Monday, September 8, 2008

What Voters Want

We all know that politicians make ridiculous promises. Could it be they only make the promises voters desperately want to hear? Are politicians merely delivering the product demanded by the marketplace? That is the view expressed in this passage from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men.

Warren modeled his story of the rise and fall of a character named Willie Stark on the real life of the populist Louisiana politician Huey Long (pictured at right). 

In the following passage, an idealistic and inexperienced Willie Stark is running for governor. Stark asks a jaded newspaper reporter, Jack Burden, how he thinks the campaign is going. Until this moment, Willie has been trying to reach the voters with facts, figures, ratios, and indexes, earnestly laying out the details of his plan to improve government. He is about to learn the brutal truth of politics.

If political promises are products manufactured to meet a persistant demand, they are nevertheless very unusual products: part necessity, part entertainment, part religious fervor, with the awesome power to either protect the life and property of every individual or to violently dispose of both.

"How you think it's going, Jack?"

It was one of those embarrassing questions like "Do you think my wife is virtuous?" or "Did you know I am a Jew?" which are embarrassing, not because of anything you might say for an answer, the truth or a lie, but because the fellow asked the question at all. But I said to him, "Fine, I reckon it's going fine."

"You think so, for a fact?" he asked. 

"Sure," I said.

He chewed that for about a minute and then swallowed it. Then he said, "They didn't seem to be paying attention much tonight. Not while I was trying to explain about my tax program."

"Maybe you try to tell 'em too much. It breaks down their brain cells."

"Looks like they'd want to hear about taxes, though," he said. 

"You tell 'em too much. Just tell 'em you're gonna soak the fat boys, and forget the rest of the tax stuff."

"What we need is a balanced tax program. Right now the ratio between income tax and total income for the state gives an index that --"

"Yeah, I said, "I heard the speech. But they don't give a damn about that. Hell, 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, and they'll love you and come back for more. Pinch 'em in the soft place. They aren't alive, most of 'em, and haven't been alive in twenty years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won't set on their stomachs, and they don't believe in God, so it's up to you to give 'em something to stir 'em up and make 'em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That's what they come for. Tell 'em anything. But for Sweet Jesus' sake don't try to improve their minds."

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