It was Halloween night, 1988.
New Kids on the Block had just released their breakthrough album Hangin’ Tough. The year’s top-grossing films were Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Rain Man. The highest-rated TV shows in America were The Cosby Show and Roseanne, featuring two comedians who would still be in the headlines 30 years later (but for very different reasons).
Ronald Reagan was wrapping up the final year of his second term of office, and his potential successors waited in the wings. George Herbert Walker Bush was the front-running Republican nominee, and Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee. Ron Paul made the first of his 3 appearances as the nominee of the Libertarian party.
Lenora Fulani, the New Alliance Party nominee, became the first woman to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. Meanwhile, white supremacist David Duke represented the Populist ticket, temporarily stripping the word “populism” of all discernible meaning. (In a small victory for basic decency, Fulani — who is African-American — would receive over 215,000 votes, while the virulently racist Duke would muster less than a quarter of that total.)
Meanwhile, in a warm and loving house in central Pennsylvania, my mom had made me a special Halloween costume. My brothers were 16 and 13 years old, and I, at a month shy of 9, was the lone Wingert still interested in trick-or-treating. With just one costume to assemble that year, my amazing (and amazingly resourceful) mom decided to really make it count.
Carpe impendus electus diem. Seize the impending election day.
Mom used a glossy grey trash bag and some padding to give me a saggy elephant belly. She created big elephant ears with part of another trash bag along with, I’m guessing, pipe cleaners or wire hangers. I wore grey sweatpants and a grey sweatshirt with the hood cinched tightly around my head. The trunk part of the costume was easy since I had recently nabbed a small wrap-around elephant trunk mask in a Happy Meal. And the finishing touch for this endearing DIY outfit was a sign I wore just above my elephant belly which read, in letters neatly crafted by my mom:
BUSH IN ’88
The ‘80s were a simpler time, or at least a less hyperpoliticized one. So I doubt the Wingerts made any mortal enemies as their youngest son went door to door asking for snack-sized candy and Republican votes. I think people had thicker skin back then, before the advent of 24-hour news, social media, or the internet itself. I picture our Dukakis-voting neighbors wryly smiling to themselves as they went back into their homes, unfazed by my elephantine propagandizing.
The lopsided vote totals a week later would seem to indicate that George H.W. Bush had more than enough popular support to win even without my GOP canvassing efforts. And in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t single-handedly (or single-trunkedly) sway the election that Halloween night. After all, my 8-year-old knowledge of economic and foreign policy was patchy at best.
As parents, we instinctively want our children to learn and mimic our values. But do we want them to mimic our politics as well? I think that a decade ago, I would have likely said ‘yes’ to both questions. At that point, I was loyally entrenched in my identity as a moderate Democrat. And if I had been a father of an 8-year-old son in 2008, I might have done just what my parents did 20 years earlier with their 8-year-old son. I can imagine dressing this hypothetical son of mine up as a donkey for Halloween with a sign that read, using the same neatly crafted penmanship that I inherited from my mom:
OBAMA IN ‘08
But now, 10 years later, I am convinced that I would not do this with my now decidedly un-hypothetical son. So what has changed? My political beliefs haven’t shifted significantly in the past decade. My concerns and my leanings are roughly the same.
But what has changed irrevocably is my belief about partisan allegiance and the indoctrination that is baked into that allegiance. I no longer believe that our political parties are remotely worthy of the passive fealty we are so quick to offer them.
The 2016 election is what did the trick. No election in recent memory managed to so thoroughly debunk the self-perpetuated mythologies of both major parties.
On one side, a party preordained its nominee years in advance and then obstinately stuck with that person despite ample polling that indicated she wasn’t trusted, and a track record that indicated she wasn’t particularly trustworthy. In short, the party rigged its own primary and robbed its own voters.
On the other side, a party whittled down a field of 17 candidates to its worst possible option, a longstanding bully, pathological liar, and moral reprobate with seemingly no trace of a conscience, compassion, or coherent policies. In so doing, the party managed to decimate any prior claim it had to be the party of “family values” or ideological coherence.
Truly, the 2016 election was a singularly bleak and destabilizing one. If the Democratic nominee had won, by 2017 all sorts of Democratic voters would have revealed themselves to be mindless sycophants for a president who would have almost certainly remained mired indefinitely in scandal and half-truths. As it was, the Republican nominee won, and by 2017 all sorts of Republican voters had revealed themselves to be, well, mindless sycophants for a president who has remained mired indefinitely in scandal and half-truths (or more often, demonstrable lies). A win for either party in 2016 was bound to represent a near-instantaneous loss of moral credibility for every staunch party loyalist.
