5 bizarre features of American politics that shock people when they first hear about them.
...including one reason people are staying involved despite it all.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.