Partisan Politics Hit the Playdate Set
For generations, the children of the capitol’s elite grew up in a bipartisan bubble. But that's changed under the Trump Administration.
Native Washingtonians – those born, bred and still residing in D.C. proper – are often described as unicorns. (Or, at least, it’s how we modest souls like to describe ourselves.) Our peculiarities include fear of crossing the Potomac Ocean, familiarity exclusively with the Metro’s Red Line and real-life memories of a time when politics stopped at the school door. In those relatively harmonious days, schools like National Cathedral nurtured friendships between the daughters of Al Gore and James Baker; Sidwell Friends welcomed a young Nixon with as much enthusiasm as it later did young Clinton and Obamas.
The magic of growing up in our nation’s capital was not lost on us. We delighted in the thrills that came from close proximity to power: drop-offs delayed by motorcade traffic jams, the vice president cheering at field hockey games, classmates sleeping over at the White House. It was a simpler time. Newspapers were paper, and people read them. Political issues could be discussed over food. Left-leaning residential Washington peacefully coexisted with administrations that regularly flipped between the two parties, particularly in the institutions that educated their children.
Now? Party affiliations mean more than they did, and 2016 election choices mean everything – to the point where, in the lead-up to the last election, tension and upset drove some area schools to cancel traditional mock elections. It raised the question: If school communities in Washington couldn’t handle a fake student election, how would they – could they? – handle an administration official in the carpool line?
As we head back to school for the second year of the Trump Administration, the results are in – and with no hanging chads. The partisan rancor that permeates the House floor and cable news shout-a-thons has infiltrated our kids’ lives in a way it simply didn’t in the olden days. Despite our best efforts, there’s no way to fully shield children from toxic rhetoric, as a friend learned when explicit anti-Trump sentiments were included on an innocuous grade-wide “hopes and dreams” project. I experienced this first-hand on a number drives home from school these past two years, as my kindergartener asked, “Mom, why does Donald Trump hate women? Mom, what did Hillary Clinton lie about? Mom, what’s racist?” I don’t remember what I asked my parents about Bush and Dukakis during their battle for the White House, but my guess is it had more to do with whose fiscal policies were more sound. (I was an exceptionally nerdy child.)
Clearly, not all of the blame for polarization can be pinned on the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and it’s undeniable that the spirit of Camelot – a time when bipartisan cocktail parties and salons were not only intellectually fertile but glamorous – died long ago. But in my parents’ generation, book club memberships were deliberately built around diversity of political perspective because that made things fun and interesting! And now, on the occasion that opposing partisans comingle, even for something as non-threatening as a playdate, such get-togethers are often preceded by a frantic series of texts or a quick-whispered warning: “CYNTHIA VOTED FOR [redacted] SO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.”
The D.C. idiosyncrasies that used to feel special now seem to elicit something closer to disdain or disgust, even within the school universe. Kellyanne Conway tried to debunk the rumor that she was getting a chilly reception at area schools in the wake of Trump’s victory, but confirmed that a friend calling one school on her behalf was met with “silence and sighs.” And rather than prominent government officials being gawked at with giddy excitement when recognized off-hours, as once happened when my Dork Self spotted Attorney General Janet Reno in a restaurant, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is being refused dinner service, and former EPA-chief Scott Pruitt is being confronted at lunch and told to resign – once by a local middle school teacher who not only had her child in tow but proudly posted the exchange on Facebook.
Though I admit to having my own occasional politically themed tantrums, I’m nonetheless trying to raise little Washingtonians who love the city as much as I do. Specifically, I attempt to:
Separate the Presidency from the President. When we’re driving by the White House and my children prepare to emit exaggerated vomit noises, I do my best to cut them off by explaining that the building is a symbol of hope, freedom and public service that's worthy of respect and reverence, and they are so very lucky to be its neighbor.
Turn down the noise. This year my son asked that we stop listening to the news in the car because it was “scary and made [me] too mad.” I’ve done my best to strike a balance: hear enough so that I feel informed and so that he isn’t living in a vacuum, but on the whole attempt to translate relevant and teachable headlines conscientiously and appropriately.
Preach the gospel of cartoon character Daniel Tiger. Sing it with me: “In some ways we are different but in other ways we are the same!” A true classic with real wisdom: Differences, including those of thought, are not character flaws. We are lucky in this city to have the opportunity to know a number of government leaders – with whom we may often vehemently disagree – in wholly personal contexts. I do my best to emphasize, whenever possible, the shared values and common ground of those relationships.
Fundamentally, kids haven’t changed, even if the ways in which their parents participate in and talk about politics have. And I feel I owe it to my four unicorns not to lose sight of the city's magic.
Alice Leiter is a recovering health care regulatory lawyer raising four young Washingtonians with her husband. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the Georgetown University Law Center.