Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Everything I need to know about politics, I learned in sixth grade

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.


  1. Great post, Jim. However, two typos...paragraphs 31 and 36 if I am counting correctly. The CO of a school is the principal (or Principal). You're using the word meaning the precept or fundamental....Principle. Damn that spell check!!

    I especially laughed over the description of Jeff and his farts. Thanks for the walk down Memory Lane.

    Old Navy Comm O

    1. Already fixed.

      Farts make you laugh? Spoken like a true Commo.

    2. The "happy flower scented pot pourri" description of the farts was what got to me, Jim. The only thing that could have been better was if you could have worked in a rainbow......

      Again, many thanks for the stroll....

      Old Navy Comm O

  2. Thanks, Jim. Here in CT, thats' "Corrupticut" to the uninitiated, one of our past Governors swore up and down there would be no income tax. His rival said there would be, but it would reduce property taxes, which are obscenely high. Well, Mr No-Income-Tax won, and by January following that November, we had us a li'l itty-bitty income tax. It is now a great galumphin' income tax. And property taxes are still disgusting. Plus we have a sales tax. I watched in absolute disbelief as this happened. Now I am watching My Candidate from 2008 renege on every single thing he said he'd do. Yep. He's throwing bones to significant voting blocs but he's not doing anything substantial except take away our right to freedom of association, to face our accuser, to legal counsel, a speedy trial, habeus corpus...and the list goes on and on and on. Look at the mess in Anaheim. Those folks are pretty quiet. It's not Oakland fer Chrissakes. They're not black bloc. But it's becoming a freakin' police state nonetheless. And I'm supposed to be a liberal!!!! ok, nuff ranting, gonna put the wine away now and start on the water....

  3. :D Loved it, again. Your blogs make my day, and I'm not even American ;)

    [check this sentence - "I figured I’d buy two, one for lunch and one to sip while ridding the bus home that day." ...ridding = riding... but ridding the country of politicians with impeccable hair coifs and sparkly chicklet teeth, is a whole different thought ;)]

    1. Fixed (the typo, not the politician. Alas, that's beyond even my power).

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. SA comment that would be considered violent removed.
    Want to learn to knit & come join Ravelry? we even like the hookers & spinners

    1. Ravelry? I've heard of you people, you tried to steal the Olympics.

    2. Yeah, we don't need no stinking Olympic committee. Lucky me, I am a knitter and spinner. Join the fiber side, Jim, we have cookies. And coffee. And beer...lots of beer. Beats soda any day.

  6. >girl who's name

    I *think* that should be whose.

    Great piece, Jim.

    1. Yep, that's what it should be alright. Sigh

    2. Now come to Chicon/Worldcon, damnit, so I can buy you a beer.

    3. I have friends at Worldcon. Go look up the fabulous writer Doc Phil Kaldon. He's got a number of panels this year. Tell him I said hello

    4. Assuming that's my Thorvaldr and not some other random Thorvaldr, he'll certainly be meeting your friends at Worldcon.

    5. I'm PRETTY sure I'm your Thorvaldr.



    6. There could be more Thorvaldrs out there leaving comments on Jim's blog. Since you don't have a Blogger profile, it's hard to tell.

      So yeah, Jim, he'll be meeting your friends. And drinking. And going out to eat. So why are you ditching us again?

  7. Reminds me of a Bloom County cartoon where Opus is giving a stump speech to the wrong group; promising bombs while addressing an old lady's knitting club.

    I say we nominate Opus and Bill the Cat, can't be any worse that what we have running now!

  8. Vote Odin!


    1. PS Another great post, and so relevant. One question, though: did the update include "Haircuts and hot air are directly proportional", or were you just prescient?

    2. The good hair/hot air observation was in the original. It's long been my contention that the two are related.

  9. While hair and hot air are proportional, the hair isn't always necessary for the warm breeze. Submitted for your approval Louis Buller Gohmert Jr.

  10. Before TV really got going, we had plenty of fat old bald guys for presidents. After TV... not so much. Seems that somewhere along the line some statistically significant portion of the population started confusing who they want to to screw with, with who they wanted to get screwed by. Or maybe it's most of the population. I'm not pointing fingers at any particular sex, been around far too long for that.

    Not that fat old bald guys were any less likely to promise soda and deliver squat. Just pointing out how easily human beings seem to be lead around by their not so smart parts.

