from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Friday, January 28, 2005

To be, or not to be (a Democrat)? 

I am resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia, wherein we do not register by party. Thus officially we are all "independents." And while for much of my adult life I have been oriented towards the Democratic party, it was not always so, nor have I been absolutely consistent in my voting and my support.

I grew up in Westchester County, just north of NYC. My parents both had an interest in politics, and the entire game in our town (Mamaroneck) was the Republican party, so they both gravitated there. My father started by being active on the local zoning board, and my mother got involved in more of the party mechanics, in fact becoming vice-chair of the town party organization, a position which eventually helped land her a job as an Assistant Attorney General ujnder Louis Lefkowitz during the first one + terms of Nelson Rockefellar as governor -- she was not sworn in until November of 1959, b ecause there was a securfity probem -- you see, she had been at the OPA and the NY State Police kept coming up with hits for a Sylvia Bernstein who worked there who was a communist. It was not my mother, who had worked there under her maiden name, Livingston. Eventually the State Police cleared her and she worked in the AG's office until her death in 1963. It was not until I read Carl Bernstein writing about growing up as a red Diaper baby that I realized the Sylvia whom the state police confused with my mom was his mom!!

As a pre-teen I leafleted in the 1956 election cycle for Eisenhower. I can remember singing a song to the tune of the Disney Song [from Snow White] "Whistle while you work:"

Whistle while you work
Stevenson's a jerk
Eisenhower has more power
Whistle why you work.

In 1960 my parents were not too enthusiastic about Nixon, although it was not until later that I learned their distaste actually went back to when they were all at the OPA -- my mother had apparently actually had some not so pleasant dealings with him. On the other hand, they were not excited about JFK because they were far too aware of some of the activities and attitudes of Joseph P Kennedy.

And yet, by 1960 I was already beginning to lean to Democratic, although there were problems with the national party. I was growing up in a time of the development of the Civil Rights movement. We watched Little Rock on the TV ... and that was but a few years after my earliest tv memories, which were of the Army-McCarthy hearings. While I did not like the rascism I saw in the Southern Democrats, I also saw that most of the Blacks I admired were Democrats [because of FDR], Jackie Robinson being the msot notable exception. Race mattered, because I was shocked by a trip to Miami over one Christmas to see signs for separate bathrooms, and my parents having to explain that to me.

By my junior year of hs, 1961-62, I was an active teen Democrat. Now, that was partially because the town chair had a very lovely daughter on whom I had had a crush, although that had ceased to be the reason, and some other issues were in my consciousness. I was not saying the New York State Regents prayer even before the Engel decision came down, and it was during that Fall that I ceased reciting or standing for the Pledge of Allegiance .. I was becoming very concerned with the issues of civil rights and civil liberties, perhaps growing up in a nominally Jewish household, and knowing as I did survivors of the Holocaust who attended our Temple, and hearing tales from my mother's mother and her siblings (of whom I think either 5 or 6 were still alive) of persecution in Poland before coming to the U.S. [of course, several had been born here, but they repeated family tales .. and I had vague memories at Passover Seders of my mother's paternal grandmother, born in 1862 and who lived well into her 90's, who had also been born in Poland, and emigrated to the US in the early 1880's].

Civil Rights became a defining issue for me. I was involved in protests the summer I graduated from hs -- 1963 -- and on August 28 of that year I came to Washington for the March -- it was an important moment in my adolescence. After JFK's assassination, hearing LBJ speak to the Congress on behalf of the Civil Rights bill, saying in his Texas accent "we shall overcome" had a profound effect on me. And yet, without the courage of Northern Republicans like Everett Dirkson the SothernDdems might have been able to kill the bill. So I was still conflicted about party identification.

Also, when I was in college [at Haverford], my father had remarried and moved to NY City, wherein we saw the election of a very progressive Republican mayor, John Lindsey, at a time when many of the Democratic figures in the city were, to put it bluntly, hacks who were at the least ethically challenged.

I also responded positively to the War on Poverty -- LBJ was clearly influenced by his own personal experiences, including his service as a school teacher in poor communities in Texas. That appealed to me, because I have always had a belief that we have responsibility to a larger community.

Don't worry -- I'm not going to recapitulate my entire life story in this entry!!!

The point is that I had a mixed background politically. And that has been as true for much of my adult life as well. There have been Republicans I have greatly admired -- Sen Mark Hatfield comes to mind immediately. The Barry Goldwater of the 1970's and later is another -- he was blunt enough to play a major role in getting Nixon out of office, and in his libertarian orientation made it absolutely clear that he had no problems with gay rights -- this had become important for me because of experiences of living in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights, two communities with substantial gay populations, and coming to know quite a few a ordinary people, often with interests and concerns very similar to my own. Here again it is the issue of human dignity, perhaps the best way I can put it.

