Vote for the Prettiest

by Bill Reagan

7 May 2008

US presidential elections are suspiciously like high school popularity contests, er, elections -- it's not who you know, it's who knows you.
Tracy Flick in Election 

National Student Council (A Quiz)
In Alexander Payne’s film Election (and before that, in the novel by Tom Perotta) the world met Tracy Flick, a caustic composite of the most annoying traits of the student council queen: Shamelessly ambitious, deftly manipulative, and righteously annoying.

Tracy is written with broad comic strokes, a young woman who has spent their entire public school education grooming herself for the coup de gras of college application extracurriculars, Senior Council president, yet the caricature rarely crosses into the absurd. At any stage of the story, Flick can justify her avarice as the natural order of things, her success as the inevitable result of her concerted efforts: “I believe in the voters; they understand that elections aren’t just popularity contests, they know this country was built by people just like me who work very hard and don’t have everything handed to them on a silver spoon.”

In one way, she’s right: High School politics is not a popularity contest, but a celebrity contest. Invariably, the class officers at my alma mater were hallway socialites and sports heroes, more known by reputation than by personal interaction. They were, as a rule, pretty and dynamic, looking every bit the part of a teen politician; any student who lacked those qualities yet sought elected office understood that their sights had to be set on Secretary or Treasurer if they wanted to win. Occasionally some unknown from Math Club would throw their hat into the ring for one of the positions, but they inevitably finished as also-rans, victims of a it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you reality.

Why were these elections mere celebrity competition?  Because the candidates were completely constricted in their ability to distinguish themselves with their campaign promises. With oversight from the school board, principal, and faculty advisers, candidates understood their limitations and tailored their campaign rhetoric to appeal to the concerns of the 17-year-old high school student: the most kick-ass themed senior prom; bringing a known band to play in the school auditorium; a new vending machine in the cafeteria. No one talked about “hope” (except to say “I hope graduation comes soon”), no one talked about “change” (the inmates didn’t run the asylum, and the staff had no desire to allow a toppling of the status quo), they only talked about how much fun they wanted everyone to have in their senior year. What they actually accomplished was immaterial, as most of their actions were fodder for the college application essay section.

As I’ve watched the interminable jousting match between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over the last few weeks (still undecided at the time of this writing), I’ve come to a disheartening conclusion about progress. Since my class graduated high school, our collective vision of the world has changed in a myriad of ways: What we seek in our interpersonal relationships, what we seek in the brands we support, what we expect from our employers, friends, and ourselves. We have all developed in so many various ways, yet the national election process hasn’t evolved at all since our high school days.

This year’s version of America’s presidential campaign is not the first time I’ve seen it. In 2000 (and frankly, every moment since) I suspected that George W. Bush saw the presidency as the coup de gras of the “Previous Experience” section of his resume, hoping that eight years in the oval office would provide sufficient qualification to be commissioner of Major League Baseball one day. Unfortunately, his resume achievements (for lack of a better word) are public knowledge, and metaphorically speaking, “crashed school’s economy, started but didn’t finish several wars with much smaller schools in other districts, and stunted both school spirit and the school’s reputation in the community” does not make for a compelling transcript.

But this year’s version feels more like a Class Council battle than ever before. Pundits predicted the expected finalists well over a year ago based on their respective name recognition, and – surprise – those are the names that are still in the race, the reality ofit’s not who you know, it’s who knows you still firmly entrenched. Candidates exhibit shameless efforts to kiss up to the commoners by going bowling (badly) or knocking back a shot and a beer (improbably), a throwback to high school hallways where candidates chatted with an array of fellow students whose camaraderie had previously seemed unimportant to the candidate. Election promises are made with resolute conviction, as if the mere proposal of the idea made it a certainty, with no chance of obstruction from Congress, party strategists, and political action committees. (Perhaps we can call it progress that none of this election’s candidates promised a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed Spring dance.) 

Let’s imagine for a moment that America is a giant high school, subdivided into various social cliques and academic subsets. Let’s have a pop quiz about your 2008 Student Council candidates (current and conceded) and see if you recognize these characters from your school:

A: The Math Club president, dismissed by the media (aka, hallway gossip mongers) even before the first primary, deemed not telegenic enough to capture people’s attention despite an impressive resume, a quick wit, and a prom-queen girlfriend. All of the other candidates profess to liking him, though none of them seek out his company in the cafeteria.

B: The student who has driven a Mercedes coupe since getting their license in sophomore year, a strong contender for the “Most likely to Succeed” slot on the yearbook “superlatives” page. Funny thing about those superlative pages, though—-it’s rare when the person voted most likely to succeed is most successful person from a particular high school class. 

C: Charming and suave, seemingly liked by everyone (though word in the hallways is that some of the school’s girls find his girlfriend intolerable), and a strong contender for “Best All-Around” in the yearbook. He is the student that teacher’s hope will stay in touch after graduation, as most of them expect great things from him. 

D: Math club member who is still miffed about losing Math Club presidency vote, encouraged by friends who insist that his near-successful bid for yearbook editor indicates school-wide grassroots support. Wants to expose the Student Council process as the fraud that it is, eternally frustrated that fellow students don’t seem to care about this fraud.

E: Second year senior, plays sports but not a glamorous position, easy rapport with fellow classmates but often seems like to be talking to “an audience”, not a particular person. Solid grades, never flamboyant, spends much of their hall time talking to teachers who stand by their doorways as the students pass, not to kiss-up but to make meaningful connections with valuable allies. 

F: In junior year, this candidate worked on the Student Council Organization Committee, learning the behind-the-scenes machinations required for a successful campaign. Flawless transcript, willing to disparage opponents under the guise of “exposing the truth”, most likely to bake campaign cupcakes despite a known reputation for not wanting to bake cookies.

Okay, pencils down. The answers are: A: Dennis Kucinich, B: Mitt Romney, C: Barack Obama, D: Ralph Nader, E: John McCain, F: Hillary Clinton.

If you got less than three answers correct, you either weren’t paying attention in high school, or you haven’t been paying attention to this election. Or both. And understandably so. 

If you got three to five answers correct, you have a good memory of high school and you probably buy the newspaper for more than just the crossword puzzle. (I understand the newspaper has political news. I just buy it for the crossword.)

If you got all six right, then you have kindly proved my point: This is high school all over again. And I have the same feeling now as I did in the month of May in my senior year: I’m just counting clock ticks until we graduate.

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