Robert Penn Warren and Democracy

Part I:  Democracy

      In the American Heritage Dictionary, the definition of democracy includes the following two precepts: “Government by the people” and “Majority Rule.”  According to this definition, neither Robert Penn Warren nor any other American has ever lived in a democracy.  Instead, our political system has been expressly designed to override majority rule.  The reason why, according to the historian William Hogeland, is that the Founders hated democracy.

In May, 1787, the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, opened the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia by calling for “sufficient checks against the democracy.” Alexander Hamilton agreed that “we must be rescued from the democracy,” and James Madison proposed that the entire executive branch be appointed by Congress, not elected by the public at large.  John Adams warned that “there was never yet a democracy that did not commit suicide.”  And Thomas Paine, the greatest firebrand of the lot, declared “A Democracy is the vilest form of government there is.”  Accordingly, the Founders and their successors put minority rule into  practice in six specific ways, not counting the Electoral College.  We know these ways, but let’s consider some details regarding each instance.

First, the United States Senate was designed to represent land, not people, thus giving a voter in Wyoming a voice that overrides 68 voters in California.  Before our last election,  the 53 Republican Senators represented 15 million fewer Americans than the 47 Democrat Senators.  Last November, the Democrats added 26 million more people to their advantage, so as to represent 41 million more people than the Republican Senators–a number that suffices, just barely, to earn a 50-50 division of power in the current Senate.

Because this imbalance is not deemed large enough, the Senate routinely deploys our second instrument of minority rule, the filibuster.  If we extend the foregoing pattern—that is, the Democrats get three more Senators by adding 26 million more people to their representation–the Democrats would get to 59 Senators by representing 119 million more people than the other party, but would still be one Senator short of being able to pass legislation.

These numbers indicate a considerable challenge to democratic governance, but until Robert Penn Warren’s 60th year, the foregoing instruments of minority rule were considered insufficient, especially since they affected only the Senate.  To fill that void, Congress invented a third means of minority rule, the Seniority System.    Under this rubric, two precepts applied:  First, every committee in Congress was chaired by the most long-serving member of the committee; and second, this chairman had absolute power to set the committee’s agenda..  Because the South was then a one-party region, Southerners were routinely re-elected for life and so acquired the seniority to chair every important committee in Congress.  For a hundred years after the Civil War, Southern committee chairmen used their power to block inconvenient items, such as civil rights legislation, from Congressional action.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s  landslide victory brought an end to the Seniority System, but not to minority rule. Instead, the rise of computer technology has enhanced our fourth and fifth methods of minority rule,  extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression.  Both tactics are well known to all of us, but let’s again look at some numbers.  In my own state, North Carolina, the 2018 election gave the Democrats a majority of the vote state-wide. But the delegation that went to Washington consisted of three Congressmen from the party that won the election and ten Congressmen from the party that lost it.  Three Congressmen for the winners, ten for the losers—that’s Representative Democracy, gerrymander style, in North Carolina.  As for the other tactic, voter suppression, the issue is currently too topical to require comment.

Finally, here is our sixth–and perhaps most fundamental–reason why we do not live in a democracy.  In 2010, Government by lobby received a huge boost from the Supreme Court as it added enhanced plutocracy to the ills democracy must cope with.  By allowing the 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington to dump unlimited piles of cash into every important election, the Citizens United decision promoted government by the richest.  Wealthy donors, it is fair to assume, are generally not motivated by a desire for a better democracy.

Two of the justices who approved Citizens United, by a 5-4 margin (Roberts and Alito), were appointed by a President (George W. Bush) who received 600,000 fewer votes than his opponent.  Since then,  three more justices have been appointed by a President who got nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent. At the current moment, therefore, a majority of the Court was appointed by presidents elected by a minority of voters, and these justices were confirmed by a Senate representing a minority of voters.

It is not hard to discern the reason for these deformations of democracy—namely, the precept that the love of money is the root of all politics.  That is not to say that money is the only issue in politics, just that it is the deepest and most permanent issue—the root, which is always there after other issues come and go.   Millennia ago, when hunter-gatherers settled in farming communities, the first thing that evolved was a class hierarchy.  People with power—originally, the priesthood and the military—used their power to expropriate all the wealth and status of the community to themselves.   Well into the 18th century, the love of money as the root of politics was epitomized by the House of Lords using their political power to seize the common lands which the peasants needed for their livelihood, thereby creating the proletariat that these same  Lords would exploit in the Industrial Revolution.  And quite naturally this system of power was replicated, in essence, in England’s North American colonies up to and including the time of the Founding Fathers.

