I’m a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat my entire life.
I used to utter those two sentences with pride and would shout them from the highest rooftops. Now, I’m almost embarrassed to say those words.
I almost can’t articulate my political affiliation in public (or on the radio) without immediately offering an apology and an explanation.
How did I get here?
I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately. The more I ask it, the more I come to the realization that I haven’t changed all that much. Sure, I’m a little older … OK, a lot older. I have a few more children (one at every exit in New Jersey). I am also a little closer to collecting Social Security than I might’ve been a few years ago. However, in examining the current state of world affairs and the political landscape, the more I realize that the Democratic Party has changed far more than I have.
Contrary to popular belief, my first exposure to Democratic politicians wasn’t when I played Jimmy Carter in my first episode of “Saturday Night Live.” I’ve always been a political junkie and followed politics, the way my friends followed sports. My parents never told me where they were politically or where I should be. They encouraged an independent streak, a healthy skepticism of authority, coupled with a large dose of common sense and a love of country that was all-consuming.
My father was a proud Italian-American, but the American was second to no other nationality. “Pop” was a World War II veteran and a brilliant lawyer who devoted his professional life representing the working class, particularly new legal immigrants.
I was a Democrat because I believed in civil rights, like Lyndon Johnson. I was a Democrat because while it was clear to me that the Republican politicians were out of touch and cared for only the upper class, Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt cared for the masses and helping the working man. I was a Democrat because I believed in a strong defense and opposed communism, like John F. Kennedy. And I was a Democrat because I loved the fact that Kennedy understood we needed lower marginal tax rates.
By and large, none of these values are represented in the Democratic Party today. From where I’m standing, the party has largely abandoned its commitment to civil rights and instead allows race-baiters to be national power brokers. As spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of New Jersey, I am hurt that there is not one Democrat in Washington who cares enough about the great inner cities of this country to help those in dire distress from poverty and crime. These cities are in worse shape than those countries from which all those illegal “children” crossing our borders daily are coming.
In my home state, if I can walk the streets of Camden to try to help the disenfranchised, why can’t the Democrat in the White House walk the South Side of his hometown and do the same? In terms of caring for the working class, it seems as though Democrats are more interested in catering to the special interests, such as the trial lawyers, lobbyists and George Soros who fund their campaigns — rather than fighting for small-business relief to allow a higher minimum wage or (God forbid) middle-class tax relief.
Most disheartening, though, is the Democrats’ weak commitment to a strong defense and maintaining America’s place in the world as the only superpower. All I see is an American foreign policy led by a Democratic administration that is floundering when it comes to things like dealing with Iraq, Russia and Syria, inept when it comes to crises like Benghazi, and weak at the knees when it comes to protecting our strongest Middle Eastern ally, Israel.
I guess a big part of the reason I’m a Democrat has to do with who I am. I grew up idolizing the larger-than-life-personas I’ve encountered over the years in music, sports, movies and business. Which, of course, explains my fondness for “The Old Man,” as we affectionately called Frank Sinatra. I grew up believing that all of the rock-star personas were Democrats — no bigger star in the world than Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson had a Texas swagger that got things done, and Ed Koch could host “Saturday Night Live” as well as any other politician.
In politics today, where are today’s larger-than-life figures, ready to inspire the next generation of public servants to “ask not what your country can do for you …”?
When I met President Reagan, I felt inspired. I want to feel inspired again. Like Reagan, I think the time has come for me to leave the party I’ve been a member of my entire life — not because I want to leave it, but because it has already left me.
I don’t think I’m ready to become a Republican yet (although despite their lack of solutions, I still find myself rooting for the Republicans in the midterm elections for the first time I can recall).
In good conscience, however, I can’t continue to call myself a Democrat.
In becoming an independent, I think I’m maintaining the independent (dare I say, libertarian?) mindedness and patriotism that my parents endowed me with. For the country’s sake and for their own, I hope the Democrats wake up.
I am also hopeful that we, the people, will wake up and strongly feel, with heart and soul, what my family always instilled in me and what is sadly absent in many of today’s political leaders: the love, the appreciation and an unapologetic pride of being an American.
Joe Piscopo is an actor, comedian and host of “The Joe Piscopo Show” on AM 970 The Answer in New York.