How To Hold Elected Office: A Civics Lesson For Meat Suits

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Congratulations on your election to public office! Surely this inauspicious-seeming moment marks the beginning of a dramatic rise through the political ranks, a high-minded and principled siege upon the levers of power, a triumph for the little guy, and so on. Before you set off on your journey, though, you may have some questions, such as, “Okay, but really, what even is a ‘Comptroller of Public Accounts’?” and “Am I god now?” and “Now I am God.” That last one is not even a question. Rookie mistake.

We can help! Holding elected office can be a confusing gig; if you are inclined to take the job seriously and endeavor to do it well, haha you fool, that only makes it harder. This is particularly true if, like most Americans, your entire understanding of how government works was formed on a bright, long-ago September morning, during the six minutes of attentiveness you gave your new eighth-grade civics teacher’s story of the time he met the first President Bush before you tuned him back out to doodle stick figures punching each others’ heads off atop a spaceship shaped like the Wu-Tang Clan logo. It’s too late for, like, Von Clausewitz (sweet Crimson Tide reference!) or whatever, so you’ll have to make do with a half-assed explainer on an internet penis website, like all the best elected officials do.


What Is my job?

Probably you ought to have figured this one out before the campaign. No worries! Elected offices in the United States tend to come with extensively enumerated responsibilities, collectively referred to by the obscure legal term “The Law.” This can be found in a set of large books somewhere in your new office; sometimes they are dark blue.


On the other hand, you did not become the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg by “reading” “books,” that is for damn sure. With that in mind, here is a handy list of common elected offices in the United States, along with their principal duties:

President of the United States: Cut education budgets
United States Senator: Cut education budgets
United States Representative: Cut education budgets
State Governor: Cut education budgets
Lieutenant Governor: Cut education budgets
State Treasurer: Recommend cuts to education budgets
State Attorney General: Imprison high school graduates
State Auditor: Recommend cuts to education budgets
Secretary of State: Spend education budgets on weaponry for police
State Senator: Cut education budgets
State Representative/Assemblyperson: Cut education budgets
County Commissioner: Cut education budgets
County Executive: Cut education budgets
County Auditor: Recommend cuts to education budgets
County Engineer: Determine which schools are stout enough for rooftop highway on-ramps
County Treasurer: Recommend cuts to education budgets
County Prosecutor: Imprison high-school dropouts
County Coroner: Tell dead people, “You are dead”
County Recorder: Play “Greensleeves” while education budgets are cut
Common Pleas Court Judge: Find schools guilty of having too much money
Clerk of County Court: Click “Print”
Mayor: Cut education budgets
City Manager: Cut education budgets
City Treasurer: Recommend cuts to education budgets
City Auditor: Recommend cuts to education budgets
City Law Director: Curate town’s library of Boston Legal VHS cassettes
City Council President: Build NFL stadiums
City Councilperson/Alderperson: Build NFL stadiums
At-Large Councilperson/Alderperson: Remove one foot from each chair in school
Village Trustee: Cut education budgets
School Board President: Menace teachers withbaseball bat when they try to go home for the evening
School Board Member: Approve Jack Chick tracts for civics curriculum
Precinct Committeeperson: Cut education budgets
Sheriff: Assign killer cops to 24 hours of desk duty
Comptroller of Public Accounts: Drive school bus

There’s more to it, of course—United States congresspersons, for example, have the authority to issue formal declarations of war—but somebody else will handle most of the complicated crap most of the time. Stick to cutting education budgets. It’s the one thing everybody can agree on, apart from the importance of education.


Fig. 1.0: A legislator hard at work on the education budget.

That doesn’t seem very sexy.

It mostly isn’t! Fortunately, it tends to pay pretty out pretty well in terms of ego gratification—and, later on, in money. In the meantime at least you’re immune from being fired.


Wait, I can’t be fired?

I mean, you can, but as an elected official, you don’t have to worry about a boss just coming over to your cubicle and saying, “You’re fired.” That would overrule the 31 depressed old people whose weekly Retirement Village group outing just happened to be a bus trip to the library the day of the election and who thus cast literally all the votes in your jurisdiction. The process of firing you would have to involve gaining the assent of that same demographic, and that’s, ugh, like a whole complicated thing, and the duffers took like six fucking hours apiece to figure out the touch-screens the last time they had to vote on something, and then you won because the other candidate’s last name was “Koran” and they thought the question was whether they wanted to be Muslims from now on, so yeah, your job is pretty secure.


So I can just do whatever I want?