Part II: Robert Penn Warren

By the time of Warren’s birth, a century and quarter after the nation’s founding, American history could be divided into two long periods of political conflict based on the love of money.  The first, which focused on possession of human property, ended in the Civil War.  The second, the postbellum conflict between capital and labor, came to be known as the Gilded Age.    During Warren’s childhood, Teddy Roosevelt had some success in taming the “malefactors of great wealth,” as he called the Gilded Age plutocrats, but the battle was still going strong when Warren went to college in the early 1920s.

At Vanderbilt, Warren’s social conscience was first awakened by a classmate named Saville Clark, whom the Blotner biography describes as “a labor sympathizer and advocate of social change” who transgressively invited black students from nearby Fisk University to his living quarters.  Warren would later declare of this friendship “what an eye-opener it was for me” (Blotner, 54-55).

From this time forward,  Warren’s biography, interviews, and letters reveal a leaning toward democracy of a liberal persuasion.  On this point, his votes for Presidents are instructive.  Warren could not vote in 1928, because he was at Oxford University, but in 1932 he cast his first vote, enthusiastically, for FDR, and a dozen years later in the 1940s he claimed that he was still “an unreconstructed New Dealer” (Letters, Volume One, 215). In the 1950s he voted twice for Adlai Stevenson, noting along the way that President Eisenhower “put his head under a blanket” to avoid the segregation issue (Talking, 76, 79).  In 1960 he hesitated briefly over the Catholic issue.  “I am leery of the Whore of Babylon,” he told a friend, “and only trust that Jack isn’t a good Catholic.  But in a way it would be a good thing to have one Catholic president to prove we can.  I would vote for [Pope] Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia, against Nixon” (Letters, Volume Four, 294).

He voted twice against Nixon in the 1960s, and when Nixon showed up for the third time in 1972, Warren described the election as a choice between a knave and a fool (George McGovern) (Letters, Volume Five, 184). Warren voted for the fool.  In 1976, his mood brightened as he declared “We are hanging our hopes on Carter. . . who has showed a good deal of promise” (Letters, Volume Five, 335-6).  But after Carter lost in 1980, Warren resigned himself to the Reagan years with the comment that “the only thing to be hoped is that some of his advisers will turn out to be less idiotic than their boss” (Letters, Volume Six, 77).

During this stretch of time from Roosevelt to Reagan, the nation’s political focus, with Warren’s political writing following suit, centered on three paramount issues: plutocracy in the nineteen-thirties and forties, civil rights for black people in the fifties and sixties, and an ideology Warren called Common-Man-ism in the seventies and eighties. We will begin with plutocracy.

According to Warren, plutocracy undermined American democracy from the beginning.  In Democracy and Poetry, Warren says that James Fenimore Cooper used his novels to warn the early Republic that “Plutocracy would strike. . .  at the very roots of democracy” (6).  Little had changed, Warren says, by the late 19th century, as William Dean Howells used his novels to transmit his “vision of the degradation and misery within the. . . the new plutocracy” (15).  And Warren portrayed his own victims of plutocracy in his first four novels, where wealthy men rip off tobacco farmers in Night Rider (1939), timber harvesters in At Heaven’s Gate (1943), and the proletariat at large in All the King’s Men (1946), where exploitation of the poor begins on page 2:

There were pine forests here a long time ago but they are gone.  The bastards got in here and set up the mills. . . and paid a dollar a day and folks swarmed out of the brush for the dollar. . .  Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees. . . .  There wasn’t any more dollar a day.  The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers. . . . But a good many of the folks stayed on, and watched the gullies eat into the red clay.

In World Enough and Time (1950), the plutocratic theme involves a battle between the Relief Party, made up of debtors, versus the Anti-Relief Party, made up of creditors. There may be merit in the conservative argument that government should leave the private economy alone, but in Warren’s view an unfair distribution of wealth had always been a serious problem of democracy.

With the growing prosperity of the 1950s, both our national democracy and Warren’s political writings changed their focus from plutocracy to the issue of race.  Warren’s personal stake in this issue is best understood, I think, by  Joan Didion’s remark that “we are what we learned as children” (158).  What Robert Penn Warren learned  as  a child, living in Kentucky during the Jim Crow era, was white supremacy.  Despite the enlightened attitude of his father, who forbade use of the N-word in his house, Warren did use the N-word—in his letters, in poems like “Pondy Woods,” and, we infer, when speaking of the part of town he re-names “Squig-Town” in his poetry.  In “The Briar Patch,” his contribution to the Agrarian movement, he recommends segregation as the best course for Black people.

