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Of Cincinnatus and Mary Poppins: Why Sanders Must Be President

By       Message Patrick Walker     Permalink
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(Article changed on December 23, 2013 at 05:58)

(Article changed on December 23, 2013 at 05:55)

When people mention Bernie Sanders, a word that instantly comes to mind is integrity. Which in its derivation refers to "wholeness," meaning the different parts of something hang together to form a pleasing, harmonious pattern. When the "something" having integrity is a principled politician, his or her political positions tend to hang together by an internal logic, since nothing external--like bribes or pandering to misguided voters--detours various positions from the track of internal consistency. As I'll show later, the internal consistency of all the basic progressive positions (often separated in political discourse) is, in a world facing imminent climate catastrophe, more vital than ever, and Bernie Sanders--unsurprisingly, given his personal integrity--is the most consistently progressive of our big-name pols. His integrity makes him something we sorely need: a systematic political thinker.

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/47422005@N04/11299787754/: Progressives' Cincinnatus--and Mary Poppins!
Progressives' Cincinnatus--and Mary Poppins!
(Image by DonkeyHotey)
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So it's fitting, in touting him as the needed presidential hero for our deeply troubled age, that I maintain a certain verbal integrity. So what's up with this talk of Cincinnatus and Mary Poppins, two figures so diverse it's unlikely they've ever previously been yoked? Like the English Metaphysical poets, who unearthed real but surprising truths in taking metaphors from areas from areas of human life seemingly unlinked--and even shockingly inappropriate to their subjects--I hope to show that our nation's crying need for Bernie depends crucially on his having something of both Cincinnatus and Mary Poppins in his makeup.

So, putting the shallowest construction on my paradox, is this some feel-good hymnal to Bernie Sanders, where I hail him for combining the stern civic virtue of Cincinnatus and the spirit-lifting sunniness of Mary Poppins? Well...yes. But, if it were only that, I'd implore you to power-flush this fluff piece and right now and go read something weightier. In fact, I intend to prove the important point that Bernie--more than any other electable U.S. pol--embodies, in his Cincinnatus-like integrity, the integrated systems thinking we desperately need. And further, that despite his enlightenment (always a liability with U.S. voters), he is electable--precisely because, like Mary Poppins, he has the "spoonful of sugar" to "help the medicine go down." No other progressive populist--not even Liz Warren--so firmly grasps our failing nation's need for "crash cart" medicine. More on that soon.  

But first, some cultural backtracking, some thumbnails on Cincinnatus and Mary Poppins.

Cincinnatus was an ancient Roman citizen (notably, of the Roman republic, not the empire), a military wizard contentedly beating swords into plowshares on a small farm, where he, despite aristocratic rank, had been consigned because his son had seriously peed off the Roman upper crust. But when powerful neighboring tribes moved against Rome, the Roman Senate, desperate for martial prowess, recalled Cincinnatus and gave him full dictatorial powers so he could take charge of the crisis. Notably--and this happened twice-- Cincinnatus, loving his country (a country that had wronged him, to boot) more than power, tried to keep his dictatorship not a day beyond the time needed to quell the military peril. He gradually became a legend for civic virtue and lack of self-serving ambition, lending his name to cities in both the  U.S. and Italy.

Mutatis mutandis (classics geek shorthand for "changing what needs to be changed"), the parallel between Cincinnatus and Bernie Sanders should be obvious. Bernie has never tried to parlay his progressive populism into seeking higher office than U.S. Senator for the ludicrously small (if politically enlightened) state of Vermont. It's probably one of few instances where the overrepresentation of small states in the U.S. Senate--a dubious compromise Constitutional framer James Madison detested but grudgingly accepted, to win ratification--has actually served the common good. But despite the national platform being a U.S. Senator has given him, Bernie has never nurtured--and still doesn't--the personal ambition of jumping to the next level and becoming president. Instead, he senses, as do many progressives, that if he fails to run in 2016, the desperately needed voice of marginalized progressives will simply remain unheard. In fact, I've heard that Bernie would personally prefer to have rising progressive star Elizabeth Warren as president. But I wish to make the case here that this is Bernie Sanders' "Cincinnatus moment."