Well, not whatever you want. As a local elected official, you can kinda throw your weight around a little bit to help yourself get elected to the next office up the chain. This mostly will have to do with whatever role you can play in funneling government contracts (money taken from education budgets and given to nominally private companies in exchange for shabby, slapdash work for which literally no one will be held meaningfully accountable, ever) to the right people. So long as you keep your head down and facilitate this however you can—deliberately overestimate the budgetary cost of a project so that a contractor can offer to do it for less while still turning a profit, for example—you’ll be fine, because nobody notices local government unless it makes the news, and nobody can afford to cover local government in the news anymore.


Also, out there in the world, when you’re off the clock, you can profit off of nobody having the first damn clue what a Comptroller of Public Accounts does. You don’t even really have to do anything for this part! Just find a casual way to let people know who you are, and you might find yourself getting a sweet price on that Sebring you’ve been eyeing in time for the Little Schlichtinburg Homecoming Parade.

What can’t I do?

You can’t just decide to rewrite The Law according to your whims. Or, well, you can, so long as you stick to laws that nobody gives a shit about. That part is crucial.


But I don’t like one of my job duties. What then?

Sorry, you still have to do it. Probably! The ability of elected officials to disregard/refuse their duties without getting in trouble for it varies widely, and is very sensitive to stuff like the complexity/impressiveness of the office and the complexity/sensitivity of the specific duty being disregarded or refused.


A state attorney general, for example, has some latitude to choose not to prosecute certain crimes mostly without backlash, because everyone takes for granted that the attorney general has—and is sharp enough to wield—the freedom to make that kind of choice. Plus, we also tend to take for granted that the decision to prosecute or not prosecute a crime is based on complexities and ambiguities and cold realities of the legal system that the layperson would find a) chilling, b) depressing, and most importantly c) indecipherably written, so we are happy to shrug and accept that these decisions probably are for the best. Even here, though, this varies according to the crime. Decline to prosecute some complex charge related to the willful dumping of carcinogenic industrial runoff into a municipal water supply, and that’s one thing; decline to prosecute a 17-year-old selling a dimebag of weed in a Whole Foods neighborhood, buddy, and it’s your ass!

At the simpler end of the elected-office spectrum, you’ll find, oh, just to grab an example, the lowly county clerk. The duties of the county clerk’s office differ from municipality to municipality in the United States, but, generally speaking, if you think of the little animated paperclip who reminded you to save your work in older versions of Microsoft Office, and then remove 72 percent of its functionality, you’ve got yourself a county clerk. The county clerk does not make judgment calls on complex and sensitive issues; the county clerk does not interpret laws; the county clerk does not remind you to save your work. The county clerk prints paperwork, checks it, and files it.

This is a much more obviously mechanical, algorithmic office—INPUT “Request For Copy Of Birth Certificate”; PHOTO ID = YES?; PRINT “Birth Certificate”—than state attorney general, and, truth be told, if we did not have the tradition of it being occupied by an elected human being, a touchscreen kiosk could hold it just as well as anyone. Human judgment isn’t just unnecessary for the office of the county clerk—it’s irrelevant altogether.


This is to say, the county clerk does not get to refuse job duties. Did the MS Office paperclip refuse to Save As? No it did not, except when it was broken, which was always.

But what about my morals???? I have morals!!!!

Congratulations on having morals! I have morals too. So does the office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg. The office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg’s morals are called “The Law,” and it has to abide by those morals even when the person holding the office doesn’t like it.


That doesn’t make any sense. I am the comptroller! The comptroller and I are one and the same! Consubstantial, as the Catholics say.


Listen. In the United States we are lazy about civics and even lazier about language; it’s easier to say Shitbat McGee (that’s you) is the Comptroller of Public Accounts than to say Shitbat McGee holds the office of Comptroller of Public Accounts, but those mean slightly different things, and the latter is more accurate. The office and the officeholder are distinct. You’ll want to understand this, so that you do not make an ass of yourself.


An elected office is just that: an office. No, not a room, but a position. A legal construct. It is not a person. Its substance is made up of the variably complex algorithm of duties and prerogatives and priorities and limits assigned to it by law, and nothing else. This algorithm is like the office’s mind. This mind is all it has. It is living the life of the mind! Its parents must be so proud.

Still, you can see how this could present a problem for, say, the office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts: It has all these duties and prerogatives and priorities and limits, but no goddamn body! This can tend to bog things down. This is why we have elected officials: to grant offices the arms and legs and eyes and voices they need in order to discharge their duties (and to give the terminally ambitious something to campaign for).


Pictured: The office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts.

