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In these difficult times, when democracy itself is being tested as maybe never before in our country’s history, I find myself seriously reflecting upon my core political beliefs and asking why am I a Democrat and what does it mean? Of course this is really a way of convincing myself that playing in our two-party roulette in America has some meaning. While I always come to the conclusion that my entire life has not been an exercise in political futility, it nevertheless helps to rationalize such involvement.

Why I Am a Democrat

I was seven years old when John F. Kennedy was elected President. Growing up Catholic in Northeast Philadelphia, attending Catholic school, attending church each morning before school, serving as an altar boy when the mass was performed in Latin, and enduring the wrath of nuns who regularly took out their frustrations on us while hiding behind a habit and the Baltimore Catechism, my early indoctrination to politics preordained that I would hold a special place in my heart for the Kennedys that would last a lifetime.

I was nine years old when JFK was assassinated and the days that followed were a slow motion misery that seemed like weeks, overshadowing the fact that we had a couple of days unexpectedly off from school. It was the closest thing to actually having time stand still. In our house, on the wall at the bottom of the steps was my mother’s homemade homage to our religion: a crucifix with a palm wrapped around it, a picture of Pope John XXIII, and completing the holy Trinity was a picture of our President, the first Catholic to be elected to lead the greatest nation on Earth. I believe it was the first Presidential election my parents participated in and henceforth they would remain dedicated Democrats.

The stage was set and from an early age I was fascinated with politics. I remember watching the Democratic National Convention in 1964 being held in Atlantic City, 60 miles east of my hometown and feeling the power of the emotions if not the meaning of the words spoken. Cities were on fire, racial tensions were tearing our nation, and my hometown, apart. As a response my father felt compelled to move us out to the suburbs as we joined massive white flight migration that was propelled as much by fear of safety as latent racism.

Democratic approaches to rectifying inequality in the human condition are empathetic, compassionate, and rest on the belief that yes it really does “take a village.” Republican approaches are premised on the belief that everybody is responsible for their own “success.”

I was fifteen when Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther KingJr., assassinated. My political instincts were fueled by civil rights, a senseless war in Southeast Asia, and the cultural revolution that was sweeping a generational rejection of the prevailing power structure. The revolution in music, hairstyles, clothes, drugs, and permissive sexual attitudes influenced and reinforced my Democratic inclinations. Even though because of age I caught the tail end of the revolution I nevertheless embraced it, all of it. I watched the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, hell, remember the “whole world was watching,” and while not yet old enough to vote was swept away by the spectacle that unfolded before our very eyes. I was definitely incensed by the dismissive attitude reflected by the dominant power structure, but there was never a doubt I was a Democrat. And while there were times when I would toy with the idea of rebelling and becoming an Independent, my instincts told me it was more important to be a player. Thus, early on I made a critical decision to participate from the inside in the hopes that I might make a real difference.

I participated in the first Earth Day in Washington, DC in 1970 and was rocked by the killing of college students at Kent State. A year later I had enrolled in college in Georgia both to advance my dreams of becoming a professional baseball player and just as importantly to avoid the draft. A serious accident would dash my dreams of a major league career and at the same time protect me from the draft. It would also afford me the opportunity to catch every waking minute of the Watergate hearings while I recuperated.

Unshackled by the restrictions of Catholic high school I grew my hair long, actively protested the war, took my first American government course and decided that I would dedicate my life to changing the world by working to rid the world of poverty, promoting greater economic equality, and fulfilling the pledge that ours was a society dedicated to freedom and equal opportunity.

In 1976 I was chosen to represent my school as a Governor’s intern in the Georgia State Senate. I would find myself campaigning for a peanut farmer from Georgia in New Hampshire in January, then on to six other primary states, and ended up working on the floor of the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York City that summer. After spending two years in graduate school I wound my way to the nation’s capitol, where I would embark upon a nearly forty-year career in politics, public policy, and government.

Ultimately I would work for two Presidents, two US Senators, two Governors, the Senate Budget Committee, and the US Conference of Mayors. In addition I would end up working in 9 of the last 11 Democratic National Conventions, mostly in Podium Operations, the best seat in the hall.

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I made my decision to devote my career and life to liberal causes and remain convinced that the Democratic Party represents the best chance for effectuating social justice and equal opportunities for the greatest number of people. As I would grow and learn through my many experiences the major difference between the two parties has always been the degree to which one believes that government CAN make positive differences in people’s lives. This does not mean that automatically government WILL make things better, but if governed by a healthy dose of optimism, compassion, empathy, scientific evidence, data, and a willingness to reach out and listen to those who are struggling and left behind GOVERNMENT CAN WORK.

For most of my years I have believed that the outstanding thing separating the two political parties was the scope of government involvement in setting key societal issues. Crudely Democrats believe in larger and more intrusive government while Republicans believe in smaller and less intrusive government.

Democrats believe that government can be a constructive, positive force in helping society achieve progress on social and economic fronts. From the perspective of pragmatic administration Democrats believe that public service represents a noble avocation. Republicans are wedded to trickle-down economics, individual entrepreneurship, a predilection for management over labor, and a rigid belief that everyone has the opportunity to advance regardless of their socio-economic environment, and are dismissive of the idea that government programs represent little more than handouts rather than helping tools for advancement.<

Democratic approaches to rectifying inequality in the human condition are empathetic, compassionate, and rest on the belief that yes it really does “take a village.” Republican approaches are premised on the belief that everybody is responsible for their own “success.” The problem with their approaches is that they define success and while at some point in life individuals are responsible for their own decisions generations of children born and raised in poverty usually adopt negative if any reinforcement while struggling with the lack of basic needs. This vicious cycle is not their fault, hence government programs can and do help them strive to rise above their unfortunate circumstances.

In essence, the major difference between Republicans and Democrats revolve around the role of government in society. Some can point to examples where unintended consequences of public policies actually make things worse. If, however, there is a commitment to learn from past mistakes and a willingness to change and improve programs and policies government can indeed render significant progress in addressing societal inequities.

Now no political structure is perfect and it is easy to identify imperfections regardless of where you stand on the ideological spectrum, but the beauty of our democratic system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and adherence to the rule of law is that it allows for the ultimate arbiter, compromise, to help us along the way. Hence, our two party system may not promote the most efficient or effective remedies but allows for steady incremental change over time. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

The Republican Party today has lost its soul. In my lifetime I have witnessed the devolution of moderation, particularly in the GOP that is now firmly in the grip of Trump. Unless this changes it is likely that the divisions that are existent in our society will continue to deepen. This is not the Republic as envisioned by our founding fathers, not the one Franklin assured us we had if we can keep it. Process is every bit as important, if not more so, than product. Today the system is broken and we are paying an enormous price for our dysfunction.

I am a Democrat because I believe it offers the best chance for reconciliation of differences between a deeply divided electorate. We must strive to make our governmental system work so that it benefits the society at large and continues to feature us as a beacon for liberty, justice, and freedom throughout the world. We need a vibrant two-party system in order to bring to light our differences and resolve them in a peaceful, civil, and functional way.

Talk about civil war, and the diminished level of civil discourse today in politics and government is antithetical to what this nation is all about. Healthy dissent is a positive force in governing. Compromise represents functionality. But we must know what we stand for in order to engage in the intellectual discussion required for advancement and progress. My belief and commitment to public service is why I am a Democrat, my desire to offer future generations a world at least as good as that which we inherited is why I am a Democrat, and offering programs and policies that foster equality and an enhanced quality of life for all is why I am a Democrat.

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Lance Simmens

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