Politicians Are Terrible Role Models

When Hillary Clinton was officially nominated as the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party on 26 July, 2016, many people cheered. Many, such as some emotional Twitter-users chronicled by Vox (Crockett, 2016), were overjoyed that a woman had finally been nominated by a major party to run for president. Many proudly said that “little girls finally can say ‘I can become president’.” Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s success is an historic moment, but there are several problems with the sentiments of “little girls finally have a female presidential role model.”

The first problem is that it shows a strangely limited view of human ambition. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s nomination only serves as a single point in history that says to young ladies that a woman has already achieved the office. This point doesn’t uniquely enable young women to aspire to presidential office.  Many women have aspired and even ran for the office before (list), and, even if they hadn’t, people can aspire to anything.  For Elizabeth Blackwell, it was neither here nor there that no woman had ever gotten a medical degree in the United States, she became the first. She did not need a female role model to look up in the field. Much as Mrs. Clinton did need or have a female role model in politics. People do not necessarily need a person that looks like them, is the same race, sex, gender, orientation, religion, etc. to aspire or achieve great things. They are helpful, no doubt, but they aren’t necessary. Most young women, who were dreaming on 27 July of becoming president, were dreaming on 25 July of becoming president. Beyond this, there is a much greater problem, should we want children to have politicians as their role models?

This is a serious question. Are politicians really the best people for children to look up to? Politicians are widely seen as dishonest; only 37% of people thought that the “honest,” described politicians “very well” or “fairly well;” compared to 84% of people that said that  “honest,” described the average American “very,” or “fairly well.” Furthermore, only 19% of people said that they could trust the government, “to do what is right,” “always/ most of the time” (Pew Research Center, 2015). Most people see politicians as untrustworthy and dishonest and, yet, people are supposed to cheer that Hillary Clinton can be the role model for young women who want to become president? Are young men supposed to look up to Andrew Jackson (who perpetrated the trail of tears), or Richard Nixon (who resigned from office in disgrace), or any other male president that this country has had? The exact nature of political office, especially, high political office is that it corrupts. As the famous line from Lord Acton goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” Is this what we want children looking up to? Do we really want “little girls” to aspire to be like an Alinskyite politician that has taken more Super PAC money than her rivals (New York Times, 2016), something to the tune of $21.42 for Wall Street for her 2016 campaign alone (Behan, 2016; Gold, Hamburger & Narayanswamy, 2016), and has been embroiled in controversy after controversy (Graham, 2016)? She is supposed to be a role model for young woman in this country? Next people will be praising Donald Trump as a good role model for children. Simply put politicians are not good role models for children, or anyone for that matter.

A possible counter –example would be Abraham Lincoln. He freed slavery and he is generally seen as extremely honest. Even ‘Honest Abe’ has some faults that might disqualify him as a great role model. For example, he once said: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races” (Pruitt, 2012). He also imprisoned political enemies like Clement Vallandigham (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016). Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and, some have argued, waged a bloody and disastrous war on weak premises and in order to preserve a mere political union (Williams, 2013; Sked, 2015; DiLorenzo, 2003). However, everyone has their faults, no one’s perfect. That’s precisely the problem.

It is true that everyone has their failings and issues, it is also true that people seem to need role models to inspire them (Whitbourne, 2013; Thomas, 2016). However, the problem with politics is that it tends to inflate, illustrate, and reward people’s faults. In essence, politicians as role models for children teach children much negative behaviour. Such as that it is acceptable and even beneficial to lie, to name-call, to only do the “right thing” when it serves you, to rig the game so that you always win, to see your perspective as the only perspective, to bully, to interrupt, and to repeat sound-bites instead of nuanced thinking (The Practical Mommy, 2015; Sainato, 2016). Obviously, nobody’s perfect (hence why iconoclasts are so important), but politicians are in a class of their own. Perhaps it can be best summarized with a quotation from Stewart Udall: “We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.”

If Mrs. Clinton shouldn’t be the role model for young ladies (and gentlemen), who might be? Let me offer a list of some truly inspirational women:

Jane Addams: the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Elizabeth Blackwell: the first female doctor in the United States.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish: a pioneering female philosopher of the seventeenth century.

Prudence Crandall: who in 1833 opened a private school exclusively to educate young, African-American, ladies.

Marie Curie: a pioneering scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry.

Althea Gibson: the first African-American woman to play tennis at the U.S. National Championship and at Wimbledon (she won both).

Lise Meitner: a physicist who on the team that discovered the element protactinium; discovered the Auger effect, two years before Pierre Auger; who named and contributed to the evidence for the process of nuclear fission; and who was famously ignored for Nobel Prize in Physics resulting from this discovery (the prize went to her colleague, Otto Hahn); and who has an element named after her (Meitnerium).

Esther H. Morris: woman’s suffrage leader and first woman to hold a judicial office (as a justice of the peace).

Harriet Tubman: as a conductor of the Underground Railroad she escorted over 300 slaves to freedom over 19 trips.

Youyou Tu: first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology, for her: “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.”

Malala Yousafzai: education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Clearly, there are many, many more women and men that could serve as role models to children. Most of who were not politicians, certainly not modern politicians.


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