The most timeless corny old joke about politics was uttered nearly a century ago by the comedian Will Rogers who said, "I am not a member of any organized political party...I'm a Democrat." Even after a lifetime of voting mainly for Democrats with a smattering of independents, I haven't been able to tell that joke myself. At some point in my late 20s, I decided that while my views are mostly liberal, veering sometimes into ultra-liberal, I would nonetheless live my adult political life as a registered independent.
I probably should have been a Democrat. My paternal grandparents -- like most folks who endured the Great Depression and found opportunities to join the middle class after FDR's New Deal turned the economy around -- were Democrats, as was my father who taught me about elective politics wearing his button for Eugene McCarthy back in 1968.
In the mid-1980s, as a young journalist covering a then-all-Republican (and highly corrupt) township on Long Island, I decided to change my registration to independent. The reason was selfish and short-sighted: I didn't want the GOP officials I was investigating to call me a biased Democrat reporter -- especially in a different time in my life when journalism meant everything to me and political ideas, sadly, meant little.
But over the next 30 years, my reason for political independence changed...radically. In the 1990s, I covered the sleazeball political fundraising tactics of Bill Clinton (whom I couldn't even bring myself to vote for in 1996) and his Democratic National Committee cronies like Ed Rendell. I came to see that -- while the reactionary policies of the GOP would surely bring America back to the 19th Century -- the establishment of the Democratic Party had become obsessed with a) pulling in big donations and b) catering to those big-business donors, even if it screwed over the now-shrinking middle class that was supposed to be its backbone. Even the destructive presidency of George W. Bush and his immoral Iraq War did not drive me into the arms of a Democratic Party whose leadership had sold its mortal soul for a few large PAC donations.
But times change. I know it's a cliche, but occasionally cliches really do come true: 2016 is the most important presidential election of my lifetime..and yours. America has come to a triple fork in the highway of democracy: The choices are dangerous demagoguery and steep moral decline, or a corrupt status quo, or, finally, a real way forward for the middle class. Hanging in the balance is whether the United States can again become a beacon of hope for the rest of the world...or an international punchline. I put an enormous value on my independence, especially as a journalist. But I place an even higher value on my American citizenship, and my right to vote. This is not a time for intellectual detachment. The stakes -- for my children and their children -- are too high. I cannot sit on the sidelines.
This Tuesday, I changed my party registration from independent to Democratic so I can vote in Pennsylvania's April 26 closed-party primary. Technically, it was easy -- it took about five minutes online, and it probably would have taken three minutes if I were not such a techno-dunce. (Good job, for once, Pennsylvania -- for implementing online registration!) Intellectually, it was more difficult, but it had to be done.
In 34 days, I plan to cast a ballot for the only candidate in the 2016 race with more-than 50-year record of saying what he actually believes and then fighting like hell to make those beliefs happen, the only candidate who understands that health care and advanced education aren't just a necessity in the 21st Century but a basic human right, and the only candidate who's made it this far without kowtowing to the billionaire donor class and the hedge-fund interests on Wall Street.
On April 26, I am going to vote for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as if my life depended on it. It's just that important.
The two viable Republican candidates for the presidency, Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, would send the United States not just hurtling backward, but toward dangerous uncharted waters in which the very notion of American democracy would be thrashing about, gasping for air. The indictment against both candidates -- especially the buffoonishly under-qualified Trump -- has been laid out here and on countless other sites for months. Stated simply, Trump's blatant appeals to rank racism and xenophobia, his embrace of brownshirt-style violence, and his stunning lack of knowledge on a range of issues makes him the made-in-America brand of neo-fascism that pundits so naively thought could never happen here. Cruz is more polished but every bit as dangerous; his most recent proposal to have special police patrols of U.S. Muslim neighborhoods smacks of the "Jewish Ghetto Patrols" instituted by the Nazis. It is my prayer that the Trumpism and Cruzism will be remembered as short-lived nightmares, temporary spasms of American insanity.
The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, would move America...sideways, at best. The former secretary of state is flying the flag of the status quo at a moment when the vast majority of Americans want nothing to do with things as usual. In 2016, she has run as a total cipher; she steals Sanders' best progressive ideas when the race is close, then runs back to the political center-right whenever she can, raising money from fossil-fuel-drenched hedge-fund billionaires and giving militaristic Trump-lite speeches to the pro-Israel lobby. I honestly don't know where Hillary Clinton would go as president. But I know where she's been along with her husband, the ex-president these last couple of years -- gobbling up obscene fees from Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and other moneyed special interests in return for giving them short, canned speeches. I'm old, but I'm not so old that I don't remember what motivated me to go into journalism after the Watergate scandals. It was to expose the kind of unethical behavior that Hillary and Bill Clinton engage in on a regular basis.