That’s right, newly elected holder of the office of Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg: In your official capacity, you, my friend, are nothing more than the meat suit an inhuman legal entity inhabits. It needs your limbs, so that it can stamp things and use the telephone and spill soy sauce on its keyboard. It does not need your brain for much, beyond your capacity to understand the gig and do it competently. The only moral belief of yours that it requires is a moral belief in obeying the law.


But what if the duties of the office require me to violate my moral beliefs?

Trick question: They do not. Again: You are not the office. You are just the meat suit.


Your religion says using race as a criteria for distributing municipal college tuition funds is evil? That’s fine, because you personally are not being asked to do that. The Comptroller of Public Accounts is doing it, and it needs the use of some limbs and face-holes to get the job done, and hey, here’s this meat suit over here who specifically asked to be given the job. Convenient.

This is a crucial distinction! It should also be a source of solace for conflicted public servants. As a public official, performing the functions of your office, you’re not acting in your capacity as Shitbat McGee, Person With Morals; you’re merely inhabiting the office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg. The office, not you, is the one doing the actual legal stuff; the office, not you, is the only one with power to do legal stuff in the first place. The office has duties and powers and such; the officeholder has limbs, permission, and responsibility.


Oh, baloney. If a sheriff refused to jail 17-year-old black kids busted for pot from now on, the dang libturds would call him a hero.

Sure! And if he claimed that the duty of the sheriff’s office to jail people who break drug laws constituted a violation of his right to the free exercise of religion, I would call him a moron. Sheriff is a secular office—as are county clerk and Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg and President of the United States—containing no religious capacity whatsoever; it has been a secular office since long before anyone now living was born. It answers to no authority higher than the law, and, at least while acting in official capacity, neither does its officeholder. If that arrangement is incompatible with the tenets of your religious practice, you violated them the moment you accepted the gig.


And what if I just refuse to perform official duties that facilitate things my religion prohibits?

In the legal/procedural sense, you expose yourself to whatever consequences—court orders, impeachment, recall, a fine, jail time, whatever—come along with a refusal to do your job. You might get to talk shit on a cable news show. Depending on which way the wind blows, a cynical politician utterly lacking your deranged, misplaced conviction may run you out onto a campaign stage during the next election cycle as a handy mascot for whichever brand of entitled lunacy he’s pretending to share at the moment. That’s it. Those are the prizes.


Pictured: The reward. Photo credit: AP.

You will not change the law. There will be no Constitutional reckoning over the oppression faced by religious people forced to violate their morals by the duties of their elected offices. No such oppression exists; no one is being forced to violate anything. Again: the office’s highest duty is to the secular law of the land, and has been since long before you won your election; it says so, right in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly and unambiguously prohibits government from establishing religion—from imposing religious views on the people, which is what it would be doing if it allowed the religious views of individual officeholders to overrule the lawful duties of their offices.


You’ll lose your court battles; probably, in the next election cycle, your job, too. In the meantime, while you’re stalling, meaninglessly, the official functions of your elected position, you can fill your time by reading. There’s a particular Bible section, from Matthew’s Gospel, that you might find interesting, since we are on the subject of the division between secular and religious concerns:

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap [Jesus] in speech.

They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.”

At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Lol owned.

So I can’t choose not to do this stuff, even though I believe it’s wrong?

Sure you can. By resigning. You won’t go to jail for that. Since your concern [ahem] is all about religious freeeeeeeedom—about protecting your own beliefs from government intrusion, and not about using government to impose those beliefs on others—this is the obvious choice, yes? After all, if you’re willing to go to jail on behalf of your freedom of religion, surely you’d also be willing to take a pay cut and a job answering phones at the local church, right? You can be pretty sure you won’t be forced to violate your beliefs there. So: Resign. Problem solved!


We’ll wait. I don’t think we’ll hold our breath.

This sucks! How can I change things so that the Comptroller of Public Accounts for Little Schlichtinburg doesn’t have to do this stuff I don’t like?

Why, by acting in your parallel capacity as a citizen in a republic, of course. Vote for legislative candidates who intend to change the laws. Organize your fellow Little Schlichtinburgers to petition for changes. Persuade people. Run for legislative office, then persuade your fellow legislators to change the laws, and put forth bills to change the laws, and vote for those bills. Become a Supreme Court Justice, however the fuck that happens, and rule that the laws are in conflict with the Constitution.


That sounds like a lotta friggin’ work, man. I’d rather just refuse to perform the duties of my office.

Well, hey. Thanks to all those cuts to education budgets, most people think that’s the same as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, rather than a rejection of some of the only worth-a-shit basic organizing ideas of this nation everybody claims to love so much. You’ll probably get elected Emperor of Patriotland for it. Congratulations.


Top photo via AP

Contact the author at or on Twitter @albertburneko.