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Whitman's Undemocratic Vistas

Jack Turner, "Whitman's Undemocratic Vistas: Mortal Anxiety, National Glory, White Supremacy," American Political Science Review 117, no. 2 (May 2023): 705-718.

Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) has become a touchstone of democratic theory. Commentators of unusual ideological range uphold the book as politically exemplary. This article demonstrates that recent theoretical celebrations of Democratic Vistas are sanitized and incomplete. I expose the antidemocratic side of Democratic Vistas by analyzing (1) its philosophy of death and (2) its politics of race. Whitman framed his immortalist response to death within an imperialist historical teleology. That teleology entailed violations of Native sovereignty, the political inequality of Black Americans, and the projection of both Black and Native peoples’ evolutionary extinction. Democratic Vistas emerges from this analysis as both necropolitical and white supremacist. If, as Richard Rorty argues, Vistas models a salutary form of reformist “national pride,” then it also illustrates the dangerous susceptibility of such pride to moral innocence and self-deceit.

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