A version of this post appeared here on Stonekettle Station during the 2008 election season. Somebody recently asked permission to repost it. After rereading what I had written four years ago, I decided to update it for the modern age instead // Jim
My first introduction to democracy was Sixth Grade.
Back in my increasingly distant childhood, we learned about democracy starting in elementary school.
The lessons were fairly simple, mostly there was a lot of talk about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and the 4th of July. I have this fuzzy memory of making a construction paper American Flag while the teacher droned on about freedom, Betsy Ross, and apple pie. I’m pretty sure that the words “Nazi” and “Communist” were not used despite the fact that some hippy liberal named George McGovern was running for President of America out there in the real world.
The whole thing was supposed to introduce us to the American democratic process.
We spent an entire semester learning about how the government worked. A lady from the local election committee came to the school and gave a lecture on voting. Since the school was also a polling station, the teachers would trundle out a huge mechanical tabulator and we all got to stand on an inverted milk crate and flip the switches and pull the lever behind the curtain, like being a midget Wiz in the land of Oz.
I remember thinking it was all very exciting.
Our semester of junior democracy concluded with the election of our very own student body president.
I don't know if sixth graders still elect a student body president nowadays, but if they don’t, they should. Because, see, I learned things in that election. Things that have served me well over the years.
The first thing that I learned was this:
Not everybody gets to be the president. For example, I was unlikely to ever get elected president, of a grade school class or a country. Oh sure they tell you that anybody can be president, but that’s a bit of a fib, isn’t it? I wasn’t good looking or rich or connected. I sure wasn’t going to be president (I could have probably pulled off Presidential Speech Writer, but even back then I made a lot of typos and used a lot of four letter words so maybe not). The fact that I wasn’t ever going to be president was a hard lesson, but somehow I’ve managed to carry on and I think I’m probably a better person for it. A little bitter perhaps, but better.
Which takes us to the second thing I learned, No matter the democracy, some people are always going to be more equal than others.
See, right from the start you knew who the class president was going to be.
Jeff the Jock.
Oh sure, even at that age, you could tell Jeff was destined for big things.
Jeff was a winner. Handsome and popular, he had perfect hair and a perfect white smile that would never need braces. He played sports, all kinds of sports and he was always the best, the best quarterback, the best pitcher, the best wrestler. He was a champ. He sat First Chair in the band. He was a straight A student. His parents had money. His farts smelled like happy flower scented potpourri and everything he touched turned to gold.
It was a forgone conclusion that in about six years he’d be the homecoming King after leading the high school football team to the Class-AAA championships.
There was little doubt that Jeff would go on to a first rate ivy covered college with a ponderous blue blood sounding name and then he’d be on to a nice tidy life in law, or medicine, or politics*.
Jeff was just one of those folks who are born with the magic.
He was one of those kids that others gravitated to.
Everybody wanted to be his friend and anybody could have figured out that he was going to be student body president – just like he’d be president of everything for the rest of his life. But, this being democracy and all, we had to go through the motions of an actual election.
I worked on his campaign, making posters. We all donated our lunch money to buy posterboard and markers and material to make campaign buttons. We stayed after school to work on the posters and I often walked a couple of miles home instead of riding the bus because of it. But, hey, I was happy to be part of freedom and democracy. Some of the mothers made cookies for us, and we had a lot of fun. Being a dork from a non-rich family in a well to do community and therefore none too popular, I was flattered just to be one of the outer circle.
Jeff even complimented me on my poster making abilities. He was a great guy.
And he was also a consummate bullshit artist.
Jeff’s opposition was a girl whose name long escapes me. I do remember that she was a bookishly practical girl with big ears and that I didn't like her very much.
The key plank in Jeff’s election platform, pretty much the only plank, was a soda machine.
That’s right, a soda machine.
Soda (pop, as everybody calls it in Michigan) was a damned big deal to us kids. It was sweet and cool and fizzy and delicious.
The only pop machine in the school was in the teacher's lounge, but we students didn't have access to it.
Jeff promised us that if we voted for him he'd get us a pop machine.
Did I mention that Jeff was a great guy? Seriously, nobody else was promising us soda. Jeff! Jeff! Jeff!
In contrast, the opposition candidate was a real wet blanket. Big Ears said that a soda machine wasn't a good idea. She'd talked to the principal about it and her parents and she felt that it simply wasn't practical. She said there were more important things we should be thinking about. I don't remember what those things were, but I do remember thinking that she and her irritating supporters were just stupid girls (I was eleven, sue me).
Besides, I was part of the in crowd, Jeff’s extended posse, man. We weren’t going to listen to some dumb girl.
Jeff told us what we wanted to hear, in fact he made that soda machine sound like a done deal and you could practically taste those icy cold beverages when he spoke. Cool delicious pop, that was the ticket.