So perhaps you’ll understand why, in 2018, I have no inclination to dress my son up as a donkey or an elephant in the thick of the upcoming midterm elections.
Beyond all the anguished partisan grievances of this particular American moment, the heart of the matter is simple.
I don’t want my son to grow up to be a Democrat. And I don’t want my son to grow up to be a Republican. I want him quite simply to admire people of strong character, and to be a person of strong character. I want him to view the realm of politics, once he’s old enough to do so, through a lens of unwavering moral clarity. I don’t want him to fall prey to the creeping menace of tribalism. I want his true north to be determined solely by his moral compass, not by a political compass that points instinctively, and unthinkingly, to an R or a D.
Never has it been more evident that we are selling ourselves and our children out by practicing heel-digging, tribe-defending, conscience-suppressing politics. It is now commonplace to see a person staunchly defending a position he had previously declared to be morally bankrupt, just to remain in lockstep with the leader of his party. American voters are more inclined than ever to pledge blind allegiance to a political party, with its ever-shifting coordinates, rather than to immovable principles of decency. If we think our children don’t observe and internalize this behavior, we’re fooling ourselves and doing them a grave disservice.
Political parties are committed to their own survival over and against all other considerations. Seizing the reins of power is their highest objective, and they will do whatever it takes to achieve that end. To align oneself with such a power-hungry entity is, by definition, to commit oneself to moral compromise.
Consider this. A 2017 Pew poll revealed that the percentage of partisan-affiliated people who view the opposing party in a “very unfavorable” light skyrocketed from 1994 to 2016. Only 17% of Democrats viewed Republicans in a strongly negative way in 1994 (not too long after I dressed up as a Republican elephant), but a whopping 55% felt that way in 2016. Conversely, only 21% of Republicans viewed Democrats in a strongly negative way in 1994, but an even more whopping 58% felt that way in 2016. These numbers are sobering in any context, from any angle, and by any definition.
We will be trapped in this vicious, mindless cycle of partisan fear and loathing until we choose to break it. And the only way to break the cycle is to teach our children a new way. (Or perhaps it’s the old way.)
It’s really quite simple.
Applaud goodness above all else.
Loathe all that does not resemble goodness.
Loathe it just as acutely when you see it embodied in the person you voted for as when you see it embodied in the person you didn’t vote for. And applaud goodness just as emphatically when you see it in any woman or man running for office — no matter the color of their political jersey.
Goodness is the only true measure of a person. And goodness has no party affiliation.
When it comes to politics, that’s all I really want my son to believe. If he has that belief, I am confident that when he is old enough to cast a vote, he will do so with a clear conscience. And over the course of his life, he will likely end up voting for candidates with an array of jersey colors.
Just as I have done. And just as I will continue to do.
My mom was, and is, truly extraordinary. She did a legendary job raising me and my brothers. I don’t fault her for a second for dressing me up as an elephant 30 years ago. It was a light-hearted and sincere gesture, and it was all in good fun. (Plus, you can’t find a much cheaper outfit!)
But we live in a much different time now. A time when unblinking party loyalty has proven to be a pernicious vice with potentially dire consequences for our nation. Never has it been more imperative to question every party edict, and to be loyal to nothing but conscience. Never has it been more crucial to reject rah-rah politics, and the color-coded mascots that encourage this mentality.
So when Halloween night rolls around, there will be no pointy-eared donkeys or saggy-baggy elephants in our living room. Just a sweet little boy dressed up as a firefighter, or a farmer, or any animal he likes that hasn’t yet been co-opted by a political party.
A boy who will grow up knowing that his only obligation is to follow his moral compass wherever it leads him. And that his only party allegiance is to the Wingert party.
2 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Living Room”
Yes! Yes! Yes! It is indeed a time in history where it is profoundly necessary to teach our children to have intelligent, meaningful dialogue with those with whom they disagree. It is an all-pervasive problem when we both sides see the other as “the enemy”. Eloquently written as only you could, Jer.
Thanks, Val! And I wholeheartedly agree. We seem to be rapidly losing that vital skill.