My parents raised me to think that political signs in yards made you a bad neighbor. It was not that civic duty was dead in my family or eastern Pennsylvania neighborhood, it’s just that actions spoke louder. My parents volunteered and were active in the community. They baked pies from backyard berries for new neighbors. They looked out for old people. They coordinated yard sales for families hitting hard times. Child care was a group effort. It was the Clinton years, a time when centrism ruled, and it felt like these were the elections where you did not need to put a sign in your yard. Planting a sign was rocking the boat too much. My parents taught me this by example.
My parents were wrong. They, white middle-class suburban Americans, let the good times that came with the recent injection of free-market capitalism ride and ditched the discussion of politics as an unnecessary remnant of the last generation. Signs serve a purpose. Politicking has a part in democracy and advocacy is part of politicking. This is true leading up to an election. Come election night, it’s time to take down that sign. Why? Because politics are not governance. Marketing is not content. Idols are not Gods. Our signs have built a tower that would make a Babylonian proud. With signs, we advocated for our candidates. It’s time to hold the winner accountable. They serve us now.
I’ve been thinking about this as I look at the political sign planted in my flower box, the one next to the dead mums and upside-down witches legs (my rule for Halloween decorations is not as strict as that for political signs). I planted the first political sign of my life as a dad this year with my 9-year-old daughter. I felt conflicted. We were planting a sign, I thought at first, because centrism is gone and the futures laid out for the next generation are polemical and as distinct as a Star Wars movie. We were planting a sign because of the wonderfully political-free childhood I enjoyed was dead.
Was I wrong to plant the sign? As my eight-year-old daughter asked questions about why we were putting our preferences out there, as she tested out her own politics trying to find heroes and villains in the game, as she was quick to link our family values to the politics we were planting, I realized what had been missing in my childhood: Participation. You plant a sign because you engage in your country. You think. You choose. You care.
My daughter is pretty into partisan politics. She’s competitive, she likes taking sides, and as such, she’s pretty into the sign. She has pride that, true to her maturity, walks the line between an awakening for civic engagement and idolatry. As such, it makes me squirm for her to cheer or boo signs as we drive down the street (except for the ones that belittle and curse out political opponents; they can boo those bad neighbors all they want). Still, I do not shoot her down. This is a real part of our democracy. We citizens have the right and obligation to advocate. Good people disagree, engage, and evolve (or not). A political sign is not deep engagement, it’s not a high-minded discussion, and signs are not an essential part of our democracy. But they are part of it – a part of it kids can see and understand.
Democracy happens with a vote. Afterward, the political season is over and it’s time to govern. Anyone who keeps politicking – citizen or government representative alike – is doing it wrong. They’re working in a broken system that puts dollars raised and power saved over improving the lives of Americans.
I’ll try to tell my daughter all of that.
But I’ll actually tell her this:
Have you ever had a friend – not a best friend, but a sort of friend – invite you to their birthday party and then tell you how great their birthday party is going to be? Maybe they tell you there will be cake and pizza and karaoke and, oh yeah, goodie bags! They’re excited for it, right? They’re also trying to get you to come to it, right? Now, let’s say it works. The goodie bags are too good to pass up and besides, all your friends are going. So you go and it’s fun. Now, the next day at school, do they tell people who did not come how great it was? If they do, how do you think those people feel? The people who enjoyed the party enjoyed the party, right? The others did not come might have missed the greatest party in the world, but that’s okay. Let’s not rub it in their face, right? That’s why we’re taking down our signs. We want people to join the party and whether they do or not, we’re going to be friends with them after.
That birthday party parable is admittedly messy. Translating an election to a 9-year-old is not easy. It will take time. I’m going to plant more flags before more elections. I’m going to get more local with the signs and hopefully teach her – and, yes, myself – more about governance. We’re going to advocate when the season calls for advocating. We’re going to take down the signs when the season calls for holding those in power accountable. Yes, especially the ones we vote for.
I never thought politics was important as a kid – I just thought it was weird. Then, a little older and wiser, I thought it was problematic. Now, it is clearly diseased. I think plenty about politics, but I was never really taught to be a part of it. I’m going to try to bring my daughter and when he’s grown out of his pull-ups, my son into the democratic discussion. It’s not the answer to the partisan rot that plagues the nation. But it’s something. That’s the point.