In the 1950s, when Warren finally addressed the issue of racial justice, he spread his thinking across five different genres.  He took up the subject in Brother to Dragons (1953), a verse-play about the vivisection of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s nephew.  In 1954, after the Supreme Court’s  desegregation of public schools,  he turned to the personal essay format to articulate the self-scrutiny of Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South  (1955) and the historical overview of Meditations on the Centennial: The Legacy of the Civil War (1961).  He projected his discourse on race into fiction In Band of Angels (1955) and Wilderness (1961),  and  concluded his decade of racial discourse with Who Speaks for the Negro? (1964), his invaluable set of interviews  with the most prominent black leaders of the time.   Years later, he chose the genre of poetry to confess  the racism of his youth in  “Old N-word on One-Mule Cart” [that’s my euphemism, not Warren’s] and he undertook an act of contrition in the same poem when he  calls the old black man his  “Brother, Rebuker, [and] Philosopher.”  In these writings,  Warren’s concept of democracy evolved to promote equal rights for Black Americans.  Later he extended this thinking to cover American Indians in Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and the people of Japan in his poetic sequence “New Dawn.”  To spread his thinking about race across so many genres—that is, different ways of thinking—over so many years indicates a deep investment, and arguably progressive enlightenment, on Warren’s part

In his last two decades, the 1970s and 80s, Warren’s political vision turned to Common-Man-ism, his counterpoint to the America’s obsession with Communism during the Cold War.  In Democracy and Poetry, he laid out the idea as follows:   “Democracy can, and should, glorify the ‘common man.’ . . . But. . . our glorification of  [the] ‘common man’ . . . often signifies the notion that . . . commonness constitutes an ideal” (78-80).  “The “complacency fostered by . . . Common Man-ism,” he goes on to say, leads to “the glorification of the un-excellent” and the “conviction that a mystic worth attaches to ignorance.”  As a result, we have “sick cities, blighted landscapes, [and] a farcical education system” (55).

At its darkest, Common-Man-ism turns toward violence, using what Duckfoot Blake calls “the instrument of the sovereign people, the half-brick” (363). In the same novel, At Heaven’s Gate, violence takes a racist turn, as the Common Man forms a mob aiming to lynch a black man whom we know to be innocent.  In Wilderness, Warren brings the  racism North, depicting the mob that, in actual history, rampaged through New York City in 1863, burning buildings, and murdering many black people whom they blamed for having to serve in the Union army.

“The great problem of democracy is a problem of responsible leadership,” Warren told William Elliott (Talking, 23)   It would appear, then, that the most dangerous variant of Common-Man-ism is degraded leadership.  ”For in our society,” Warren says, “the true hero is, if not dead, very sick.  We have, in its place, the ‘celebrity’” (Democracy, 88).   Probably, for Warren, the ‘celebrity’ in question would turn out to be our first movie star President, Ronald Reagan, but Reagan  had at least served two terms as governor of California.  It remained for a later generation to enthrone a virtual reality star, a television celebrity with no governing credentials whatever.

In addition to degraded leadership, Warren’s discourse on Common-Man-ism includes other warnings of major relevance for democracy today.  One such formulation is what he calls “the strange marriage of pathology and ideology that is characteristic of our moment” (Democracy, 87).  Another prophetic insight is his alarm over global warming as early as 1974  .  “The possibility of crossing the fatal threshold for heat emission,” he says, ‘seems to be sliding toward probability” (Democracy, 44). And perhaps his most profound prophecy, from an interview of 1976, is the following:

“the whole Western world is undergoing some deep change in its very nature, in what it can believe in.  And one of those things is how a democracy can function in a world of technology”  (Talking 207).

The technology in question was the media, which can empower degraded leadership to pervert the beliefs of the Common Man.  In the 1930s Warren had heard Father Coughlan  spewing hatred of Jews to a radio audience of some 30 million.  In the 1950s he had seen Senator McCarthy dupe vast numbers of Americans with fake news of Communist conspiracy. So Warren was right to fear a threat to democracy from the misuse of technology, but in his time media channels were few and were largely regulated.

Since then, media technology has spawned, in thousandfold measure, a politics of hate on the radio, of mendacity on television, and of unlimited turpitude on the internet—much of it funded by plutocrat money. Probably Warren would not be surprised at this development, which would confirm his belief in Original Sin—defined in his words as “original with the sinner and . . . of his will” (“A Poem of Pure Imagination” in Selected Essays, 227).

