As we come into the homestretch of yet another dismal political season, I thought it would be helpful to remember a simpler time, a time when politicians promised only two things; beer and babes. Naturally, I’m talking about the election for fraternity president. It was my first taste of true politics. Sure, we had middle-school student council elections, but we always knew those were hollow titles. Our student council rep couldn’t even make the food stop tasting like soap. When it came to real issues, he was powerless. Now, that we were grown up, our fraternity politicians made bold promises; beer and babes. For one week a year, we took to politics like a sport—beer and babes was damn serious business.
Maybe I should take a step back. Why would anyone actually want to be fraternity president? Who wants to babysit a bunch of miscreants? All of politics is the same—money and power. What money? 60 brothers paying dues and housing gets you a few hundred thousand dollar budget. That’s a lot of money for a 19-year old to be given discretion over. Power? The power to laud that bankroll over others. Which bands will play at parties? Where will we have sorority mixers? What community service activities will we participate in? Who should be asked to join or to leave? Fraternity presidents decide your social life. They also get to stand in the doorway of the house and greet every person who enters the parties. Let’s just say that there are certain advantages to that if you want to meet women. Quite naturally, fraternity president was a sought after position in the house.
When I look back on it, our fraternity house really was a microcosm of the real world. You had people from all walks of life with all sorts of interests. Since there were never more than four score of us, we were unusually close with each other. At times, we’d have a fanaticism about the fraternity akin to some cult groups. Yet, after a while, I began to notice certain rules of thumb. When there were chores to do, twenty percent of the people would do eighty percent of the work. Sixty percent of the people would do the rest if you nagged them and the last twenty percent would generally retard any progress we were making. We would have meetings about increasing participation. We would embarrass people who weren’t pulling their weight. We would even threaten to kick people out of the house, but inevitably people would get weak kneed. When it came down to it, even if someone was a complete screw up, he was still our screw up. He was one of us. We would always take care of him and justify his ways. At the time, I thought it was the impact of alcohol and adolescence. I’ve come to realize that these same percentages hold true amongst people everywhere. Some people are just lazy or destructive. You cannot goad them into doing well for the group. If 60 guys who were family couldn’t make a dozen guys pull their weight, what chance does a society of millions with minimal social coercion have?
The election for fraternity president was like most other election processes. To start with, it rarely attracted the most qualified brothers. Those who should have been president were too busy with school, internships or those responsibilities that make up the real world. You would have to look down the hierarchy a bit. I’m not saying we ended up with bad presidents, but we could have had better ones. It always seemed to attract those with strong egos but little to show for it—the ones who knew what was right for everyone—even though they could barely manage their own lives. I guess that is all fine and well. How can someone screw up ordering kegs? If a little money went missing from the bank, it wasn’t the worst thing. It was an early introduction to political personalities.
Suddenly you would get a call from a brother you had rarely socialized with. He was now your new best friend. If he wants to buy my beer, I’ll listen to whatever crazy political theories he has. It always was the same. The last president screwed it up, stole money and was generally lazy. The new guy has a special vision where beer and babes will magically appear at the house. I wouldn’t even have to contribute to the cause. Someone else would do it all. Who? Not my problem. It was always seductive—something for nothing. Even if I knew that wasn’t how it actually worked. I’d drink my beer, nod my head and tell him that I’d consider voting for him. You would repeat this process every night for a week until you had heard out all the candidates. In the end, the pitch was always the same. “Beer and babes—I’ll figure it all out, if you only let me be your leader.”
When it came time for voting night, it was a sordid affair. Copious alcohol. The give and take between the candidates and the audience heckling them. A good candidate debate involves both verbal and motor skills. You wouldn’t want a candidate knocked unconscious by a stray beer bottle. It was some of the best political theater possible. Finally, late into the morning, we would crown our new king.
After coronation, suddenly the promises would seem empty. In five years, things mostly stayed the same. We had good and bad presidents, but I never noticed an increase in babes milling around the house. In the end, the politicians served to allow a framework where we could all enjoy life. They kept the school off our back for hazing and overdrinking. They made sure there was always a cold keg of beer at home. Rent on the house was always paid—rarely on time, but it was paid. We had a good functioning system at the fraternity. It was a tradition passed down for a hundred years. The key was not screwing it up. Even the bad presidents could not screw it up. There were too many eyes upon him. Too many brothers who would take him aside and tell him he was making mistakes. Checks and balances really did work.
When I think back upon it all, I realize just how similar fraternity life was to real life. Politics will always be politics. Even your best friends will lie to your face to get voted in. They will promise you something for nothing and then hope that they can get away with it. In the end, they will find a way to take your money, spend it on their pet causes and think that you are content. Real problems are too divisive to be fixed. At best, they get patched up a bit and kicked down the road for the next guy to deal with. That’s politics.
It didn’t have to be this way at the fraternity. These weren’t distant personalities on television. These were close friends. We bonded together over late night hijinks. We were close, but one week a year, they were politicians and we were voters. Unfortunately, politicians are all the same.
Next week we go to vote. There are a bevy of serious issues before us. The country is insolvent, the Federal Reserve has gone hyperactive and the regulatory structure is metastasizing in a malignant way. We have two unfinished wars, massive unemployment and the best our congress can come up with is an investigation into steroid use in professional sports? It is time for serious candidates who have serious solutions. We need candidates who are willing to fix the obvious problems, even if it means that they will never get re-elected. We need candidates who are not beholden to the special interests that have paid for them. What we really need are candidates with real world experience in the private sector, rather than career politicians. I don’t know why, but I feel like on Tuesday, I will once again be voting for beer and babes. The candidates are twice the age of my fraternity brothers, they should have grown up by now, but nothing has really changed.