When I dropped my daughter Sandy off at pre-K the other morning, everything was normal. She was clingy just long enough for me to think, Oh crap, not again, then she hurried off to join her teacher and friends. I—eager to get to the gym—rushed out through the corridors, past lesson-plan posters (“We are learning about: Emotions”) and kids’ drawings (many just scrawls, some frankly better than my own), but slowed my stride for a moment when I heard another pre-K teacher speak to a student in the hall.
“Tell your mom you’re sorry,” she said to a kid being dropped off by his mother. When the boy didn’t immediately apologize, her voice turned sterner: “Tell her you’re sorry.” He remained silent.
I don’t know what crime the kid had committed, but I felt for him. Whatever he’d done, he knew it was wrong, and probably even regretted it deep within his 4-year-old soul. Still, he was being made to admit it, to publicly proclaim uncomfortable feelings. He was caught up in the age-old power play of apologies: The aggrieved authority commands, and the offender—sooner or later—submits.
Like pretty much everyone in this country, I’ve been watching that power play enacted across the political scene for months and months. The demand for apologies is a constant, from Donald Trump’s veritable obsession to his opponents’ more (and less) righteous demands. Everyone in the political world — sorry, in the media world, no, in the world — is ready to take offense, sometimes rightly, sometimes less so, and to loudly demand an apology. (And then, often, to critique the apology.) It’s what we teach our kids, and what we ourselves were probably taught, and we continue to imbue “I’m sorry” with emotional magic, as if it truly means something.
Guess what? It doesn’t.
As I have learned, “I’m sorry” is frequently meaningless. It’s what you say to submit, to get out of the power play. (“Uncle!”) Whether you truly mean it or have decided it’s the expedient option is irrelevant. If you say “I’m sorry,” you’ve lost (the battle if not the war). If you make someone say “I’m sorry,” you’ve won (ditto).
Trump, for his part, understands this well. It’s hard to imagine that he wants anything more from his opponents than simple capitulation. And because that’s all he wants, he plays the public apology game very well. He demands and demands and demands, and (almost) never apologizes himself. He gets away with it, because he realizes it’s all just words. And in this case at least, he’s right.
Trump’s political adversaries don’t get it because, like that pre-K teacher in the hallway, they believe there’s something fundamentally edifying about apologizing. I used to think this way, too: If I made my kids say sorry, they would stop doing stupid shit to each other. And indeed, they would say sorry — and the stupid shit would continue. (My older daughter, Sasha, tells me she’s apologized to me and my wife at times “just to get you guys to leave me alone.” Smart third-grader!) The humiliation of being forced to apologize was not enough to change their behavior.
So it goes for adults in the political-media realm. Just recently, Bill O’Reilly was forced to apologize for making fun of Representative Maxine Waters’s hair (“a James Brown wig,” he called it). And Alex Jones, the InfoWars conspiracist, finally apologized for perpetuating the false PizzaGate story. But it’s crazy to imagine that either O’Reilly or Jones underwent a fundamental change of heart. Their apologies covered only those specific incidents, not the underlying condescension and paranoia that all-too-predictably led to them. They said “I’m sorry” only because they wanted to put the past behind them, and move on to new attacks and fantasies. I wish I could’ve told this to that kid in the hallway: Just apologize and move on! That’s what grown-ups do!
Even Trump, who never apologizes, apologized once — for his 2005 “grab them by the pussy” remarks. Did it hurt him? Well, as I recall, he won the presidential election. Did his behavior change as a result? Not really — he may not have made such crude remarks (in public, or on tape) since then, but it’s not as if, by being made to apologize, he reevaluated a lifetime’s worth of beliefs and actions, and shifted accordingly. Indeed, when it came to light that Fox News had settled $13 million worth of sexual harassment lawsuits against O’Reilly, Trump defended the guy’s character, saying, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
So, if sorry doesn’t work, what does? Ms. Bree knows. She was one of Sasha’s preschool teachers several years ago, an exuberant (if flighty) young woman students adored. One day, Sasha, then about three, came home from preschool having learned a new word from Ms. Bree: “consequences.” It was a big word for her at the time, a grown-up word, an intimidating word. It certainly meant something.
“If you keep behaving this way,” Ms. Bree would warn her occasionally rowdy students, “there will be consequences.” And the kids all knew to shape up, even if those consequences remained mysterious.
Now, the child psychologists out there will tell you that, when dealing with children, you need to couple the apology with the consequences — that “I’m sorry” must be followed by amends or, failing that, punishment. (To a kid, those can feel like the same thing.) The problem—for parents as well as for liberal politicians—is that consequences are annoying not just for the receiver but for the enforcer as well. They take a hell of a lot more imagination and effort than simply extracting an “I’m sorry.”
Here’s how consequences have been playing out around my house: Like all children, Sasha and Sandy are addicted to their screens. Once they pick them up, they have an incredibly hard time putting them down to come eat dinner, brush their teeth, or go outside and enjoy this beautiful goddamn day. Usually, when I need the screens down, the screens do not go down. I ask; they ignore. I raise my voice; they keep watching. (Yes, it’s true, I am an ineffectual father. But that’s a story for another day!) Finally, I break out the threats. No dessert tonight, I might say, or, if I’m really serious, no dessert for a whole week.
But those consequences are minor, and the kids know it. The real threat would be to take away the screens entirely — maybe even to nix them for the entire family for a whole month. But then what? What happens when my wife and I want to watch The Americans? What if I want to Instagram our dinner? What happens to our Friday family movie night tradition? Or maybe we could cancel the kids’ upcoming playdates and sleepovers — but then, again, we’d have to find something else to keep them busy during those now-empty hours. Oh, they’ll read, and they’ll draw, but that’s never quite enough, and besides, they’ll need supervision, when all I wanted was for them to be occupied for a few hours by someone who is not me. The punishment, in other words, is mine as well.
If this sounds like whingeing, well, it is. If my wife and I had the energy and the commitment to follow through on our threats, those threats might have some teeth. But we don’t. We’re too busy working and cooking and planning to make more than a token effort at punishing our children.
Democrats are in a similar position, and they need to recognize that. Instead of expending all their energy on apologies (and thereby playing into Trump’s hands), they need to focus on consequences for their opponents’ words and actions. Granted, they don’t have much actual power, but what they do have they need to use. (And it’s not like they have anything better to do—minority parties don’t get to push through much legislation.) The filibuster of Neil Gorsuch was a good start—even though the Republicans reacted by ending such filibusters. Consequences have consequences, too.
Come to think of it, Democrats may be in a better position than us parents. While we harbor hope that our children will, in the end, grow up to become good people (whatever that means), Democrats don’t have to assume the best of their opponents. They needn’t concern themselves with changing Republicans’ core beliefs — just their outward behavior. They can be as punitive as they want. And if you can get what you want in terms of legislation and policy, who needs “I’m sorry”? Disciplined pragmatism is nothing to apologize for.
The insane part of this analogy, of course, is that it casts conservatives in the role of children. Which is maybe not so insane? Like Republicans, kids are absolutists, uncompromising in their pursuit of primal desires (in my experience, mostly Sour Patch Kids). Historically, theirs is the power of “no” And when you can just always say no, you’re holding all the cards—even if you’re not playing with a full deck.
Frankly, it’s time for the minors in the majority to grow up. Strategic compromise is nothing to apologize for, either (except maybe to juvenile constituents), and a little flexibility would go a long way toward making our 300-million-member family a lot more functional.
Sorry’s not even on the table anymore—it’s been cleared away with the dishes. And now we all get ice cream for dessert! Mine tastes like single-payer health care? How’s yours?