The Democratic Primary Dilemma, Jefferson Style: Head vs. Heart

headhearthillbernWith just days until the primary here in Tennessee, count me among many on the left struggling to decide how to vote. As one who has spent much of his adult voting life pulling levers for a rogues gallery of progressive underdogs, longshots and gadflies with little chance of winning election, I’m a natural target for the principled charms of Bernie Sanders. But as one who is petrified by the prospect of yielding full control of the federal government to the atrociously retrograde modern Republican party, I’m also a convenient target for the pragmatic allure of the arguably more electable Hillary Clinton.

When asked about my intentions for next Tuesday my canned response is that a battle between head and heart still rages. It was, of course, Thomas Jefferson, in his famous 1786 letter to his quasi-mistress Maria Cosway as he left Paris, who pioneered the concept of a head-heart debate and elevated it to epic romantic and literary heights. Perhaps in Jefferson’s elegant internal conversation I can locate some of the enlightenment I seek as Tuesday’s ballot approaches.

So herewith, verbatim excerpts from Jefferson’s memorable neurocardiac dialogue, decoded for the somewhat less amorous context of a contemporary presidential primary.

Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.

Translation: Feeling the Bern? Have you lost your senses?

Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings.

Translation: Yep, his central themes are things I’ve been thinking and writing about for years (and my friends in Hillaryworld are not amused).

Head. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but still you hug and cherish them; and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.

Translation: So you didn’t learn from, oh, let’s see … John Anderson … Jerry Brown … Ralph Nader … Dennis Kucinich … John Jay Hooker? Really? Another one?

Heart. This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.

Translation: The past is the past so get off my case. Each election is different, and I’ve got a choice to make. Bernie is making a serious run here, with big ideas. You can rub it in after Tuesday.

Head. Harsh therefore as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it.

Translation: Get over yourself. The doctor of realism is in. We both know Bernie will ultimately go nowhere. Perhaps a spoonful of electability sugar will help the Hillary go down.

Heart. You then, sir, and not I, have been the cause of the present distress.

Translation: Hey, I’m not the body part with the private email server.

Head. While I was occupied with these objects, you were dilating with your new acquaintances, and contriving how to prevent a separation from them.

Translation: While you’re getting all weepy watching Bernie rallies on MSNBC, adults in the room are figuring out how to take out Trump and win the damn election. You do want that, right?

Heart. Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea. And yet in the evening when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!

Translation: He says “billionaire class” a lot and it’s fabulous.

Head. I often told you during its course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must have cost you a great deal of pain … You rack our whole system when you are parted from those you love, complaining that such a separation is worse than death, inasmuch as this ends our sufferings, whereas that only begins them.

Translation: Sure, the Bern feels good in the moment, but so does that soreness you feel after a workout … until the doctor lets you know it’s a malignant bone tumor. Do you really want a malignant tumor in the White House?

Heart. Deeply practised in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow of which I have not drunk! Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?

Translation: Look, I understand the risks, but if we don’t stand on principle at the ballot box then when will we? I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again, and if nobody ever does it we’ll never change anything.

Head. When you reflect that all Europe is made to believe we are a lawless banditti, in a state of absolute anarchy, cutting one anothers throats, and plundering without distinction, how can you expect that any reasonable creature would venture among us?

Translation: Let’s be realistic: how is a guy like Bernie who has spent his political life distancing himself from party politics supposed to be effective as Democratic party standardbearer in a crucial election cycle?

Heart. There is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquillity, where the laws are milder, or better obeyed: where every one is more attentive to his own business, or meddles less with that of others: where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated, and with a more sacred respect.

Translation: The party will be fine. It’s the democracy we need to worry about. Hillary, whatever her talents may be, is not going to repair our broken system.

Head. I wished to make you sensible how imprudent it is to place your affections, without reserve, on objects you must so soon lose, and whose loss when it comes must cost you such severe pangs … The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.

Translation: Nominating Bernie is the surest way to fuck this democracy up big time by giving Repubs control of all three branches of government, and mark my words you will cry about it it afterwards.

Heart. And what more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten!

Translation: What can I say? I’m a masochist.

Head. My friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do.

Translation: Lofty principles don’t appoint Supreme Court justices.

Heart. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals.

Translation: There is doing the sensible thing, and there is doing the right thing.


Well then, head or heart? Six shopping days left to decide…

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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