There’s been a lot of talk lately in this political season about poetry and prose. Specifically, references have been made to the late Mario Cuomo’s statement that “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” Cuomo knew of what he spoke; a renowned orator, Cuomo also served New York from 1975 to 1994 as secretary of state, lieutenant governor and governor.
It is safe to say there has been very little if any poetry heard in the Republican or Democratic campaigns for the presidency now under way. Certainly, we haven’t heard any from the Republicans, and what has been referred to as poetry on the Democratic side has been ascribed to the campaign of the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. In her quest to become president, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is said to be campaigning the way she would govern – in prose. This has not been meant so much as a put-down of Clinton as it is a warning against Sanders.
What passes for a Democratic establishment has determined it would be a dangerous dalliance to even flirt with the idea of voting for Sanders, a political independent and self-described socialist whose nomination would guarantee a Republican victory in November. The movers and shakers of the party are convinced the only way to avoid defeat in the fall is to avoid idealism now. We have been here before.
Eight years ago in Iowa, where caucus-goers will be voting this evening, people put aside pragmatism and chose a black candidate to be their party’s standard-bearer. This seeming miracle, occurring in one of the whitest states in the country, took place at a time when even most black Americans did not believe such a thing was possible. That miracle led to three more: that black candidate’s winning the nomination, and his election and re-election to the White House. Either our belief in miracles increased, or we re-evaluated the meaning of the word.
Two words being used at times in place of prose and poetry are head and heart, and it has been suggested Clinton appeals to Democratic voters’ common sense while Sanders enlivens one’s sense of what is possible. It is believed candidate Obama did what Sanders is now doing, but Sanders is no Obama. Obama is what he always has been, a middle-of-the-road Democratic politician, but many saw him as a blank screen onto which they projected all sorts of hopes beyond what he offered. This is one source of the disappointment some now feel about his presidency. Sanders, also, is what he always has been: a political independent (who only became a Democrat last year) and a progressive decidedly to the left of Obama – and Clinton. There is no doubt that for many voters his proposed policies are like poetry for the heart. What to do?
If left up to the editorial board of the local paper here, voters would deafen their ears to the Sanders siren song. In a series of editorials last week, The Washington Post declared Sanders’ message of economic justice is “facile” rather than “bold” and that “ Sen. Sanders is not a brave truth-teller. He’s just telling progressives what they want to hear.” Others have suggested that what Sanders advocates is unattainable. Really?
Sanders has been pointing out that – given our history (the New Deal; the Marshall Plan; the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; Apollo 11; Medicare; the Affordable Care Act) – there is something un-American about saying we can’t do what needs to be done. What he has been saying over the course of his campaign brings to mind the words of another. Consider:
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.”
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether [she or] he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer…. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.”
“I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. You see, it may well be that our whole world is in need at this time for the new organization, the International Organization for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”
“May I say to you that I still believe that mankind will rise to the occasion in spite of the darkness of the hour, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, in spite of these days of emotional tension when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail. I still have faith in the future…”
You may recognize these as the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken and written at various times in various places. Let’s not forget his last public act before his assassination was supporting striking workers, and that he did so while planning to occupy Washington alongside poor Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. That was then. Were he here today, would he find enough difference between Clinton and Sanders to choose one over the other? Would he suspect (as many do) that Clinton is politically astute enough to not say publicly that she and Sanders are on the same page? Would he see a bet on Sanders as placing the balance of the Supreme Court in Republican hands? What about you – head or heart, prose or poetry?