5 bizarre features of American politics that shock people when they first hear about them.

Tuning in to American politics for the first time in 2017 is a lot like drinking from a firehose while fighting a grizzly bear and trying to summarize the plot of "Inception" from memory.  

Photos by: Win McNamee/Getty Images (Paul Ryan), Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (Neil Gorsuch, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren), Zach Gibson/Getty Images (James Comey), Jim Lo Scalzo - Pool/Getty Images (Donald Trump), iStock (Supreme Court).

As breaking news and scandals continue to erupt at an Usain Bolt-ish pace, many Americans are experiencing the early days of the Trump administration as a crash course in what makes our government kind-of-but-honestly-not-exactly work, with emphasis on the "crash."


Granted, even for those of us who have been mainlining C-SPAN for years, the current political climate is more than a little strange. For those just wading into the pool, it's like the water is 150 degrees, there are knives in the water, and oh yeah, it's peanut butter instead of water.

I spoke to four political novices who are getting acquainted with our political system for the first time — a teacher in Boston, a corporate retail worker (also in Boston), a marketing executive in New York, and a former advertising project manager in Detroit. Here are just a few of the surprising things they were shocked to learn are real parts of American politics:

1. If one political party wins enough elections in a state, they can change the maps to make it harder for their opponents to beat them in the next election.

If you've been paying attention to politics for a while, you know this is called gerrymandering, and you know it happens all the time. When a state redraws its districts to shut your party out of power, sure, you might throw up a rage post or two on your old blog, but when your party does it, hey, all's fair in love and war! After all, it is, has been for a long time, and is, for the most part, perfectly legal.

Now... consider gerrymandering as if you were learning about it for the first time.

You'd grab the pointiest pitchfork in grabbing range.

Take Texas. Its state government is completely controlled by Republicans and has been since 2003, which means they get to draw the congressional districts however they damn well please.

As a result, you get districts like Texas' 35th. Note its dispassionately illogical shape:

Imagine believing that congressional districts should make at least vague geographical sense and that your vote is distributed, weighted, and counted the same as anyone's anywhere in America. Then imagine looking at that.

Then, imagine learning that the 35th owes its gunky bottle-brush shape to the fact that it's 63% Latino. Texas Latinos vote pretty heavily for Democrats. If you wanted to dilute the Latino vote, the best way to do that would be to pack them all into one comically skinny but technically geographically contiguous region, creating one safe Democratic seat and a bunch of safe Republican seats around it.

You'd be furious.

In the case of Texas' 35th, the gerrymandering was so blatantly racially motivated that it recently lost a court challenge. But usually, states can get away with if they claim they're doing it for partisan — rather than racial — reasons, which is a bit like saying, "Sure, I punched him in the face, but not because I hate the guy — just because my arm was swinging really fast in his direction and my hand happened to be clenched, so it's not assault."

Boxing isn't fighting! It's just aggressive stretching in close proximity. Photo by skeeze/Pixabay.

If you were new to politics, you might think the system would intervene more often to put a stop to such blatant inequity. After all, this is America and we have checks and balances! Right?

Not exactly. And by "not exactly," I mean right now, you're waking up to the bizarro reality that...

2. There are no "checks and balances" if the people we elect don't want to check or balance each other.

The notion that evil or bad policy is ipso facto checked by our fair and just system is comforting — but hilariously wrong, as nearly all of the political newbies I spoke to reported being horrified to learn.

Of all the supposedly holy features of our government, perhaps none is more vaunted then the tripartite separation of co-equal powers — executive, legislative, and judicial — that you learned about in civics class. They're among the foremost concerns of our Constitution, praised by politicians left and right alike. You watched "Schoolhouse Rock" animations about them in middle school, where they were discussed in weird circus metaphors sung to you in a soothing Joni Mitchell voice. And you were soothed.

You feel good and serene about the nice normal people making the laws that govern your every waking hour. Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

That song today, however, would probably feature singer James Hetfield, probably with bronchitis, and a gang of horny sea lions would be slapping at his throat.

We're all going to die. Photo by Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

When, as in 2017, one party controls the executive, legislative, and (probably soon) judiciary, that party can basically go hog-wild with its most ludicrously ideological, borderline unconstitutional ideas — and pretty much no one can stop them.

Several of the political newcomers I spoke to were particularly shocked at how far executive orders can go and how long they can stay in place, even when they're clearly illegal. Indeed, executive orders have become sort of like the Tom Brady Super Bowl Hail Mary of policymaking — presidents just give it a go and damn it to Wednesday if anyone tries to stop them. Republicans were livid when President Obama signed a series of executive orders protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation. And Democrats are furious now that President Trump has signed orders making it easier to kick them out and build a gigantic wall on the southern border. Congress can pass laws to overrule them. But if they don't want to, they won't, and right now, they clearly don't.

Sometimes, the old constitutional reflex kicks in, as with Trump's two travel bans, which were blocked in the courts. But even that might be a temporary victory. If Neil Gorsuch gets confirmed to the Supreme Court, reinstating its 5-4 conservative majority, things could easily change.

Aw shucks, this nice Colorado dad just thinks the law is the law, and if the law just so happens to line up completely 100% with the favored policy outcomes of Republican party political leaders in 2017, so be it! Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

True, the Constitution remains, technically speaking, the supreme law of the land. But a lot of bad stuff is constitutional, as many formerly carefree Americans are learning as they find themselves increasingly glued to the incoming stream of ludicrous news "Clockwork Orange"-style. The Supreme Court decision that led to the Japanese internment camps? Still hasn't been overturned! And even if an executive order or bad piece of legislation is unconstitutional, partisan forces are often enough to persuade enough legislative, executive, and judicial officials to pretend that it's all good, at least for a few weeks, years, or decades.  