Why? This is where Mary Poppins--and integrated systems thinking--comes in. In the wildly popular Disney musical fantasy Mary Poppins,  title character Mary Poppins (played by Julie Andrews) is a charismatic, magical-powered nanny, who arrives just in time to straighten out the dysfunctional Banks family. And who, also like Cincinnatus, leaves immediately after she's accomplished the task of imparting her sunny spirit and reinventing their lives. But my chief point here isn't in hoping the charming, avuncular Sanders plays a similar "nanny" role, stepping in to straighten out our dysfunctional U.S. family; Warren as an actual woman, is a better Poppins analogue, and perhaps as a woman better poised to foil the evil magic of that 1%er house elf, Hillary Clinton. While Bernie clearly can't play Warren's electoral "woman card," he certainly shares Warren's populist "white magic." And one memorable Mary Poppins song beautifully sums up the grounds of my preference for Bernie. I refer to "A Spoonful of Sugar."

As any child past toddler stage in 1964 likely recalls, "A spoonful of sugar / Helps the medicine go down / In a most delightful way." The spoonful of sugar here is economic populism; the medicine is the bitter pill of climate change action. So bitter is the pill that even most progressives--and I mean real ones, not garden-variety Democrats--are woefully unaware and irresponsible on the climate issue. Even RootsAction, a progressive action group whose initiatives I routinely endorse, keeps irresponsibly mum on the climate issue. And I can understand why; despite its dire urgency, it's decidedly not a political winner. Rather, it's the red-headed stepchild of progressives, one they steadfastly prefer to keep out of sight, except at the most sympathetic family gatherings. But in simple fact, according to the best climate science, anyone who's not calling for a blitzkrieg replacement of fossil fuels by renewables, is courting the Russian roulette risk that human civilization (or at least a sizable part of it) won't survive the current century.

So, the candidate we need is a farsighted economic populist who deeply "groks" the climate issue--above all, the action it requires. Enter Bernie Sanders. His economic populism is the needed  sugar to sweeten his candidacy with the masses, while the miniscule minority of us who actually demand climate action see him as our best--perhaps only-- hope of applying that urgently needed but deeply distasteful medicine. Reassuring talk of climate action is popular, but actual planning to scale back fossil fuels is  decidedly not. Even for committed climate saver Bernie, this will be a steeply uphill fight. Leaving the comfort zone of fossil fuels--even for otherwise great progressives--is as scary as the prospect of leaving the womb.

Which leads me to my final point, about Bernie as an integrated systems thinker. Usually, the typical progressive issues are treated as a detachable bundle, where climate action is separable from anti-militarism, or economic justice or campaign reform. But for anyone thinking realistically, climate change has to be the master issue; I don't mean for campaign rhetoric with the masses, who fear serious climate action and find it the bitterest medicine, but for the actual grind of responsible governance, which prioritizes--like, duh!--ensuring humanity's survival. Now, no one yet knows for sure what changes replacing fossil fuels with renewables will entail, like whether, for example, renewables can support a consumer standard of living anywhere near comparable to the one fossil fuels have routinely delivered. Views range from the considerable optimism of Stanford scientist-engineer Mark Jacobson to the rather dismal pessimism (but only in materialistic, not ultimate-happiness, terms) of the Post Carbon Institute. If we lived in a sane society, these debates, rather than being shunted into blogger ghettoes or utterly censored by mainstream media, would be the "prime matter" of our daily conversations. For human survival entails a largely post-carbon society, and the only responsible politicians are the ones now planning for it. Basically, Bernie Sanders, the Green Party, and a miniscule group of independents, socialists, and environmental dissidents.

So, the systems thinkers, those who realize a post-carbon world may be a world of scarcer resources, grasp the urgency, for example, of promoting far greater democracy, in both sharing and in making decisions about how we use those resources. They also grasp that the economic wastefulness of militarism and mass surveillance is not sustainable in a world struggling to manage with deeply curtailed use of fossil fuels. This type of systematic, climate-first thinking is not popular, and the politicians who engage in it must be leaders, not panderers to a largely benighted public.

In a sense, we miniscule few who seek genuine climate action must smuggle such politicians into office as our own sort of positive Trojan horse. Bernie Sanders, whose spoonful of populist sugar could make the climate medicine go down, is the only presidential horse we should be betting on. He is truly our Cincinnatus.

 

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he actively seeks (more...)
 

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