Trump Transition

Why I am still a Democrat (even though I can't stand my party right now)

President-elect Donald Trump listens to a reporters question at Trump Tower in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President-elect Donald Trump listens to a reporters question at Trump Tower in New York, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As Donald Trump prepares to assume the Presidency, Republican friends have asked moderate Democrats like me why we don’t join the GOP. After all, the party of Lincoln dominates state legislatures, Governorships, and all levers of power in Washington D.C.

So why don’t I leave the Democratic Party?

Growing up in rural Oregon, being a Democrat was a good thing. My grandparents celebrated President Roosevelt and his efforts to pull the nation from the brink of the Great Depression. There were good government jobs for those with strong backs and willing hands. The elderly and disabled could count on Social Security to comfort them in their hardest years.

Most especially, my family was grateful for FDR’s efforts to bring electricity and phone lines to our farm.

As my parents grew up, they took inspiration from President Kennedy and his call for shared sacrifice and service. They agreed that their fellow citizens ought to first ask what they might do for their country, not the other way around. Everyone was expected to work and contribute, especially as we battled the Soviet Union and the evils of communism.

Most of all, my parents stood firm with President Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring that black Americans had – and will always have – an unshakable place at the American table.   

In the 1980s, my siblings and I grew up witnessing the power and importance of compromise. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) worked closely with President Reagan to find common cause on tax reform and immigration despite profound ideological differences. Later, we watched a rural leader and neighbor – Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) – work with President Bush as the Soviet Union collapsed and the U.S. emerged as the leader of the free world.

In short, my family felt pride to be part of the Democratic Party – and America.

But throughout the 1990s, things started to change. For the parties. And for the country.

In 1999, the timber mill in my hometown closed, with nothing to replace it. Friends and family moved away. Businesses went bankrupt. My county became older and poorer.

But rural Oregon wasn’t alone. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, this same scene played out across the nation. Steel mills, canneries, furniture plants, and mines. Gone. Their loss impacted not just white working families but black and brown too.

The cause of this decline? My family saw a mix of corporate greed, free trade agreements, unfair environmental regulations, and technology like automation and robotics.

But there was also another guilty party: urban elites. These rich-getting-richer Americans viewed our land as "Fly Over States," filled with poor-getting-poorer hillbillies. We may have grown the food on their plates, but we weren’t good enough to enjoy it with them.

Not surprisingly, these former neighbors eventually became The Others.

Both political parties understood this sad development and took advantage.

In 1992, Republican leaders cast gay men like me as child predators in order to scare (fellow) Christians and rural folks to the polls – and their party.

Democrats took their own turn, using identity politics to cobble together their coalition of women, minorities, and urbanites that cast the rest of America aside.

The battle between the extremes was on. Tea Partiers tossed out moderate Republicans while liberal Democrats made no room for their rural brethren.

The result? Our democracy lost the people and temperament for compromise and empathy.

Meanwhile, the country’s problems went largely unresolved for nearly 20 years. Incomes have remained flat. Costs of living – specifically housing – have skyrocketed. And young people have saddled themselves with student debt. Our nation’s future is now stuck at home living with their parents.

Is it any wonder that nobody’s happy with this political arrangement? Approval ratings for members of Congress are about the same as those for communist North Korea.

President-elect Trump has the chance to bring about a much-needed rebirth of the American political system. And though I’m skeptical – he recently called Democrats “clowns” – I’m still hopeful; so too are nearly 60 percent of my fellow Democrats who want him to succeed.

But if Trump fails, how do we break this fever of division? And how do Democrats help encourage that process? After all, we need multiple voices in America’s democracy. We are not North Korea – or China or Russia – with their single political party.

In short, I believe the Democrats can make a compelling case if we rediscover and embrace the legacies of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, O’Neill, and Foley. We have a proven path forward.

First, we’ve got to find, train, and promote candidates who put America first, not our party. No more ideologues who are unwilling to compromise. That means things have to change at the Democratic National Committee – a topic I’ll cover in another column.

In the meantime, here’s one simple idea: abandon divisive groups like “Gays for Obama” or “Latinos for Obama.” How refreshing it would be for committees to instead be based on our cities, like “Denver for Obama.” We’d all show up as neighbors – black and white, gay and straight.

Democrats and Republicans.

Second, we have to adopt policies that are centrist and accommodating. I’ve drafted a list of 10 principles to guide us – from term limits to new trade agreements – all of which were formed from conversations I’ve had with Republicans and Democrats who share my passion for compromise and progress.

I have no illusions that collaboration will be easy or without conflict. In fact, I embrace civilized debate. Most of us do. But we’re tired of the endless fighting. And we have no shortage of problems to tackle. There’s little time to waste.

If President Trump cannot make America great again, then Democrats like me are ready to offer an alternative. My hunch is that, if we are earnest in our appeals, families across this country – including mine – might give us another chance to govern.

And that’s why I’m sticking with – and will help reshape – a new Democratic Party.

Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.