The President and the Poet

Today, Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, in a ceremony remarkable for both its singularity and for its normalcy.

There were no crowds, and the people were distanced, wearing masks. Onlookers told to stay home. There was a tension in the air, barricades on the streets, for just a few weeks ago rioters had stormed the Capitol. Yet after four years of unusually combative politics, where the very rules of engagement and facts on the ground were contested and fought bitterly, the ceremony unfolded as many had before it.

President Biden spoke of unity, and promised to govern for all, continuing a tradition of distinguishing governance from campaigning.

A very young poet, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, recited her work “The HIll We Climb,” continuing the tradition begun by Robert Frost of delivering an inaugural poem.

The two had different things to say about democracy. “Democracy is fragile,” said the President. “Democracy . . . can never be permanently defeated,” said the poet.

Who is right? Must we choose?

The President is correct, that democracy as a mechanism of governance is remarkably fragile and, indeed, rare. The United States represents the longest-running continuing effort at self-rule and there is nothing that dictates our system of government will always survive.

The poet, too, is correct. If democracy is understood to be the urge toward self-determination, the human impulse to collectively decide our own fate — then indeed it can never be permanently defeated. It is an impulse as old as humanity, long predating the very concept of formal government. Even under brutal conditions, I have known friends to grow and tend their own local democratic communities.

We must continue to pursue a more perfect Union, and we must guard against the loss of our remarkable governmental structures which have proven to be so inspiring.

Perhaps a way forward to strengthen this precarious moment is known by the young poet, who says today “there is always light, . . . if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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