, assuring and infuriating.
You don’t have to look any further than this classic to see that the winning narrative in American politics has long been the same. A newcomer can always score points by shouting about what the incumbent isn’t doing. It’s easy for an outsider to align himself with the people who aren’t in charge—most everyone else—by saying that he’s one of them and his opponent is different (rich, elitist, Muslim, etc.).
It’s a familiar story, and it wins elections, but it fails once the disenfranchised becomes the franchise. Populism is always and everywhere about not having to choose, because “we” are right, and therefore should compromise nothing. But governing is always about having to choose, and until you’ve compromised you’ve never had to make a choice.
Jack Burden narrates the transformation of “Cousin Willie from the country” to the man known simply as “the Boss.” Jack meets him first as a newspaperman on the campaign trail. He tries to tell Cousin Willie the secret to winning the public:
Make ’em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ’em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ’em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ’em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ’em up, it doesn’t matter how or why… But for sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.
Willie doesn’t want to believe him at first. He doesn’t want to game the public like that until he learns that he’s being setup by the political establishment to split the rural vote. After that, it’s no more Cousin Willie from the Country. He chucks his speech about tax and education policy and starts stumping:
Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks… that’s what you are, and you needn’t get mad at me for telling you. Well get mad, but I’m telling you. That’s what you are. And me—I’m one, too. Oh, I’m a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me. Oh, I’m a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile. Oh, I took the sugar tit and hushed my crying. Oh, I’m a hick and I am the hick they were going to try to use and split the hick vote.
Willie’s campaign rhetoric draws clear lines. Everything comes down to “them” versus “us,” the “hicks” and “the machine.” It’s the winning strategy everyone but Willie knows he needs.
Do I have to tell you that this all turns out badly for Willie, that he wins the State, starts compromising, and opens himself up to attacks from new fronts?
When I talk about compromise, I don’t mean it the way we mostly hear it today, in the negative sense of “compromising photos of the Senator.” I’m talking about genuine choice: having to decide between two valued principles and privileging one over the other. A choice between “them” and “us” is decided by the framing of the question. A decision to shield a corrupt state auditor to protect the administration as a whole from those who would see it derailed, that’s a choice, a sacrifice of some measure of idealism for some measure of pragmatism.
Over the years, Willie manages some good. He rebuilds the roads and reforms the state tax and education systems. But he faces increasingly difficult decisions, and the toll rises politically and personally. Even if he never gave into corruption, even if the novel didn’t end with his assassination, the sacrifices he made in the service of his vision would have been the inescapable cost of what good he did.
As Jack Burden says of his own role in the Stark administration: “My only crime was being a man and living in the world of men, and you don’t have to do any special penance for that. The crime and the penance, in that case, coincide perfectly. They are identical.”
I have remembered this line more than any other when thinking about this election, a line that reminds me that everything has its price. The rhetoric of populism seeks to obscure this fact by promising that there is a right side and a wrong side, never two rights, never two wrongs, and never a third alternative.
But reality is always more complicated than that. It requires that we decide what is most important to us at the cost of other things that are also important to us. At the very least, we have to decide what is most important to us right now, because we can’t do everything at once.
There’s another line I’ll be thinking of when I stop by my polling place after work. That’s the last line of All the King’s Men: “Soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time.”