Brexit. Trump. It’s like deja vu all over again.
Five months ago I wrote about my fears following the EU referendum, after a disgusting campaign which reduced a complex issue to lowest common denominator arguments providing easy soundbites for those who wanted them.
Today I’m writing about my fears following the US presidential election, after a disgusting campaign which eschewed policy debate in favour of personal attacks designed to provide easy soundbites for those who wanted them.
It’s not about the politics, it’s about the kids
This isn’t a political post. But it is a post about politics.
I have a decent understanding of how the American political system works – hey, I’ve watched every episode of The West Wing – but I’m by no means an expert. (It’s funny how many people suddenly claim to be, though.) Suffice to say I don’t like Donald Trump but wasn’t all that keen on Hillary Clinton either.
Frankly, I’m astonished that someone who has never previously held any political or public office can be elected to the most powerful political position in the world. It’s like I’ve accidentally tuned in to the finale of a reality TV show: America’s Next Top Politician, say.
Anyhow. *deep breath*
What this election has made me realise is that it’s more important than ever that we teach our kids good lessons. It’s not enough to point to successful people in sport, business, entertainment or politics. There are too many false idols who are anything but good role models.
We have to be the role models. Us. Parents. And that’s hard.
So here are seven lessons I want our children to learn from me. They may fly in the face of the example that has been set by the US election (and, indeed, any modern political campaign) but they are values and beliefs I still want my kids to share.
7 lessons for our children
1. Some you win, some you lose – but it doesn’t make the result wrong. That’s the way democracy goes. Sometimes the masses disagree with your personal view. But even if you cannot see the logic in the outcome of a democratic vote does not mean the result is wrong, unfair or invalid.
And, incidentally, voting for the ‘losing’ side doesn’t mean you were wrong either. There are no absolute rights or wrongs in democracy, only individual choices based on imperfect information.
2. People are people and deserve our respect, no matter who they are. At various times during the campaign, whether it has been historical comments caught on a ‘hot’ mic or live quotes, Trump has revealed beliefs that belong in the distant past: misogyny, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, the list goes on. He has played to the gallery and found many fans among those with reductionist views of the causes of America’s ills.
Some would justify this as authenticity and a play-to-win mentality. Personally, I’d rather our kids grew up to be decent, tolerant, respectful human beings. It’s not okay to objectify women and laugh it off as locker-room talk. It just isn’t.
3. Attack the opinion, not the person. There’s a particularly ugly communications strategy known as ‘playing the man, not the ball’. It refers to the practice of shifting the focus of an argument from opinions or policies and on to the individual making them. If you sling enough mud, some of it will eventually stick.
It’s not just Trump – all politicians employ this tactic at some point. But the President-elect has used this tactic a lot. It’s undeniably effective but it’s a weak, puerile argument – like calling someone stupid repeatedly simply because they disagree with you. We’re not seven years old any more, are we?
4. Be modest in victory. Sure, being involved in an election-winning night means the adrenaline is pumping and emotions run high. But the chants of “Lock her up!” that came from more than just one or two individuals at Trump headquarters – a reference to a threat issued against Clinton by Trump during the campaign – stuck in my craw.
There’s a line between exuberant celebration and ugly gloating, and this crossed it. I’d rather our kids heeded the line from Kipling’s If about treating triumph and disaster just the same.
5. Your vote counts. Sometimes it can feel like an individual vote is insignificant. And sometimes that is true. But not always. At the time of writing, here is the count for the state of New Hampshire.
If just one person in 500 who voted for Clinton hadn’t bothered showing up, Trump would have won the state. Or equally if just 1,500 of the people who voted for another candidate or who did not turn up at all had voted for Trump, he would have carried the state.
Similarly, in last year’s UK general election, three of Parliament’s 650 seats were won with majorities of under 100, the lowest being 27. Sometimes a tiny handful of people can make a big difference.
6. Get relevant experience. Our children should have dreams and feel they can achieve more than they think they can. But generally the road to success is not one paved with billions of dollars that leads to the White House. Develop the right skills, build the right experience, work hard. It’s not the only route to success but it does maximise your chances.
7. Let girls dream. I look at my four-year-old daughter Kara and I see a strong-willed, confident girl who believes anything is possible. And why shouldn’t she? Which is why my favourite soundbite from the entire campaign came from Hillary Clinton after she had conceded defeat.
To all the little girls watching … never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world
And finally …
Most of all, though, there’s a lesson for me – maybe for all us parents. As disappointed as I am in the election result, as fearful as I am about what Trump’s victory might mean in terms of validating attitudes we thought were dying out, as much as I question his ability and experience to lead the most powerful nation on Earth, I find myself hoping that he will prove us all wrong and take the US forwards rather than backwards.
And that’s the final lesson. Even the devil deserves a second chance. Many of us have been appalled by some of the things Trump has said and done in the past, and by some of the things he has done during this campaign. But what’s done is done and what matters more is not what he did ten days or ten years ago but what he does now. The same goes for all of us: parents, children and presidents alike. We cannot allow ourselves to be condemned by the sins of the past, nor should we condemn the sins of others endlessly if they can show the capacity to change for the better. In many respects, hope is all we can ever have.
Incidentally, even if you have never watched a single episode of The West Wing, watch this. It’s the pre-credits scene from season four, episode seven: Election Night. Four of the most brilliant minutes of TV ever. Enjoy.