Me and My Most Cowardly Vice: the Democratic Party

Sticking with the same political party your entire life—come hell or high treason—is not virtuous or enviably loyal or patriotic. It’s intellectual vegetation, or in the parlance of our times, Dumb and Dumber still.

I hold a deep level of respect for apolitical heretics who prefer staying in life’s bleachers and making fun of the other team’s uniform to playing the game and painting by numb skulls. I can relate to the jaded malcontents among us who have a horrific time tripping the light fantastic with any politician just because he or she is highly skilled in the art of rhetoric.

If loyalty is determined by the friends who stand by you at the end of the ball with nary a suitable dance partner in sight, then the jig is up for me and my most cowardly vice:  the Democratic party. I am ending my monogamous 20-year love affair and getting hitched to nonpartisan grassroots organizations that share my ideals and actually do support a more progressive America.

The spineless need not apply to a no-wing agenda that demands a moralistic backbone. Problem is, the Democrats (I almost used the pluralistic “we”) have become (always have been?) a party of compromise. You can’t be a party of pomp and style satisfied with small, incremental victories when our country is in dire need of sweeping, transformative triumphs. The Democrats may be adopting the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, but it is high time they step up to the plate and deliver on their promises to enact legislation that addresses the causes of the 99%, such as income inequality.

I come from a long line of small-town Republicans, GOP fundraisers, and door-to-door election campaign canvassers. With two uncles as former borough councilmen, including one ex-police commissioner, and a third uncle, now deceased, serving as police chief of a neighboring Northern New Jersey suburb, I was reared with a lingering scent of right-wing political correctness in the oft-times smoky, authoritative air of my childhood home. This was before the term “politically correct” was in vogue or satirized on late night television.

My first encounter with insubordination was when I witnessed the actions of a fellow teenage booster dumping his leaflets in the side street sewer to avoid having to hand deliver them to hundreds of houses. The bold wastefulness of the act baffled me, but I don’t recall feeling the need to snitch on the slacker. Nor do I recall wondering how many Election Day votes he may have cost my uncles running for office. I just remember wishing that I too was finished stuffing mailboxes with propaganda I had never bothered to read so I could get on with my pubescent pursuit of the incumbent mayoral candidate’s daughter at the annual summer picnic.

The democratic process meant as little to me in 1976 as the table-pounding arguments I overheard coming mainly from the men in the dinette, where my parents sat on weekend nights with their siblings and spouses. My father appeared to be the lone Donkey sympathizer in the bunch, his Dewars scotch-inflected voice booming over the rest of them, until one of my uncles—the better educated and more articulate of the men—would set the record straight with a loud diatribe against, say, trade unions and their inalienable right to strike, even though we came from a predominantly working class background. This blind one-party allegiance made no sense to me then (and even less sense now) and as much as I try, it’s hard for me to hear a dissenting female voice speaking out on the day’s issues. If I were pressed to describe the scene, alas, I hear women’s opinions being rudely dismissed. So much for the second wave of the feminist movement coming to age in my house in the mid-1970s.

The then recent embarrassment of President Richard M. Nixon’s shameful resignation did little to dampen my family’s enthusiasm for Republican principles and so-called family values. My mother contends that it was due to the influence and calculated actions of my grandfather—her Democrat-leaning immigrant Italian father—who purportedly registered Republican in 1945 out of deference to his next-door neighbor, the Hasbrouck Heights mayor.

With not a hint of patronizing, I look at the honorable law enforcement careers of my now retired brothers as a direct result of our family’s humble surroundings and a reflection of pragmatic upbringing. A job on the police force was their call to service as much as it was steady income. It was a very practical way to make a living and set them up for early retirement with a comfortable pension and lifetime health benefits.

My brothers earned their keep with round-the-clock shift rotations, holiday duties, and often thankless work assignments. They both paid their dues as local members of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA). As a testament to my youthful naïveté, it had never occurred to me that they worked for such a heavily unionized component of municipal government. I eventually grew to decipher the coded language of being “on the job” and the strength of brotherhood among policemen. I learned how the Fraternal Order of Police and PBA locals across the nation periodically negotiate contracts with town officials and administrators to help improve employment conditions for Johnny Law.

Today’s divisiveness between the Boys in Blue and the Occupy demonstrators represents a severe void in understanding the American Labor Movement and its evolution. Patrolmen should read about the Boston Police strike in 1919 and the abhorrent work conditions that prompted the watershed event. For those readers who want to be entertained while informed, the fictional account of the political and social unrest of our nation in Dennis Lehane’s sweeping historical novel, The Given Day, should be education enough.

What some historians call a turning point in the U.S. Labor Movement should be sufficient for officers of the law to sympathize with the present day challenges of unemployed college graduates, as well as the common American laborer. In the years after World War I, it took a united front by workers of all stripes and sizes to effect real change in this country. Nearly a century later, workers must still gather in large numbers to have their collective voice heard.

I recall too my conservative oldest brother taking offense to the daily news coverage of “that commie paper,” The Bergen Record, my first employer, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember vividly his disdain for columnist Mike Kelly who was critical of a police officer during a criminal trial. Kelly had chosen descriptive language in his report to pick apart the blemishes—warts, if memory serves correctly—on the officer’s face. My brother found this approach to be in poor taste and I had a difficult time defending the writer’s callous choice of words, though I considered the writing itself to be topnotch.

Finally, I remember writing my first Op-Ed piece at a desk in the sequestered editorial offices of The Record. Desk space was at a premium so I regularly squatted at an open desk where the newspaper’s brain trust gathered to pass judgment on the day’s current events. After a while, it became a habit to seek out and find the same space available so I began bringing in personal items and left them at the desk. I suppose this was my passive-aggressive way of marking my territory, though I worked quietly every day, sure not to disturb a soul for fear of losing my spot.

One day I grabbed a framed, color photograph of Richard Nixon that my uncle—a retired police chief and former presidential aide—had given to me, personally inscribed by Nixon. Perhaps it was my subconscious way of thumbing my nose at the condescending staff that populated the Opinion page’s offices, but I took the liberty of hanging the photo without permission. It was not that I was a conservative—I was an irreverent 25-year-old who had cast his first vote for Bill Clinton, but I simply was proud of having a family member so closely connected to a man of power.

After a few weeks and a handful of sneers and left-handed compliments about the signed photo of a corrupt politician hanging above my de facto desk, the Opinion page editor caught my eye one fateful morning and said, “you have nerve hanging that man’s picture on your wall.” Due to my ongoing naïveté, I literally took the insult as a compliment. (“I have nerve!”)

A few days later my editor called me into his office and asked me to pack my things and find a different spot in the newsroom. As a member of the sport department, I had been occupying space which was not mine, he told me, politely. “Remove your belongings and pitch a tent elsewhere,” he said.

It was my very first taste of encampment evacuation. Thankfully, the use of pepper spray was not ordered and harsh, physical removal unnecessary.

So much for the liberal media and its tolerance for the wayward actions of misguided youth. Where’s an apolitical heretic to turn?

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