The bell to end lunch rang, right when there was about to be a big reveal in the Bollywood. Mr. Webb hit the pause button, causing all the kids watching it to go, “Awww! Just one more minute?”
“You’ll get your minute tomorrow. Time to get to class.” The film fans filed out as the AP Economics kids shuffled back in. Before Mr. Webb could get back to the tunes to shuffle into class by, one of his AP students, the very art-student-y Michele Barta, asked as she entered, “How come you’re not teaching AP Government anymore?”
It was the first day of school and all the books had been handed out… why not give her an honest answer? It would kill off the rest of the period, but what the heck, right?
“I don’t teach AP Government anymore because the material tested on has no connection to reality anymore, and there’s not enough time to cover reality in addition to teaching the stuff you have to know for the test. AP Economics is also divorced from reality, but it’s not as complete as in AP Government, and I also have enough time in AP Eco to cover what’s actually going on. Rather than choose between teaching propaganda and getting good test scores, teaching the truth and getting ripped up one side and down the other by administration for a poor passing rate, and not teaching it at all, I choose to not teach it at all.”
“What do you mean it’s not connected to reality anymore?”
“Well, Michele, it’s like this… AP Government is about how things are supposed to work, with a few considerations for some issues, for lack of a stronger word, that face the system. It’s a curriculum that, at the end of the day, holds a view that the system is functional and that our votes matter and make a difference in every election. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, and that it hasn’t been that way for over a hundred years.”
“A hundred years? What?”
Some other students had come in and were standing beside Michele, as outraged as she was. They didn’t know exactly why, but they were anticipating something huge. Mr. Webb had a reputation for being right, a reputation Mr. Webb himself promoted and reinforced with his “told you so!”-style commentaries on current events.
“Have a seat, ladies and germs, and I’ll spill the beans on the whole government caper.”
They took their seats and got ready for the big answer to Michele’s question. Pretty much everyone was back, except for Isaac Feknes, one of the guys that seemed to be without sufficient clues to make it through the year. Oh well, this stuff wasn’t on the test. He could miss it and still live to see another day.
Mr. Webb displayed a one-page document on the overhead for everyone to read, then zoomed in on the text so that everyone could really read it and not just nod their head at fuzzy-looking letters. The document read:
The Control of Political Machinery
The American government,—city, state and nation—is in almost the same position as the schools, newspapers and churches. It does not turn out tangible, economic products. It depends, for its support, upon taxes which are levied, in the first instance, upon property. Who are the owners of this property? The business interests. Who, therefore, pay the bills of the government? The business interests.
Nowhere has the issue been stated more clearly or more emphatically than by Woodrow Wilson in certain passages of his “New Freedom.” As a student of politics and government—particularly the American Government—he sees the power which those who control economic life are able to exercise over public affairs, and realizes that their influence has grown, until it overtops that of the political world so completely that the machinery of politics is under the domination of the organizers and directors of industry.
“We know,” writes Mr. Wilson in “The New Freedom,” “that something intervenes between the people of the United States and the control of their own affairs at Washington. It is not the people who have been ruling there of late” (p. 28). “The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States…. Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the biggest stakes—the big bankers, the big manufacturers, the big masters of commerce, the heads of railroad corporations and of steamship corporations…. Every time it has come to a critical question, these gentlemen have been yielded to and their demands have been treated as the demands that should be followed as a matter of course. The government of the United States at present is a foster-child of the special interests” (p. 57-58). “The organization of business has become more centralized, vastly more centralized, than the political organization of the country itself” (p. 187). “An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy” (p. 35). “We are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless” (p. 10).
This is the direct control exercised by the plutocracy over the machinery of government. Its indirect control is no less important, and is exercised in exactly the same way as in the case of the channels of public opinion.
Lawyers receive preferment and fees from business—there is no other large source of support for lawyers. Judges are chosen from among these same lawyers. Usually they are lawyers who have won preferment and emolument. Legislators are lawyers and business men, or the representatives of lawyers and business men. The result is as logical as it is inevitable.
The wealth owners control the machinery of government because they pay the taxes and provide the campaign funds. They control public officials because they have been, are, or hope to be, on the payrolls, or participants in the profits of industrial enterprises.