The contrast between how Clinton is running her campaign and the political revolution of Bernie Sanders is stunning. In addition to the billionaire supporters of pro-Clinton Super-PACs, I saw today that 51 percent of Clinton's donations have been at the wealthier individual max of $2,700, compared to just 3 percent of Sanders contributors. This may be Sanders' most revolutionary achievement of all -- raising money from more than 2 million individuals, some giving more than once, at an average of $27 a pop, because his donors believe so strongly in his crusade to take America back from the oligarchs. Although a close second would be the staggering crowds of people, young and old, that he has turned out for his rallies from Maine to Seattle to New Orleans.
These things have happened because he hasn't just given voters the best ideas of the 2016 campaign. For the first time in decades, he has given millions of people -- from the young and idealistic to the old and formerly disillusioned -- the one thing that's even more important, a reason to believe.
And yet I've also covered politics for way too long to be as naive as some of Sanders' most enthusiastic #FeelTheBern supporters. There is almost no chance that the Vermont senator will defeat Clinton and win the Democratic nomination here at Philadelphia's First Union Center in July. That's for two reasons -- neither one an indictment of Sanders or his cause. First, there just isn't enough time or money in the world for Sanders to break the marriage-like bond, built up over decades and fed by endorsements from local pols and pastors, between Clinton and older black and Latino voters. This despite Sanders' roots in the civil rights movement and his unimpeachable record on issues affecting minority communities. Perhaps more importantly, the Democratic Party elites -- the same folks whose pro-wealth pandering repelled me from the party in the first place -- created a system of "superdelegates" to put down a populist threat such as the one posed by Sanders.
So why do I consider voting for Bernie Sanders so important if I doubt he can win? It's because Bernie Sanders and his core supporters are playing the long game -- always have been since the mid-1960s, when Sanders retreated to a Vermont "sugar shack" to ponder what he once called "the beautiful revolution," and when he showed in the 1980s that a "democratic socialist" could still plow the snow in Burlington, where he was mayor. Just as Ronald Reagan's doomed 1976 challenge to the GOP establishment and incumbent President Gerald Ford was the warning shot for a conservative revolt that overran Washington in the 1980s and beyond, Sanders' '16 effort -- winning more 70 percent of more of voters under 30 -- is setting the stage for a new progressive century in American life.
And so when I cast my Democratic ballot on April 26, I probably won't be helping to elect the 45th president. But I'll be showing my support for something more meaningful: The penultimate steps of a political revolution that could last for decades. Indeed, there are other candidates who'll be on the Democratic ballot in my Delaware County voting booth -- the Sanders ally John Fetterman for the U.S. Senate, the minister and anti-poverty fighter Bill Golderer for U.S. House -- who represent the younger green shoots of a movement that needs to upend the aging and clueless Democratic establishment.
And what happens if Sanders isn't nominated? There was a famous political slogan in Louisiana in the 1980s when the choice was the oft-indicted ex-governor Edwin Edwards and Klansman David Duke -- "Vote for the Crook -- It's Important." Nothing would be of more vital national importance to keep Trump's "celebrity fascism" (endorsed, ironically, by David Duke) out of the Oval Office. But I would also pray for a true progressive to begin his or her primary challenge to President Hillary Clinton on Jan. 21, 2017. That's a notion that I'm sure a few of my friends who are full-time Democrats will ridicule, but it's what I believe. My kids' future is too important to fiddle around for eight more years of oligarchic rule.
I want to make one other thing clear. This is a distinction that I'm sure will be lost on some readers, but a vote is not the same thing as an endorsement. Why? An endorsement often leads to blindly supporting a candidate even when he or she falls short. Even though I've found Sanders' campaign to be uniquely inspiring, I have also criticized its flaws -- the failure to articulate a progressive and less militaristic foreign policy, and the need to do even more to connect with young black and Latino voters -- and would continue to do so even if he goes all '69 Mets and somehow gets sworn in on Jan 20, 2017.
By then, of course, I'll be an independent again. In fact, I plan to change to change my registration away from the Democratic Party as early as April 27. I don't want anyone taking away my political independence -- and neither should you. Don't let party elites and jaded insiders tell you that this race is already over or that your vote doesn't count. But please vote -- vote like there's no tomorrow. The stakes in this 2016 election are just too damn high.