Add that to ubiquitous gerrymandering, and you begin to realize with ever-increasing dread that:

3. For politicians, their parties are bae (before all else), including bcs (before common sense) and btbiotap (before the best interests of the American people).

These people are all thinking about biting each others' faces off. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

If you didn't know much about how lawmaking worked, you'd probably assume it went something like this: Members of the two parties argue for a while about some bill or another, then get together, have a few beers, compliment pictures of each others' grandkids, and come up with something that basically lands in the middle of what they want. You know, compromise. It wasn't so long ago that this was the case.

Imagine how political newbies feel when they find out the truth, Bruce-Willis-gripping-his-bloody-gut-at-the-end-of-"The-Sixth-Sense"-style.

Sure, some members will occasionally buck their party leaders for strategic reasons, but for the most part, politicians these days defend their parties to the death — logic, reason, and, uh, you know, what's good for the country and the world be damned. Think about learning that for the first time and realizing that if you prefer, say, progressive policy outcomes, you'd be better off voting for a ferret with a "D" next to their name than a reasonable, well-spoken, moderate Republican doctor-war-hero-astronaut. And vice-versa. It would barely compute. And it should barely compute!

Don't blame me! I voted for Mr. Longfloppy. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Since both parties are pretty well ferreted up at this point, you get a spectacle like James Comey's March 20 hearing, where the FBI director revealed that aides to the president of the United States and, perhaps, the president himself, are under investigation for potentially colluding with a foreign power to undermine an American election, and Republicans on the panel only wanted to grill him about who leaked this embarrassing revelation to the press. It's as if during the O.J. trial the prosecution had spent its time trying to slam Ron Goldman's parents for making such a big deal out of everything.

If this base-level skullduggery were news to you, you'd probably assume we, the people, could band together, decide on a few things we all agree on, agree to disagree on the rest, and vote these jokers out.

Except then you learn, in perhaps the most heinous twist of twists...

4. There are some politicians who actively make it as hard as possible for people to vote, and they're getting pretty good at it.

Wouldn't be surprised if this woman had to fight a few great whites to get here. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

This may be old news to some of us, but if you're one of the people just learning about voter ID laws for the first time, you'd probably feel like giving the nearest window a good bricking too.

Believe it or not, historically, voting isn't something Americans have been good at. Even in our presidential elections, only a little more than half of us do it. If you were newly engaged in politics, you'd probably assume that most politicians — grateful for the patriotic exercise of franchise that allowed them to serve their country — would want to make it easier.

Instead, you're learning that dozens of elected officials across America are actively trying to make voting harder. "Sure," the thinking apparently goes, "you technically can vote as long as you fill out forms A through Q in a timely fashion, bring the right laminated card, and survive the piranha-stocked moat we dug in front of this elementary school cafeteria."

The current weapon of choice for politicians getting off on taking away Americans' voting rights is the aforementioned voter ID law, which forces voters to bring identification to the voting booth. Many of these laws specifically ban types of IDs likely to be held by poorer, younger, browner folks (like student IDs) while permitting those likely to be held by older, whiter, more conservative folks (like gun licenses), which is obviously a huge coincidence that will be cleared up just as soon as hahahahahaha.

Felon disenfranchisement, which takes away the vote from convicted felons — who just so happen to be disproportionately black and brown — even after they've served their time, is another biggie.

This felon would definitely have her right to vote taken away just as soon as we figure out what she's guilty of. Photo by Rhona Wise/Getty Images.

And then there's the plain old refusal to streamline and improve the voting process that leads to random mishaps like being tripped up by a clerical error or having your registration lost and being forced to cast a provisional ballot, as one of the political newcomers I spoke to reported experiencing when she tried to vote for the first time in 2008.

Add it all up and you can see why someone just starting to engage with politics might be tempted to disengage right away. Yet many are choosing not to. They're choosing to stay involved and engaged, even when things are at their John-Malkovich-in-the-Malkovich-universe-iest.

And for some, that's because...

5. People power still exists, and it's pretty great to see up close.

Democracy, I am told, looks like this. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.

Even if you hadn't been paying much attention to the arcane inner workings of our government, a quick look out the window any time in the last few decades or so would probably lead you to believe that Americans were pretty content to let our elected officials do what they wanted without much taking-to-the-streets. You might even assume that sort of in-your-face activism was a relic of the '60s or earlier, the subject of grainy, black-and-white news footage and CNN baby boomer-bait documentaries, something that our couch-sitting, Arby's-inhaling, Kardashian-watching culture couldn't hope to live up to.

Instead, almost immediately following Donald Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, we got millions of women and allies marching for their rights in hundreds of cities large and small, thousands descending on airports across the country to show solidarity with refugees and immigrants, and groups organizing across the country to lobby their elected officials to protect their health care. It's like a Woody Guthrie deep cut that was just a little too commie-ish to make it onto your second-grade music class playlist, except it's really happening in 2017.

"The trees are green/And the canyons majestic/Seize the means of production/You have nothing to lose but your chains!" Photo by Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun.

A lot about the way our system works is messed up and has been for a long time. It needs to be reformed up the wazoo, and its wazoo probably won't get so much as a look from the current crop of swamp creatures we've elected. But as the countless Americans just waking up to the reality of our politics are discovering, there's a pretty seriously effective counterweight: us.

Even those of us who are jaded can admit — we're surprised.

Thanks to Abby Huntley, Hannah Eisenberg, Robert Fuhrer, and Mary Kay Gumbel for speaking with me for this piece.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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