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The Truth About Politics In One Passage

What I love about All The King’s Men to this point is its brutal depiction of backroom politics.

For a guy, like me, who doesn’t trust a single politician, this type of book is right in my wheelhouse.

Politics is all about marketing and appearance. It’s very little substance.

Here’s a great passage from All The King’s Men that illustrates that. It’s a discussion between Willie—the “boss” who is running for governor—and Jack Burden, his right-hand man.

Willie has just finished giving a speech with lackluster response from the crowd:

“They didn’t seem to be paying too much attention tonight. Not while I was trying to explain 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.”

This novel was written in the 1940s, but doesn’t that sound exactly like modern politics as well?

It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you sit on—liberal, conservative, whatever—you can sure bet that any politician’s speech you hear is written with all the above in mind.

Tell ‘em anything. Just stir ‘em up.

Man, I love literature.

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. That is a great book and one that I haven’t read in a while (should pick it up again). I imagine a revised and modern edition to that book would add only a few things, they predicted well the state of politics then and now. I remember listening to the last state of address thinking, how moving the speeches always are without substance, how much more powerful they could be if they were believable.

    Like

    June 4, 2013
    • Yes, it’s so very accurate to right now. You could almost insert any modern politician and the same principles would hold true.

      Like

      June 4, 2013
  2. That line of dialogue seems an equal indictment of the electorate as the politicians.

    Like

    June 4, 2013
  3. Amy #

    I love this passage. So true.

    Like

    June 4, 2013
  4. JC #

    Thank God someone else is on my wavelength… just wrote a piece on this sort of thing myself! Great minds…

    Like

    June 4, 2013
  5. Reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently–99% Invisible, Episode 63–that talks about all the work happens to make a presidential campaign speech look just right. You wouldn’t believe–or maybe you would–how much advanced preparation is required for a seemingly impromptu speech. It’s “branding” to the core.

    Like

    June 4, 2013
    • Sounds interesting. The political parodies from SNL aren’t that far from the truth.

      Like

      June 4, 2013
  6. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time now. I’ve always been fascinated by the inner workings of politics and the sometimes awful, always complex people who engage in it. This post just inspired me to get reading! Thanks.

    Like

    June 4, 2013
  7. Politics is a plastic lollipop

    Like

    June 4, 2013
  8. A very interesting perspective on the shape politics/politicians have taken in the past century…It seems the majority of people claim they want the substance but are actually far more influenced by the marketing and appearance. Great blog!

    Like

    June 5, 2013
  9. Never read this one. Great passage though. Politics, yuck. BTW I think you might enjoy my latest entry. I don’t really promote my stuff but in your case, it seems appropriate 😉
    http://mutantsupermodel.com/2013/06/03/book-sluts/

    Like

    June 7, 2013
  10. I might have to put this on my reading list. It’s so hard to find a middle of the road novel that focuses on the problems with politics in general.

    Like

    June 9, 2013

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