Sunday Pages: "On a General Election"

A short poem by Hilaire Belloc

Dear Reader,

When I was young and naïve—as opposed to now, when I am middle-aged and naïve—I was rather fond of this short poem by Hilaire Belloc, written almost a hundred years ago:

On a General Election

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne and Bridge)
Broke, and Democracy resumed her reign
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

The idea here is that the new reformist government is no better than the old elitist one, both riddled with sloth (Bridge), lust (Women), and gluttony (Champagne). This is the iambic-pentametered antecedent to The Who expressing the same sentiment even more succinctly in “Won’t Get Fooled Again:” Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Both formations are accurate a lot of the time, certainly—especially in woebegone places like Russia.

I’d remembered this poem and planned to share it closer to our own “general election.” But I found that it doesn’t have the same resonance for me at 48 than it did at 24.

Other than his last name bearing an uncanny similarity to the villainous French archeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Belloc drew a blank for me. I knew nothing about him. Here is what The Poetry Foundation has to say:

Hilaire Belloc is considered one of the most controversial and accomplished men of letters of early 20th-century England. An author whose writings continue to draw either the deep admiration or bitter contempt of readers, he was an outspoken proponent of radical social and economic reforms, all grounded in his vision of Europe as a “Catholic society.” Although many critics have attacked Belloc’s prescriptive polemical works for their tone of truculence and intolerance—and, especially, for recurrent elements of anti-Semitism—they have also joined in praise of his humor and poetic skill, hailing Belloc as the greatest English writer of light verse since Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Then I recalled reading something about one of our current crop of conservative pundits—I can’t for the life of me remember which one—being an enormous Hilaire Belloc fanboy, and it all clicked. Because the poem, short though it is, captures the tone and style of the better conservative writers—Ben Domenech, say. First, the lines ooze with subtle misogyny. The implication is that no one in government, incoming or outgoing, has a uterus. “Women” are the spoils of victory, not 51 percent of the population. Second, there is an arrogance, a tacit understanding that the worldly-wise narrator of the poem knows more than we gullible readers do. Third, these two ugly things are masked by an appealingly clever wit—the lines scan; even the commas are perfectly placed. And, finally, while presented as fait accompli, the conclusion is just flat-out wrong.

The results of the election of 1860, which happened before Belloc was born, resulted in the Southern states seceding from the union, and a great Civil War.

The results of the election of 1932 ushered out the overmatched Herbert Hoover in favor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The results of the election of 1972 meant a second term for Richard Nixon, a longer war in Southeast Asia, and Watergate.

The results of the election of 2000, hurried along by the Supreme Court, bequeathed us George W. Bush, who ignored the warnings about Osama bin Laden, launched two wars while simultaneously cutting taxes, and came this close to cratering the entire global economy.

The results of the election of 2016 gave us the worst president in our history. And the results of the election of 2020 gave us the best one of my lifetime—and has saved the American experiment.

Elections do have consequences, Hilaire. The new boss is not the old boss. Joe Biden is too fucking busy saving the republic to play bridge, and the “Women” that came with his election include the Treasury Secretary, the Speaker of the House, and Madam Vice President.

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Photo credit: Hilaire Belloc portrait by Emil Otto Hoppé, vintage bromide print, 1915.