– Scott Nearing, The American Empire (1921)
This excerpt details the connection between interest groups and political influence, including the “revolving door” phenomenon described at the end. Another strong connection between interest groups and government is the “iron triangle” where interest groups, government bureaucracies, and congressional committees all work together to create legislation and regulation regimes that ultimately work to the benefit of the parties involved, even at the cost of uninvolved groups.
“The last paragraph is mine, and Wilson’s comments come from his 1912 presidential campaign. That’s where I get the 100-year figure. Stuff like this was obvious even back then, and it’s much more pervasive and powerful now. I can’t in good conscience teach that politicians vote according to the dictates of their conscience, not all the time. These guys in Congress spend well over half their time in office raising money in phone banks organized by the party and big fancy dinners.”
“Half their time?”
“So when do they meet in session?”
“Not often.” Mr. Webb’s assessment brought out a frown on everyone’s face but one: Jerome Hudl had fallen asleep already.
The bell rang for people tardy to the second half of 4th period after B lunch. Still no Isaac Feknes.
Matt Woyzeck raised his hand. “Do they still get paid if they don’t show up to vote or meet?”
“Yes. Their salary is something like $174K a year. Nice work, if you can get it. But they get sweeter bonuses with the information they have from being in Congress. What’s insider trading for you and me is Congressional privilege for Senators and Congressmen. They make out like bandits, literally. Only the honest Congressmen die poor. Looking at the net wealth of the average Congressman, there aren’t many honest ones in either house.”
Chas Carson chuckled from the thrones. “Hey, go big or go home. My dad’s a lobbyist, and he’s always complaining about politicians calling him up, begging him for money, promising votes on this or that if he comes across with a donation.”
“There you go.” Mr. Webb pointed at Chas. “I can’t teach a course that ignores stuff like that. Therefore, I can’t teach AP Government any more. I mean, if we have time at the end of some classes, I can show you stuff that I put together over the years, but it’s way too cynical for the test. Way way way way way too cynical.”
Stan Keller, another throne man, asked, “Like… how cynical?”
“Cynical like this.” Mr. Webb fired up another document, Notes.pdf, and the page that came up read as follows:
How a Politician Gets Elected
1. If the politician is an incumbent and didn’t make any interest groups angry while he served his term of office, he gets re-elected.
2. If the incumbent dies, makes an interest group mad at him, or gets caught in a major scandal, someone else must fill his seat. There will be a for-reals election.
3. All politicians that are neither Democrats or Republicans are free to contest the election, but they will lose. They need to have a job to fall back on after November.
4. The Democrats and Republicans will hold primaries to determine who will represent them in the November election. Whichever persons appeal most to the radical, goofball, and raving lunatic sections of each party will win the primary.
5. Once nominated, each candidate will claim that they will run a clean campaign, then they will set about mudslinging and negative campaigning. Whichever candidate runs the most negative campaign stands a good chance of winning.
6. If neither candidate runs a negative campaign, or the campaigns are equally negative, whichever candidate looks the best will have a good chance of winning. Ugly candidates can ask good-looking people to campaign for them.
7. If a candidate lost a primary election, he can run as an independent to keep the guy that beat him in the primary from winning the November election.
8. If both candidates are equally negative and equally ugly, whichever one gets mentioned the most has a good chance of winning. Getting mentioned involves spending money on advertising, so whoever can raise the most money stands a really good chance of winning the election.
9. Raising money involves going to people and interest groups and grovelling. Whoever can grovel the best will raise the most money.
10. Often, interest groups will give money to a candidate on the condition that he will prostitute his vote for them. This is known as a “reciprocally beneficial relationship.” Prostitutes prefer the latter term, as it means they won’t be compared with objectionable politicians.
11. If a candidate looks like he’ll lose the election if it is contested fairly, he can try to win it by engaging in criminal activities. Criminal activities include the following activities, but are not limited to them: bribery, acceptance of cash from illegal donors, blackmail, whisper campaigns, vote tampering, vote fraud, vote count tampering, threats of violence, assassination, burglary, vandalism, “clearing” of voter records.
12. Whoever counts the votes has ultimate say on who the winner of the election is and if the election will be fair.
13. Whoever gets the most votes, wins. This usually means the best-looking candidate with the most money raised and connections to interest groups that has a sympathetic election judge and no “independent” challenger to deal with will win. Provided he doesn’t get caught for any dirty tricks…
14. In a 2-man race, a majority of votes wins. In a 3-man (or more) race, a plurality wins.
“Daaaaaaamn, that’s cynical.” Stan let his jaw hang open after saying that.
