Raising a Political Bigot

By Catherine Rampell
Saturday, August 11, 2007

A message to my elders: Grow up.

For a while now you've been trying to drag the voting-age members of my generation, the so-called MySpace Generation, into your festering pool of partisanship. Now, apparently, you're going after our generation's youngest members.

I'm referring to a few highly publicized children's books that deal with partisan politics, the most well-known being "Why Mommy is a Democrat" and "Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!" These books (which have sold 22,000 and 30,000 copies, respectively) teach young kids which party is the bringer of goodness and light and which is the party of destruction and the devil, all with the help of a few cuddly animals and some less cuddly caricatures. Both have been Internet sensations, with a seemingly endless supply of fawning and fuming customer reviews on Amazon.com and other heavily trafficked sites. Both have messages about sharing, fairness, safety and greed. And both, oddly enough, have Web sites that prominently feature a testimonial from Rush Limbaugh (one positive and one negative, of course). Support from such partisans has inspired follow-up books, including "Help! Mom! The 9th Circuit Nabbed the Nativity!"

Now, I don't begrudge parents the ability to teach kids their "moral values," whatever they may be. There's also nothing wrong with parents' putting politics in the mouths of babes. Even Dr. Seuss's books were brimming with political lessons and allegories, from "The Lorax" (about environmentalism) to "Yertle the Turtle" (modeled on Hitler). More recently, books such as "Heather Has Two Mommies" have created healthy national dialogues, exposing kids to different points of view.

But the more overtly partisan books are not teaching kids values. They're teaching them labels.

Right now, Generation Y has the chance to escape the curse of staunch political labeling. Surveys have shown young people today disproportionately self-identify as political "independents"; an April poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics, for example, found a plurality of Americans ages 18 to 24 consider themselves "independent." This may be because we don't fit neatly into traditional party thinking. We treat our politics the way we treat our music and our clothes (and often our religion): as good consumer-citizens, we mix and match. It's a political supermarket. As a New York Times-CBS-MTV survey demonstrated in June, we lean left on many issues, such as gay rights and health-care coverage. But most of us also support many traditionally Republican positions, such as limiting or banning abortion and staying relatively optimistic about the Iraq war. Our political beliefs, like our music, aren't bundled the way our elders' are. You older types buy into albums and political platforms; we prefer hit singles.

It's not necessarily that we're centrist. We're just eclectic.

In contrast, these children's books emphasize political brand loyalty. They divisively equate political labels with rightness or wrongness, goodness or evil. Yes, children's books should teach about sharing and caring -- but such traits should not be the means to the end of becoming a member of the "correct" political party. These books are illustrative of a broader post-Sept. 11 cultural directive: claim righteousness through some label (political, religious or racial), and vilify anyone who doesn't identify with that label, regardless of any common concern for the human condition. The political climate beckoning our generation is eerily reminiscent of late-19th-century politics; back then, party organs ruled, and Americans often rooted for a political team whose only accepted definition was "not them." And partisanship for the sake of partisanship, as reformists determined before the 1896 realignment of the party system, leaves people behind.

Gen-Y juniors should know they can escape the yoke of partisanship and silly, hateful labels. Sure, today's parties can be rejiggered to fit whatever new loose bundles of beliefs come from emerging generations. Certainly the positions of the big parties have changed in the past. But why go that route? Politics shouldn't be an us-vs.-them death match. Government is supposed to be about the people's values, not their parties. Or so I learned in elementary school.

Instead of these party-line picture books, I'd advise parents to invest in copies of my favorite children's book, "The Sneetches." It's a lesser-known Seussian masterpiece about creatures who despise each other solely because of the presence or absence of a star on their bellies. Only after they've been scammed by a sleazeball salesman, who capitalizes on their mutual hatred and fear, do the Sneetches realize how equally, identically, indistinguishably childish both sides had really been.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. Her e-mail address isrampellc@washpost.com.

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