Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

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Thank You for Smoking: Learning about Politics

 

Clyde Brown, Miami University, OH

David M. Paul, The Ohio State UniversityNewark, OH

 

Brown, Ph.D., and Paul, Ph.D., are professors of political science, who teach courses on political interest groups.

 

Abstract

The subfield of political interest groups is difficult to teach and for students to understand coherently.  While it is descriptively and conceptually rich, it is challenging for students to organize and to apply the information in manageable ways.  We report on our utilization of a writing assignment over a satirical novel, Thank You for Smoking, as an analytical exercise to improve student comprehension of this important subject matter, and as a way to make political interest groups courses more enjoyable for students.

 

Satire and Thank You for Smoking

Satire is a literary or artistic technique that “blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity” (Harmon and Holman 2003, 453).  Satire has long been used as a tool to critique those in power and their institutions.  For example, Voltaire used Candide to ridicule the 18th century Catholic Church for its repression of free speech, support of slavery, and other vices.  In doing so, a satirist hopes to prod individuals and institutions to inaugurate reforms.  Other prominent authors of satire include Aristophanes, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Douglas Adams.  Satire is also found in movies (Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick), songs (Tom Lehrer), stand-up comedic routines (Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl), and radio and TV (David Sedaris, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert).

 

Satire is amusing because it is based on some element or kernel of truth.  Dust Bowl era humorist Will Rogers was a skilled satirist.  His famous 1924 statement, “I’m not a member of an organized party.  I’m a Democrat,” still rings true today highlighting the major organization problem that has bedeviled the party for decades (O’Brien 1935, 162).  Likewise, Rogers’ comment following the opening prayer at the 1928 National Republican Convention, “If the Lord can see his way clear to bless the Republican Party the way it’s been carrying on, then the rest of us ought to get it without even asking,” (Rogers 1997, 370) resonated then as it does now with critics of the party.

 

Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking (TYFS) is certainly a satirical work.  The story centers on Nick Naylor, the chief spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies (ATS), the tobacco lobby.[1]  Labeled immoral by his critics, but probably amoral for much of the book, Nick defends the tobacco industry by disputing government data on the health effects of smoking, defending its right to advertise by invoking the First Amendment, and framing the right to smoke in terms of individual liberty.  In doing so, Nick is a campaign operative trying to drag the opposition off message, while trying to convince undecided citizens that smoking should not be further restricted.  While Nick and the tobacco industry win a few skirmishes in the novel, they are losing the war: local governments, led by California, the “Reichland of the Health Nazis” (Buckley 1994, 60), are increasing their restrictions on smoking in public places, the industry’s products are the target of higher and higher taxes and product liability lawsuits, and the industry’s ability to market its product (at least in the U.S.) is shrinking.  Despised by millions for being the face of one of the most hated industries in America, Nick commiserates with two fellow lobbyists, who represent the pro-gun lobby (SAFETY) and the alcoholic beverage trade association (the Moderation Council).  The three lobbyists call themselves the MOD Squad, which is short for “Merchants of Death.”  To himself and others, Nick justifies his defense of the tobacco industry by arguing that it a professional “challenge” to represent a pariah industry (43), and that it “pays the mortgage” (88) and his son’s private school tuition.  Indeed, Nick argues that “Ninety-nine percent of everything that is done in this world, good and bad, is done to pay a mortgage” (89).  Nick recognizes that the mortgage defense has a certain Nuremberg Trial ring to it.

 

The book is well written and very funny.  Buckley skewers with biting wit almost every institution and group he touches, from Congress and the policymaking process, to the media (newspapers, TV talk shows, public service announcements), to tobacco industry-sponsored health research, to private schools (willing to ask for and take money from tobacco as long as it is not obviously traceable), to political front groups, to neo-puritans, to product placement in Hollywood blockbusters.

TYFS is full of details and references to contemporary American politics.  A partial list of Naylor’s activities includes: multiple appearances on TV talk shows, interacting with the print journalists, testifying before Congress, social lobbying, announcing goodwill public relations campaigns, attacking political opponents, delivering hush money, discussing campaign contributions, influencing the content of public service advertising, arranging product placement in a Hollywood movie, ghost writing op-ed pieces and congressional testimony, commiserating with other lobbyists, cultivating contacts with legislators, presenting research and technical information, meeting with front groups, and using reverse psychology on a foreign leader.  Along the way, Buckley provides a mostly accurate thought-provoking picture of lobbyists, political interest group strategies and tactics, media campaigns, Congress, and policymaking.

