The Politics of Bad Parenting
Contentious divorces often lead parents to overcompensate for what they perceive as the parental failings of their former spouse. A mother who regards her ex as a slacker dad tries to offset his errors by becoming a “tiger mom.” A father who sees his ex as too lenient tries to correct her flaws by being very strict. Confronted with overreaction, the children suffer because neither parent displays good judgment. Troubled and confused by conflicting rules and messages, they are left to figure things out on their own.
This is what our politics are like at the moment.
We’ll start with the Republican parenting style since it is more consequential, as they currently have power, giving them temporary custody of the children.
Following the example set by President Trump, Republican parents advise their children to tell the truth except when it is inconvenient to do so, that loyalty does not imply an obligation to reciprocate, and that cheating is wrong when you are the victim or get caught doing it. They like to share racist jokes with the kids and then anticipate the other parent’s objections by accusing them of political correctness. Republican parents also believe that it is important to keep some things from the children, like their tax returns. It helps set boundaries.
The Republican parenting style advises that alternative facts are sometimes necessary to counter real facts, that morality is for chumps, and that the judge of all things is how it affects your personal welfare.
But when children go to the other parent every other weekend they hear a very different kind of message. What to wear on Halloween is always a problem for Democratic parents because it’s important not to be guilty of cultural appropriation. A Jolly Roger costume may hurt the feelings of children whose parents are pirates. Democratic parents instruct their kids that edgy is good. Being transgressive is a virtue so long as it applies to other people’s values and not your own. And they encourage children to express themselves. For example, it’s not okay to mock other people’s religions unless you are doing so for the sake of art.
Democratic parents warn their children that one should not hold anyone morally accountable because people’s behavior is the result of structural forces beyond the individual’s control. Except for the bad choices that Republican voters and the other parent makes. There is no explaining why they act that way except that they must be morally depraved.
Looking back, it’s hard to know when our politics began to resemble “Kramer vs. Kramer,” when mutual respect between the parents declined and polarization set in. Previously, as in any marriage that resembles a functional two-party system, the parents had scrapes but concern for the welfare of the children previously prevented from them getting out of hand. Parents displayed forbearance and tolerance of each other’s flaws. But those constraints are gone now, and it doesn’t take much to set things off course. One unreasonable parent breaking norms of civility, telling lies, colluding with notorious racketeers to obtain embarrassing information about the other parent, even questioning the other parent’s love for the children, can create a vortex that the other parent can’t escape. You need to fight fire with fire to compete for custody.
The spiraling misconduct of both parents puts added burdens on the children. They act out more often now and have become less trusting; the adult responsibilities they must now assume due to parental default are going to become even greater in November when the custody arrangement will be reviewed. Given how demanding and fretful their lives are, and how they leave little time to study the world affairs and national politics that they previously relied on their parents to handle, the kids will have to do something extraordinary, something that will test their maturity, because they can’t depend on the cues they receive from their parents anymore.
They will have to think for themselves.