  11. If you believe campaign promises will be fulfilled, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re also childishly naive.

    Then why do we bother?

    I understand, I think, what you're meaning to say. But I think the way you put it was far too broad and glib, Jim. We have a right to expect--and encourage--the people who run for office to make promises they can, possibly deliver on, and to evaluate their performance in light of what efforts they made to deliver on a realistic promise and if they failed, why did they fail. In retrospect, getting mad at George Bush for breaking his promise not to raise taxes and getting mad at Barack Obama for failing to close Guantanamo aren't fair things to have done: although it's possible neither President should have made those promises in the first place, they were theoretically within the powers of the office and it's not entirely either man's fault they couldn't deliver. On the other hand, Richard Nixon should be judged harshly for promising he had a "secret plan" to get the country out of Vietnam, when it's abundantly clear that while this was within the scope of his office, he didn't actually have a plan at all (he was lying); that he managed to "keep" the promise, after a fashion (largely by taking steps that expanded the war to the rest of Southeast Asia) doesn't really do much to absolve him of the original lie.

    In this election, Romney and Obama will certainly promise a lot of things. Some of their promises will be sincere. Some of the sincere promises will also be things that are within the scope of what a President Of The United States can actually legally do. And some of the sincere, legal promises will be within the realm of what is politically achievable. And so you separate the wheat from chaff, and you say, "This guy has made a bunch of promises, and all of these we set aside as bullshit, and all of these we set aside as impossible, and all of these we set aside as impracticable, and here's what we're left with."

    And I think you also consider the ratio. Maybe two percent of one candidate's promises are practical possibilities but only one percent of the other guy's promises are in that slice of the pie chart, and you weigh that out.

    But you also consider the quality of the promises when you weigh the slice of pie (mmm, pie...): that is, maybe the other guy can only achieve one percent of what he promises, at best, but the other guy's two percent is utterly terrifying and you really hope he can't keep any of his promises, because what he's promising is just godawful if you take him at his word.

    It's naive to believe all of a candidate's promises, yes. But it's nihilistic to believe none of them. And nihilism is a cancer on our system, one of the reasons it's dying or maybe even pretty far along dead: if the people who vote think it doesn't matter because they're being lied to and the people who run think it doesn't matter because everybody knows they're liars, we'd just be better off going back to a monarchy and hoping that some percentage of our feudal lieges are relatively benign dictators and not utter asshats. No, seriously: because it seems to me that there's some odds of heredity producing a nice kid who cares about his subjects every few generations, but slim-to-none odds of a system based on cynicism and indifference ever producing anything but parasites.

    But maybe I'm naive.

  12. As Pynchon said, you've been around long enough to know that anyone in office doesn't owe the people anything.

  13. I'm starting to think you must suffer from the world's most chapped ass!

    I recommend some kind of moisturiser and a willing assistant/fangirl.
    Heck, I'll even prescribe one if that'll help get the job done!

  14. I think I'm the girl in the election although an earlier time and place. I'm stll tilting at windmills.

  15. I recall my intro to international politics was a mock E.U. meeting , back then the E.U. was pure fantasy. Our class (the grade not one classroom) was divided into the various countries, and we argued, how to pay for it, who would do what, what laws had to be made/eliminated, etc....
    It all ended with Germany (my team), England, and France walking out because everyone expected us to fund them.

  16. "If he's got good hair, then you're not getting the soda machine" made me laugh out loud when I first read it....until I realized that it is spot-on true.

    As someone who did not know either this space in general or this post in particular existed in 2008 I am glad that you reposted it in time for the 2012 election. Great stuff.

  17. Sundaysue, I'd be really interested in hearing about your life, and Stupid Girl's, too.

    For the rest…there are things one can know about candidates. You can't find out about promises, but you can find out about character, by which I do not mean how fine and upstanding the candidate is. It wasn't too difficult, before the election, to find out that Obama was going to be a "centrist" (conservative, really--the real center is somewhere near Nancy Pelosi.) It also isn't difficult to find out that Romney/Ryan will start a war in Iran, blow up the national debt (have you noticed the way these guys do everything they tell you the other guy is going to do?), cut Medicare and Social Security, and do awful things to women, blacks, Hispanics, and everyone who isn't insanely wealthy.

    What's discouraging is that the election may be close. Why?

  18. Mr Wright I am wondering if you have ever come across Matt Bissonnette in your Alaskan travels?


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.