Original Sin, recurring in every generation, might also explain the prevalence in the year 2021 of Warren’s three foregoing issues –plutocracy, racism, and Common-Man-ism.   I shall conclude with a brief comment on the current status of each.  First, plutocracy in our time can be epitomized in a single sentence from last month’s Atlantic magazine (March, 2021, 93): “Last year the net worth of Jeff Bezos rose by more than $67 billion dollars.” The same article noted that in Arizona, one third of Amazon’s work force earns so little that they are on the federal Food Stamp program. Ironically, the bulk of those food stamps are spent in Amazon’s Whole Foods grocery section, thus adding to the  profits of the Great Plutocrat.  And we can add one more detail:  a great many of Amazon’s low wage workers lost their better-paying previous jobs due to Amazon driving their former employers out of business.  America’s current plutocracy looks remarkably like an American House of Lords creating and then exploiting its own proletariat.

So much for Plutocracy in 2021, encapsuled in a sentence.  Concerning race, we do not need  a  sentence,  we need only state a name:  George Floyd.  And concerning Common-Man-ism, we do not even need a name, we need only a date: January 6.  It would seem that in important respects our  democracy is worse off now than when Robert Penn Warren issued his prophecies of  the 1970s.  Or it may be that his prophecy dates back to 1946, when he ended All the King’s Men  with the same corrupt gang that preceded Willie Stark coming back into power.

But Warren also showed how to address this repeated experience of failure.  In his essay on Joseph Conrad he accepts the permanence of  struggle.  “The victory is never won,” he says, and “the redemption must be continually re-earned” (Essays, 54). What sustains the struggle in Warren’s view is the Conradian “idea”—the notion that “men serve always something greater than themselves. . . . It is not some, but all, men who must serve the ‘idea’”  (Essays, 43).

For Americans, the idea to be served is the unrealized vision of the Founding documents—about forming a more perfect union, promoting the general welfare, and  ensuring life, liberty, and the concept that all human beings are created equal.   Although, in practice, the American idea may seem an illusion, Warren declares that “the last wisdom is for man to realize that . . . the illusion is necessary, is infinitely precious, is the mark of his human achievement, and is, in the end, his only truth” (Essays, 45).  In the end, Warren’s truth is that in every generation the idea of America must continue to battle its perversions, including plutocracy, race hatred, and Common-Man-ism .  Perhaps, as he says, the victory is never won, but one purpose of Robert Penn Warren’s life and work, as epitomized in Democracy and Poetry, was to help sustain democracy in his time.   His legacy can help sustain it in ours.


Works Cited

Joseph Blotner, Robert Penn Warren: A Biography.  Random House, New York: 1997

Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.  Delta Books, New York: 1968 (155).

William Hogeland, “Our Chief Danger,” Lapham’s Quarterly, Volume XIII, Number 4 (Fall 2020), 190-197.  Hogeland’s lively, informative, sometimes iconoclastic columns on the internet are well worth a visit.

Robert Penn Warren, At Heaven’s Gate.  Signet Book, New York: 1943.

______________, Democracy and Poetry.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.: 1975.

______________, “The Great Mirage’: Conrad and Nostromo” in Selected Essays.  Vintage Books, New York:1958

______________, Talking with Robert Penn Warren.  Edited by Floyd C. Watkins, John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks.  University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia: 1990.

______________, Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume One.  Edited, with an Introduction, by William Bedford Clark. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge: 2000.

______________, Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume Four.  Edited by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins.  Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge: 2008.

______________, Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume Five.  Edited, with an Introduction by William  Bedford Clark, by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins.  Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge: 2011.

______________, Selected Letters of Robert Penn Warren, Volume Six.  Edited by Randy Hendricks and James A. Perkins, with an Introduction by William Bedford Clark, General Editor.  Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge: 2013.

Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg (A.B. Clark University, 1957; PhD Brown, 1962) has taught English at the University of Vermont and, since 1966, at Duke University. His publications include numerous essays on 19th and 20th century American writers, as well as books on Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, William James, and Cynthia Ozick. During sabbaticals, he has taught American Literature in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Morocco, Japan, and the Czech Republic. (His course on T. S. Eliot is available on YouTube.)
Victor Strandberg

Author: Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg (A.B. Clark University, 1957; PhD Brown, 1962) has taught English at the University of Vermont and, since 1966, at Duke University. His publications include numerous essays on 19th and 20th century American writers, as well as books on Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, William James, and Cynthia Ozick. During sabbaticals, he has taught American Literature in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Morocco, Japan, and the Czech Republic. (His course on T. S. Eliot is available on YouTube.)