Political Philosophy Colloquium
ABSTRACT: Over the past 30 years, Walt Whitman’s Democratic Visas (1871) has become a touchstone of democratic theory. It has been upheld as an exemplary work by scholars and commentators of unusual ideological range—from Cornel West on the left to David Brooks on the right. Democratic theorists such as George Kateb, Jeffrey Stout, and Eddie Glaude share in the admiration.
This paper shows how their praise is excessive. Notwithstanding its democratically inspiring moments, Democratic Vistas also contains disturbingly anti-democratic elements. This paper therefore provides a contrarian or compensatory reading of Democratic Vistas—one meant not to disqualify it from the canon of democratic theory, but rather to encourage a more sober, critical view of it.
I do so by analyzing two subjects in Whitman that are sometimes examined separately but have yet to be examined together: his philosophy of death and his politics of race. Whitman sought to allay both his own and his readers’ mortal anxiety by projecting an immortal American national literature that promised a figurative form of immortality. Whitman’s teleological, historical frame was white supremacist in its presuppositions: it accepted violations of native sovereignty and the political subordination of black Americans as the price of immortal greatness.
Jack Turner is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. He specializes in American political thought, critical race theory, democratic theory, and liberalism and its critics. He is the author of Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America (University of Chicago Press, 2012). With Melvin L. Rogers, he co-edited African American Political Thought: A Collected History (University of Chicago Press, 2021). His latest article, “Audre Lorde’s Anti-Imperial Consciousness,” recently appeared in Political Theory. He is writing a new book titled Existential Democracy: Death and Politics in Walt Whitman.