The Poet, the Presidents, and the People

Almost to the man, the Founding Fathers of this careening experiment we call the United States of America feared the eventual appearance of a demagogue. George Washington warned us about him. Alexander Hamilton warned us about him. John Adams warned us about him.

These early presidents and first Secretary of the Treasury were all familiar with the concept of a king (George III, in this case) enriching himself and his family by taking the natural resources, labor, and money of the colonies. They also knew how people could be fooled by a demagogue who loved to talk, one full of grievances about the present, one full of promises about the future, one who constantly hearkened to a “golden age” in our past when everything was wonderful, promising to bring them back. The history of many countries is littered with examples of this sort of man and his ability to beguile the people, job the system, and get into power before changing the rules to keep it.

In this sense, the poet Charles Bukowski and the Founding Fathers share something in common—fear. You might think, “This could never happen here,” but if you do, you might want to think again. As evidence, I give you Bukowski’s poem “Democracy,” which, if ever a word needed air quotes, needs it now in this age of “Don’t Tread on Me, I’ll Tread on You,” this age of state legislatures gerrymandering their way to perpetual power, this age of using the Electoral College (as opposed to the popular vote) to win the White House, this age of stuffing the Supreme Court with zealous partisans in robes rather than objective arbiters of justice.

Let’s give Bukowski a listen, then:


Charles Bukowski

the problem, of course, isn’t the Democratic System,
it’s the
living parts which make up the Democratic System.
the next person you pass on the street,
him or
her by
3 or 4 or 40 million
and you will know
why things remain non-functional
for most of

I wish I had a cure for the chess pieces
we call Humanity…

we’ve undergone any number of political

and we all remain
foolish enough to hope
that the one on the way
will cure almost

fellow citizens,
the problem never was the Democratic
System, the problem is



Oh, man. Nothing like the mirror. People love to look at themselves yet hate to consider themselves. We live instead in an age of pointing fingers, no mirrors needed.

As for Bukowski’s one-word, one-line envoi, it’s meant to send a message to all of us, one that says we need to get out of our silos and echo chambers and read up on our history. Before it’s too late.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *