So Much for Civics Class: When All That Really Matters Is the Committee Assignments, Democracy's in Big, Big Trouble

Article excerpt

When the good-old-days crowd get together over coffee in a diner, at the card table at home, one of the things they sometimes bemoan is the end of civics class in school. You remember civics: a kid with no more interest in the tripartite system of government than he has in couture clothes or chamber music gets to memorize the number of people on the Supreme Court, the two parts of Congress and the function of the Electoral College.

People my age were probably the last to take civics as a free-standing course, and to learn the Pledge of Allegiance by heart, and this set some of us up for disappointment in later life. In learning about democracy vs. fascism, one-man-one-vote vs. oligarchy, we became idealistic. Unfortunately, civics gave way to politics, with its harsher lessons. And over time we realized that if our children were to study how government works, they would inevitably learn that ideals have become laughable, the people incidental, and democracy has become illusory. Those old enough to read the paper and watch television news would already know this, if only by keeping careful watch over the big-bang defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords.

In a moment of clarity last week, the senator from Vermont, who is a moderate Republican, decided to leave the party because, veering right with a vengeance, it no longer served his needs. This put control of the Senate in the hands of Democrats, along with committee chairmanships, which apparently are the most important thing in the whole wide world. In civics class children would probably assume that this would set off some soul-searching. What were the policies of the party that had disenchanted a man who had been a member for decades? What core beliefs were at odds with those of the president and his fellow senators? What did he hope to accomplish as an independent for the people of his state and of the nation?

Instead the obvious lesson of the episode is that everything in government is up for sale. That's certainly been clear for a long time in the fund-raising arena. Tobacco companies pay protection money to political-action committees, and the Republicans, who proclaimed themselves outraged about Democratic fund-raising in the White House, "the people's house," held a bash for megadonors in the vice president's house, which is apparently only "the people's party crib."

But doing business in the Senate, it turns out, is one payoff after another, albeit only tangentially of the cash-money sort. When Jeffords appeared ready to jump ship, Republicans rallied to promise him that he could occupy a new position as chief party moderate, since apparently the Republicans noticed only last week that there actually are moderates in the party. They also offered a coveted committee-chairman spot, an extension of his tenure as head of the Education Committee and more federal money for education for the disabled. As the parent of a disabled child, wouldn't that warm your heart, to know help was dependent on whether the Republicans could bribe Jim Jeffords to stay inside the so-called big tent of the GOP? …