The Common Good
February 2006

Democracy in Action (what, again?)

by Ed Spivey Jr. | February 2006

Keeping an 'eye on Washington' in this crucial election year.

As Americans prepare for the 2006 election season—mainly by turning off their televisions and hiding in the tool shed until December—what’s needed is a fresh perspective on the coming political storm. As a long-time resident of the nation’s capital, I’m in the perfect position to convey some of the little-known truths about our complicated political process, such as the fact that every member of Congress belongs to a devil-worshipping cult.

See, that’s the kind of information you don’t get from your local newspaper, and not just because the editor is afraid that federally deputized monkeys will fly down and carry him off. No, that only happened once and the government doesn’t do that any more, now that it’s found a better way to keep the media in line: off-the-record interviews given on condition of jail time.

(In another effort to keep Americans separated from politics, the government also constructed the Capital Beltway, a road system designed to ensure that people driving to Washington, D.C., end up in, like, Pittsburgh.)

Fortunately for you, I’m here inside the Beltway, breathing the same air as the politicians, drinking the same water, and experiencing the same stomach cramps immediately afterward (I think they need to change a filter or something).

In this critical election year, I’ll be keeping my “eye on Washington” and reporting about the sights and sounds, the smells and textures of the incumbents’ efforts to remain in power. In fact I’ll cover ALL the senses, if I can just remember that other one.

I’ll look under the dirty fingernails of this powerful nation and report on what I find here, and maybe even take some scrapings to send to the police since I saw that in a movie once, and they caught the killer, just from fingernail scrapings! It was really cool. I would never have thought to do that.

But then, I’m not a forensic scientist. I’m a reporter, keeping my “eye on Washington.”

One of my ideas is to “shadow” a congressman or congresswoman (okay, congressman) to see how he or she prepares for re-election. When he was first elected, he was still full of hope and promise and hadn’t found a bar yet. By now, of course, he will have forgotten about his constituents as he attempts to squeeze head-first into the briefcase of a rich lobbyist.

If I may digress, to me a newly elected member of Congress is like a person with a freshly purchased Big Mac. When they get to the table, it’s all very tidy, the buns stacked uniformly on top of each other, the ingredients neatly ordered inside. Similarly, a new congressperson arrives at the “table” of Washington, D.C., with his expectations neatly stacked in anticipation of taking a “big bite” out of this town. Unfortunately, in a short time the mayonnaise of their hopes begins to ooze out and the two all-beef patties of reality begin to shift. And then the dreams of this congressperson’s little sesame seed world begin to slip just like the pickles always do. Plus, their hands get all gooey.

And when he takes a breath—“steps back,” if you will—and looks at the sad spectacle before him, he notices the colorful McDonald’s placemat. He reflects for a moment on the little cartoon characters and the happy phrases in their word balloons. And then he wonders what it would be like if, instead of listening to other congressmen make long speeches, he could just read their word balloons. “There wouldn’t be room for as many words, so we couldn’t say as much,” he says to himself, pleased that non-elected people would have taken much longer to reach this conclusion.

But back to the sandwich and the important metaphorical point I was making. The congressperson must decide, and decide quickly in this election year, whether to attempt to reassemble the Big Mac of his Washington career, or to just pick up the placemat and start licking the food off of it, briefly obscuring his head from nearby reporters. But in all honesty, wouldn’t the latter choice be just giving in to the pressures that electoral politics places on Congress? Wouldn’t that be taking the easy way out?

I can’t answer that question. All I know is whenever I do the same thing with one of those placemats, I have to clean my glasses afterward.

Anyway, I hope this has been a useful look at this election year, providing some helpful insight for those of you who don’t wake up in the most powerful city in the world like I do. But don’t worry. I put my pants on the same way you do out in the hinterlands. (And then I have to take them off again since my shoes never fit through the legs. I always forget that.)

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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