 

Political Interest Groups Courses

Thank You for Smoking is tailor-made for courses on political interest groups.  Political interest groups are nonparty organizations that seek on a regular basis to influence government policy and its implementation.[2]  While problematic to many theorists, they are central to theories of pluralist democracy and an understanding of contemporary American politics.  Of course, there is variation across textbooks and instructors[3], but almost every political interest groups course conveys to students that there are many different kinds of political interest groups (corporations, peak business associations, trade associations, professional associations, unions, nonprofits, cause groups, public interest groups, institutions, governments, etc.) at the local and national levels (Schlozman and Tierney 1986, chapter 3); that such organizations fulfill several important functions (representation, education, participation, etc.) in the political system (Berry 1997, chapter 1); that different categories of lobbyists (ex-Congresspersons and other former government officials, lawyer-lobbyists, public relations lobbyists, associational lobbyists, etc.) are involved (Hrebenar 1997, chapter 4); that many different roles (contact person, political strategist, liaison lobbyist, advocate, public spokesperson, etc.) are performed by these actors; and that many different kinds of political behaviors (contacting government officials, testifying before Congress, organizing grass roots lobbying campaigns, interacting with the media, contributing money to candidates, protesting, litigating, etc.) are used by political interest groups (Schlozman and Tierney 1986, chapter 7).  The behaviors are classified as direct lobbying when they involve face-to-face contact with decision makers and indirect lobbying when they involve stimulating the public to put pressure on decision makers (Schlozman and Tierney 1986, chapter 7; Nownes 2001, chapters 5-8).  Textbooks and lectures on political interest groups also cover in a standardized fashion topics related to the career paths of lobbyists (Berry 1997, 103-113), the motivations of private sector lobbyists versus public interest lobbyists[4], the characteristics (knowledgeable, high ethical standards, adaptable, etc.) of good lobbyists, rules (credibility, compromise, don’t burn bridges, etc.) for effective lobbying (Berry 1997, 98-103), and the strategies and tactics, including media campaigns, used by political interest groups in interacting with political institutions, such as Congress, and the public.[5]

 

The subfield of political interest groups is one of the most difficult in political science to teach and for students to comprehend.  While it is descriptively and conceptually rich, it is challenging for students to organize the information in a way that they can use to analyze the real world.  There are certainly trees, there is a forest, and there are animals in the forest, but what can be made of it all?  One can investigate the improprieties of Ken Lay’s Enron, but what about the thousands of other corporations?  Likewise, one can examine the scandals of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but what about the thousands of other registered lobbyists?  Similarly, one can document the extensive media campaign of ExxonMobil, but what about the efforts of resource-strapped organizations?  Generalization, a prized goal of social science, is often difficult to achieve in the study of political interest groups.

 

Pedagogical Promise of Thank You for Smoking

There are many appropriate ways that TYFS can be worked into a political interest groups course.  One especially productive way, on the basis of our experience, is to ask students to consider the following questions as the basis for a medium-size paper at the end of an academic term:

 

To what degree does Christopher Buckley's fictional slice-of-life account of Academy of Tobacco Studies' lobbyist Nick Naylor provide an accurate portrayal of lobbying in America?  In what ways does it provide an inaccurate picture of lobbying and lobbyists?  Be specific (use material in the course -- lectures, texts, readings, and the novel) in discussing how adequate (realistic/unrealistic?) or inadequate you think the novel portrays the job of a lobbyist and the politics of lobbying.  Utilize details from the novel when writing your paper.  What could a reader learn about real-world lobbyists and lobbying from reading the novel?  Does the novel have pedagogical, i.e., educational, value for students of political science?

 

The assignment asks students to evaluate comprehensively the specifics of the Nick Naylor saga in terms of where it conforms to and where it deviates from what they have learned about political interest groups over the course of a semester.  It has the virtue of requiring students to engage in a comprehensive review of the course’s content.  Hundreds of papers and many class discussions have demonstrated to us that students are able to separate fiction from fact.

 

The assignment works well because of the details contained in the novel.  By examining the characters, especially Nick, and the actions portrayed in the novel, many connections can be made to the material contained in a typical political interest groups course.  Thoughtful undergraduate students have proved capable of reaching conclusions and providing supporting evidence regarding (a) the unique nature of tobacco as an interest and the ATS as an organization; (b) the career path of Nick compared to real lobbyists; (c) system functions, positive and negative, that ATS performed; (d) Nick’s motivations and personal dilemmas as a lobbyist; (e) the degree to which Nick possesses the “good” characteristics of lobbyists; (f) identification of Nick as a lobbyist-type; (g) categorization of specific political behaviors, strategies, and tactics; (h) the relative emphasis on direct versus indirect lobbying; (i) the types of media campaigns Nick orchestrates; (j) degree of conformity to various “rules” for effective lobbying; and (k) an overall judgment regarding the pedagogical value of the novel.  There is an abundance of material for students to work with in crafting their individual response to the assignment.

 

The novel has the additional advantage that the issue of smoking is topical in many locations.  During the time we have used the novel our campus towns and several surrounding communities have debated “Clean Air Initiatives” (alternatively “Smoking Bans”) which would prohibit smoking in restaurants, clubs, bars, and other public spaces.  In November 2006, Ohio voters considered dueling ballot initiatives to restrict smoking -- a strict ban promoted by the health community and a less restrictive constitutional amendment favored by tobacco and hospitality interests.  College students are divided, sometimes bitterly, about such ordinances, and the debate cuts across ideological and partisan lines.