And yet ... had I been given my choice of whom to support for President in 1968 it might well have been Nelson Rockefellar, even though I had sat in at his NYC office in a Civil Rights protest. There were some things about Gene McCarthy that did not draw me, and as much as admired how far RFK had come, from his days as an aide to Joe McCarthy to an outspoken advocate of the downtrodden, perhaps in my still relative immaturity (I was 22) I had not totally forgiven him for his past [and his father] and also resented that he was not willing to challenge LBJ on the war until after McCarthy had wounded Johnson in NH. As it happened, I was in Sweden when Johnson announced that he would not run again, and I could not fully explain in terms that the Swedes could understand what was happening. I knew I couldn't stand Nixon, and quite frankly I knew too much negative about Humphrey, and I was still very judgmental then [as if I am not now!!]

I have never voted for a Republican for president. I have chosen not to vote -- in 1984, because I could not bring myself to vote for Mondale, and because I knew it would not make a difference. I had worked as a volunteer for [and been offered a paid job by] the Hollings campaign, and somehow in the midst of all that, even though I had moved to Virginia in 1982, in 1983 I was asked if i was interested in returning to Penna for a fairly serious job with the state party -- I was not, and I don't know how serious the discussion was, but the person raising the subject was the state party chair at the time.

So I guess by the early 1980's I was pretty much of a Democrat -- when I moved to Arlington County, one of the first people with whom i was in contact was a former college classmate, John Milliken, who at the time was on the Arlington County Board, later ran un successfully for Congress, then later served as Virginia's Secretary of Transportation. Through him I met the man who was running as a Democrat for the County Treasurer spot, Frank O'Leary. I became heavily involved in helping him win. At the time a heavy majority of the local elected officials in Arlington were Republican, although the state legislators were all Democratic. But that election in 1983 was a major turning point -- today the only elected non -Dedm is a Republican on the school board, who incidentally is the only Republican for whom I have voted in the past 22 years, since moving to Virginia. It felt good to be part of that transition, as it had back in Media Pennsylvania where I had lived before, when we went from one seat on the Boro Council to having everything except one financial job.

So why do I hesitate to call myself a Democrat? There are three reasons. First, the Democratic party really does not stand for anything, so that while in most cases I agree with "Democratic" positions, that is not always the case. Second, I have seen far too much intolerance on some issues --abortion, for example, when it is matter of conscience for some who agree on all other issues-- to make me want to swear loyalty. My wife is pro-life, albeit with exceptions for rape and to save the life of the mother. She votes Democratic despite that because she is strongly pro-Environment, believes in government support of the Arts, and is opposed to the death penalty [when I say "pro-life" she is consistent]. The third and final reason is that ultimately I do not swear loyalty to a party .. I will vote my conscience.

I do not believe that this country will survive for much longer as a democracy if we continue to be riven by party, to be intolerant of those who disagree with us, even on our most basic issues. If we are not willing to work hard to find common ground, we will not have to worry about terrrorists hurting us, we will destroy ourselves. The lack of comity in recent Congresses clearly demosntgrates the problem. This is one I saw coming -- in October 1983 at Charlie Peters' Neoliberal Conference in Reston VA, I rembmer constantly asking how we could restore some comity in our political processes and public discourse -- how could we learn how how to disagree without being disagreeable. I was concerned then, and now I am close to despair on this point. I am an active participant in progressive and left-leaning boards and lists, and I see as much intolerance there as I do from many on the right. I can see some vituperation in the current contest for Chair of the DNC.

So although I have not, since age 10, worked for a Republican as a volunteer, I remain somewhat reluctant to identify myself as a Democrat. And yet, I see interesting things happening, from the ground up, and with leadership from a variety of sources -- Howard Dean is clearly one example, but so are others who are willing to challenge the traditional way of doing things -- Barack Obama, Brian Schweitzer, many at local levels. So perhaps there will be enough clariy and comity that I will comfortable making a formal affiliation, who knows. For now I remain as I am -- leaning Democratic, bujt open to other possibilities -- i view myhselfs as an eclectic progressive - there is no political figure with whom I agree on everything, and I would be shocked to find one. Thus I remain reserved enough to want to be able to disagree on those issues which matter for me. That is far easier to do as an independent. And at 58 going on 59, I am unlikely to either run for office or to have a position of great responsibility in a political organization or campaign, so I have the luxury of remaining independent.

And that's more than enough blogging for this evening.

FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME OFFLINE at kber@earthlink.net Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed! Preface any messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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