Consequently Jeff was swept into office on a wave of popular support.
The Stupid Girl faded into the mists of history and the blurry depths of my increasingly fuzzy memory.
President Jeff was allowed to use the PA system for his victory speech. I don’t remember what he said, I was too thirsty. Boy, it was going to be a new era now that President Jeff was in charge. Jeff was a pretty assertive guy, probably from an excess of manly testosterone. We figured the Principal was probably already on the phone to Royal Crown demanding immediate delivery of that soda machine.
I figured I’d buy two, one for lunch and one to sip while riding the bus home that day.
Oh yes, we’d done it. All hail President Jeff. What a guy. It was going to be glorious.
Funny thing, we never did see that soda machine.
Turns out that there were practical problems involving cost, regulations, nutrition, pimples, and some other stuff that probably had to do with George McGovern and Communism. President Jeff just couldn't make good on his promises.
I wasn’t sure how, but I suspected the Stupid Girl had somehow sabotaged the whole deal just out of pure spite.
As bitter disappointment began to raise its ugly head, President Jeff shrugged, smiled his winning smile composed of perfect Chiclets, and said he'd done the best he could but it was out of his hands. He never complimented me on my drawing abilities again, and he never thanked me for my support. In fact, he rarely ever spoke to me again, even though we rode the same bus daily until high school graduation and lived only a block or so apart.
You know, it's been forty years since Jeff The Jock was Rosewood Elementary School's student body president and his failure to get us that damned soda machine still chaps my ass. Of course, things turned out more or less all right. I still managed to carve out a fairly successful life and though the memory haunts me, I’m a reasonably well adjusted citizen – just as long as nobody sneaks up on me with an RC Cola, I can’t be responsible for my actions in that case. Just saying. Especially if I’m holding a bottle opener.
Now, despite the fact that I spent my formative years without being able to enjoy a refreshing soft drink, I don't hold anything against Jeff because he did teach me some valuable lessons about politics and politicians. Things that have served me well over the last four decades:
- Haircuts and hot air are directly proportional, i.e. the more money a politician spends on his haircut, the more full of shit he is. This is an infallible indicator of character. If he's got good hair, you're not getting the soda machine.
- Politicians always tell you what they think you want to hear. With that in mind, you should listen very carefully. After they are done talking, after the cheering is over, go home and ask yourself if what you heard Is really what you want. Really. Or is it what some guy with good hair told you you want? You should probably sit down by yourself in a quiet place and figure out what it is that you really want. Are you sure it’s a soda machine?
- Leaders tell you what you need to hear, even if it’s not what you want. Sometimes that means you’re not getting the soda machine, but at least you know where you stand.
- Beware the politician bearing gifts. There’s always a catch. Politicians don't listen to you unless they need your vote. And probably not even then. After they get your vote (or once they’re sure they’re not going to get it), they will go back to listening exclusively to their friends - until they need your vote again. These people generally get other people to donate the soda and they only share if they expect something from you.
- Poor people are invisible. Rich people don't give a crap about you unless they need your lunch money. The more money you have, the more they care about your concerns. These people generally have their soda imported and they don’t share.
- Political parties are fun. There’s a sense of belonging, even if you don’t. There’s lots of people just like you with opinions just like yours. There are activities and ideas and lively conversation. Sometimes there are even cookies. Thing is, cookies are cheap, a soda machine on the other hand is expensive – and it’s a long term commitment.
- If you believe campaign promises will be fulfilled, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re also childishly naive. Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, independent, doesn’t matter – the hard realities of office trump wishful thinking every time. New politicians are usually sincere, they’re not out and out lying, they earnestly believe they can deliver once in power. That’s why they’re so darned cute. Their disappointment is as sharp and as bitter as the disillusioned people who voted them into office expecting chocolate rainbows and flying bunnies. Savvy and experienced politicians, however, know better. They make promises on the campaign trail with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Both will promise you your very own soda machine complete with flying bunnies. One means it, the other is lying, but the end result is the same.
- As always, the real power is behind the throne. Nowhere is this more true than America. It would behoove you to learn something about what’s back there because the only way you’re getting a soda is if that power wants you to have one.
- The Stupid Girl was probably right. Unfortunately, History doesn't remember the losers, even if they were right. Even if they bring soda.
- You’re still a dork, Pumpkin. The Candidate’s mom probably won't give you a lift home, even though it’s raining and you missed the bus working on her son's campaign. He might be a great guy, but champs don’t ride with the riff-raff. If you’re lucky maybe he’ll give you a friendly wave as he rides past, drinking a soda.
If you’re unlucky and he lost, well he might give you a different gesture.
* I looked him up on Facebook, he’s a lawyer.