If you’re surprised by anything in the ongoing interminable presidential election, you haven’t really been paying attention. I understood American politics very early. In second grade.
As an extended lesson in the democratic process, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Nichols, decided we should have an elected class government, with a mayor, deputy mayor, treasurer, sheriff and so on. I don’t remember all the positions. Secretary of agriculture. Maybe. I don’t know.
Mrs. Nichols selected the candidates for each position alphabetically, so she ran me for mayor because - as a Brody - I came third alphabetically. I suspect she made it a three-person race rather than a two-person race because I was the brightest, most literate kid in the class and she wanted to make it possible for me to run for mayor.
She gave the candidates a deadline to come up with a platform, and on a designated day we were all expected to present our platforms and then cast our votes. I was the only person in the class who came up with anything at all to say. I had index cards. I had plans. I was going to rearrange the desks. I was going to levy a 2-cent a day tax and at the end of the year we were going to have an ice cream party with the money we’d raised. I’d done the math. If all the taxes were paid by the 22 students for the remaining 73 days of school, we would have plenty of money for a decent ice cream party in 1971 dollars. Furthermore, I promised to erase from the chalkboard the drawing of a doghouse into which the teacher wrote the names of those students who had misbehaved during the day. That suggestion brought wild applause from my 7-year-old constituency.
With a great deal of excitement and tense near-giddiness, we all cast our secret ballots and then we went to lunch. We ate soggy, square pizza slices and tater tots. When we got back, the roll-up map of America had been pulled down to cover the black board. Once we were all back in our seats, Mrs. Nichols made a little suspense-building speech and then tugged on the map so that it snap-rolled up – fffft-thpthpthpthpthp – and revealed the names of the winners.
Proudly, smugly, as the new mayor, I went up to the blackboard and erased the doghouse. The other kids applauded and whistled and cheered me most heartily.
About a month later, Mrs. Nichols became angry with one of the students for misbehavior of some sort. She redrew the doghouse. I did nothing to stop her. I was the mayor, but she was still the teacher and I was in second grade.
At the end of the year, it turned out I had done very bad second-grade multiplication; we had more than enough money saved for our ice cream party. I suggested that we spend the extra money to expand the party and invite Mrs. Weed’s class in from across the hall because we had always done recess and lunch with them.
The treasurer suggested we divide the extra money up amongst the kids in class, offering a big, end of the year tax rebate … clearly a young Republican. The deputy mayor thought we should put it up to a vote. I insisted: I had been elected mayor, the whole idea of taking up a tax had been mine to begin with and I had made the decision. We would share with Mrs. Weed’s class, dammit, because it was the right thing to do. Also, there was a girl over there in Room 7 with one arm that I sort of liked but never had the guts to actually talk to.
So, we had a party with the kids from Room 7 and I got to have ice cream with Kate Carney and her alluringly empty left sleeve.
And so Mrs. Nichols gave us a basic but highly accurate introduction to the American democratic system.
- Candidates are selected; they are not elected.
- The election process is a ritual of spectacle and suspense designed to mask the machinery of political appointment.
- Elected officials enjoy applause for taking actions that can easily be undone later in silence by the people with the real power.
- And in the face of dissent, a noble, thoughtful, democratically elected leader will resort to the convenience of totalitarianism to protect a private agenda and to indulge personal perversities.
This rich, nuanced insight into a complex political system is a rare and wonderful gift that I hate having every election year, when everyone else is engaged in magical thinking.
Thank you, Mrs. Nichols.
Off-Ramp commentator Dylan Brody is an actor and comedian, and author of the semi-autobiographical novel Laughs Last.