 

Possible Perils of Thank You for Smoking

Despite the potential promise of TYFS, there is a rub as well because use of the novel presents two potential problems.  The first danger is the novel’s off-color language and humor: there are at least six uses of a word that will earn a large fine from the current Federal Communications Commission when said on network television, plus occasional racial and sexual epithets.  That is not to say that language in TYFS is at the level of, say, David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino, but some students may be offended.  There are other potentially offensive landmines as well.  For example, Buckley’s main character Nick has sex with a reporter and then a co-worker (for which he pays dearly), and Buckley implies that Nick sleeps with at least one additional minor character.  While the sex is by not graphic, some students may be offended by the promiscuity.

 

The second, and potentially much greater, problem is that satires are, of course, exaggerations.  While the exaggerations are based in reality (if they were not, the work would be neither amusing nor thought-provoking), there is the risk that some students will take hyperbole to heart.  The real danger is that, while students may find TYFS engaging and interesting, the book may contribute to increased cynicism among students.[6]

 

For example, one controversy in the political interest groups literature is the role of deception when groups lobby policymakers.  Some scholars assert that groups will not deceive policymakers because, if caught, policymakers will deny future access to the guilty parties (Berry 1997, 98-99).  Others argue that interest groups may, and occasionally do, use information strategically to deceive policymakers because policymakers are not able to verify all information that groups present (Wright 2003, 95-113).  TYFS would clearly bolster the latter argument, with the lobbyists stretching the truth in many cases.  For example, citing reports generated by the tobacco’s own researchers, Nick argues that cigarettes retard the onset of Parkinson's disease (Buckley 1994, 144).  Most would view such contentions as misleading at best, and bold-face lies at worse.

 

Conclusion

It is commonly asserted that satire promotes learning while laughing – we agree.  TYFS is a very engaging book that when used properly aids students in reviewing and evaluating the social science knowledge about political interest groups.[7]  Students are more likely to learn concepts when they find course materials interesting and assignments challenging.  We are not promoting satire in the classroom for its comedic value alone because there is the very real danger that uninformed readers may misinterpret the author’s message.  Rather it is the combination of Buckley’s satire with the professional literature on lobbyists and lobbying that in this instance creates something special.  Almost without exception our students have reported back that they enjoyed reading the novel and that the assignment had pedagogical value for them.  This is truly a case where the whole is more than the parts.

 

Endnotes

[1] Nick Naylor is modeled almost for certain on real-life tobacco lobbyist, Brennan Dawson (Buckley 1997; Janofsky 1994, E8).

[2] The nomenclature used to label this subfield in not uniform; the terms interest groups, special interest groups, pressure groups, and organized interests are also used.

[3] The material that follows can be packaged and presented in different ways; the parenthetical lists and references cited indicate how we present this information in our classes.

[4] The short essays by nonprofit lobbyists in Part III of Smucker (1999) is very useful in this regard.

[5] The standard organization of textbooks includes chapters on Congress, the presidency, bureaucracy, the courts, the public, and elections.

[6] Counterbalancing this concern is satire’s reform impulse.  While a surface reading of the novel may risk an initial response of increased student cynicism about politics, requiring students to dig deeper and to reflect longer inevitably leads to consideration of possible remedies for the objectionable behaviors found in the novel, a central objective of satire.

[7] The 2006 film Thank You for Smoking is a poor substitute for the book.  Instructors will have no difficulty spotting students who pull a fast one in this regard.  On the other hand, several of Buckley’s other satirical novels could be productively used in a fashion identical to what we describe here in other political science courses.

 

References

Berry, Jeffrey M. 1997. The Interest Group Society, 3rd ed. New York: Longman.

Buckley, Christopher. 1994. Thank You for Smoking. New York: HarperPerennial.

Buckley, Christopher. 1997. “How I Learned to (Almost) Love the Sin Lobbyists.” In Christopher Buckley, Wry Martinis (pp. 101-07). New York: Random House.

deKieffer, Donald E. The Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying Congress. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. 2003. A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hrebenar, Ronald J. 1997. Interest Group Politics in America. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Janofsky, Michael. 1994. “Profile: Antismoking Forces at the Barricades? Bring ‘em On!” New York Times (April 24): E8.

O’Brien, P.J. 1935. Will Rogers: Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom. Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston Company.

Nownes, Anthony J. 2001. Pressure and Power: Organized Interests in American Politics. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, Will. 1997. “A Day at the Republican Convention.” In Nicholas Bakalar (Ed.), American Satire: An Anthology of Writings from Colonial Times to the Present (pp. 369-71). New York: Meridian.

Schlozman, Kay and John Tierney. 1986. Organized Interests and American Democracy. New York: HarperCollins.

Smucker, Bob. 1999. The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.

Thank You for Smoking. 2005. Director Jason Reitman. Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Voltaire. 1966. Candide. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Wright, John R. 2003. Interest Groups and Congress: Lobbying, Contributions, and Influence. New York: Pearson Education.