Michele looked like she was about to cry. “I want to puke.”
Chas laughed. Mr. Webb figured that he probably knew that it was worse than what was in the notes. Optimists always know things can be worse, which is why they find it so easy to laugh.
Everyone else was in shock, except for Hudl, who slept on. Isaac Feknes walked back in.
“Where the hell have you been, Feknes?” Mr. Webb wasn’t happy with the break in the revelations, but the rest of the class was glad for the comic relief.
“I didn’t know lunch was over.”
“How long have you been a student here?”
“This is my fourth year.”
“And you didn’t know how we roll with B lunch? Are you an idiot or something?”
“No.” Isaac’s back stiffened at the insinuation that he might be an idiot.
“Then you admit you’re lying about not knowing lunch was over. What were you doing, making out with your girlfriend that has C lunch?” Mr. Webb didn’t know for sure, but it was an educated guess that was what was going on.
Isaac went from indignant to shocked.
Chas, Stan, and the third throne man, Sean Ortiz, shouted in unison, “Called it! Boom!”
Mr. Webb broke out in laughter and decided, then and there, that these three guys were going to do just fine in his class. They had the right attitude and weren’t afraid to participate. Isaac Feknes, on the other hand, seemed likeliest to join Mr. Hudl in making this time of day his little nap-time.
Mr. Webb cut his laughter off, suddenly and completely, and fixed a cold glare on Isaac. “Don’t you dare come in late to my class like that again, Mr. Feknes. Do you understand me?”
Isaac nodded, but it was the unenthusiastic nod of a person that had no intention of keeping his word.
Mr. Webb kept mental note of that reaction and pointed at a chair. “Have a seat. Try and keep up. We’re talking about the near-complete control major corporations and interest groups have on the government.”
Michele groaned and pitched forward, her face almost hitting the table.
Mr. Webb put a picture of baby otters on the overhead. Michele looked up and smiled. All the girls and most of the boys said, “Awwww!” Only sleeping Hudl and clueless Feknes had no reaction.
Mr. Webb minimized the picture so the cruel assessment of the election process was back in view. “Uhhhh…” Michele was sad again.
“I’ll have more happy pictures before we leave, OK?”
Michele perked up a little. “OK.”
Matt asked, “So, there’s nothing we can do about this?”
“Not unless you have a few million dollars, and then you become part of this with that kind of money.”
“What about a revolution?”
“Not likely. We’re much more likely to see a suspension of liberties and the imposition of an authoritarian regime that has the trappings and procedures of democracy, but actual power concentrated in the hands of a few. And liberties have been steadily eroded for quite some time, now, so what’s in the Bill of Rights is only so much window dressing, when it all comes down to it. You have the rights the government allows you to have. If the government calls you a terrorist and chucks you into a prison somewhere in Egypt or Poland, how are you going to let your lawyer know that your rights are being violated? You won’t. Heck, you don’t even have to leave the country. There are federal medical institutions where people can be involuntarily committed without access to lawyers or due process. Medical incarceration is an old KGB trick, by the way. But if you’re in one of those holes, how do you get out?”
Matt had no fire left in him for the revolution. “You don’t.”
“You don’t, that’s right, which is why I’m making a study of life under authoritarian regimes. I want to be ready for the future. It’s not all that bad, really. Some freedoms, they don’t care if you have or not.”
Feknes was already asleep. Wanda Ngo pointed at him and Hudl with a questioning look, as if to ask what to do about them.
“Let ’em sleep. Don’t do anything mean to them, but don’t wake them up. If they can’t stay awake here, they seriously need to consider dropping the course.”
Wanda looked confused. “But you can’t drop an AP course in the first six weeks.”
“You can if you’re about to fail and your parents demand that you get out of there, which is what’s going to happen to them both if the counselor won’t listen to reason.”
The bell was about to ring, so Mr. Webb put up a picture of a baby girl in a swing decorated with brightly-colored primary color beads. The baby girl was holding a sleeping kitty.
The bell rang and Feknes and Hudl woke up. Mr. Webb called them to his desk. “You guys need to drop this class and get into regular.”
Without saying a word the two almost nodded and shuffled out. Mr. Webb played Foghat’s “Slow Ride” as they exited the room.