Yesterday my 11 year-old son asked me to explain what Democrats versus Republicans believe when it comes to politics.  He wasn’t asking about policy per se, he was just wondering how one got to be called one label or the other.  

I appreciated his trust in me. 

I thought back to something that I had read in the acknowledgment section of George Lakoff’s book “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.”  He wrote the following: ‘This book began with a conversation in my garden several years ago with my friend the late Paul Baum.  I asked him if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes.  His response: ‘”If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?”’

Presumably Democrats pick up.

Now, when I was pregnant with my first child, my mother bought me the book “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.”  I do not know about the author’s politics, but what I learned from this book was that picking up your baby could prolong the amount of time it took for the baby to fall asleep, and that this could be even worse – and even more physically painful – than letting him cry.  I also felt that I knew when my baby’s cry was related to something other than being tired.  If my baby cried while en train de chercher le sommeil (“while trying to find his sleep” as the French say) I would say to myself: Is he wet?  Is he hungry?  Is he sick?  Is he too hot or cold?  If the answers to those questions were “non”, then I tried to let him cry.   He quickly stopped, and became a great sleeper.  And he seems not to have any attachment problems.

I happen to be a Democrat. 

So I didn’t tell my son about what Baum said.  I don’t think it is a useful indicator, but I may be wrong.  I would want to see statistics about what Democrat and Republican parents think and do regarding babies and sleep.  I think that most parents just wing it most of the time.  Furthermore, the general trend in France is to not pick up, and this might be even more strongly promoted by the far left.  

In answering Sebastian’s question, I first noted that people sometimes call themselves by those labels because their parents or their entire families did.  But then I tried to get to the heart of a difference in thinking about government and personal responsibility.  I had no interest in trying to express the views of party leaders (who just want power).  I tried to glean general underlying beliefs and goals based on conversations with people in both parties. 

An important difference, I told him, concerns what governments should do with taxes, which is money taken from the people in the country.  How much money you take and the rules for distributing it depends upon whether you believe that all people have real choices in their lives or that some of them are trapped by life circumstances.  I said that if you thought that people had the same amount of control and choice then you might not want to help them too much by giving them tax money.  You would probably think that they should earn their own living.  But if you thought that people were not all the same, and didn’t have equal amounts of control and choice, then you might be more likely to want to help people who were in a bad way.  I also told him that deciding on who was in a bad way and deserved tax money was very complicated, and that whether or not you wanted to help someone who was not actually related to you or perhaps even came from another country inserted further complication in this process. 

I also threw in a discussion of the fact that even without there being differences in these basic beliefs, economists teach differing opinions to the two parties about how to help people earn money and keep the country economically viable in the first place.

The “making and spending tax money” explanation, indeed this entire discussion – which I handled as best I could – caused sweat to form on my brow.  My teenager got a weekend job this year.  He landed it not long after we moved to the United States from France.  He loves having a job.  He can plan to buy things without discussing it with us first.  He can take a girlfriend out to dinner at a fancy restaurant.  He is learning a lot about what he would and would not want to do as a living when he becomes an independent adult.  But when I mentioned this job to people from back on the Continent, they snorted with derision. 

“Already adopting the American capitalist ethic, huh?”  That is what they said.

I did not and do not respond anymore when I hear this snort.  In high school I took Senior Lifesaving classes and got a summer job as a lifeguard.  I loved doing that.  With my cousin Mary, I worked another summer in the kitchen at our uncle’s boys camp in northern Minnesota.  I loved that too.  We both loved it.  Our uncle loved it less!

What I want my kids to learn is complexity and not simple rules.  They might hate political parties or ideology.  They might scorn a decision based on a total lack of data (if I raise them right).  

But they can’t hate individuals for not agreeing with them.