There before me, an empty space on the election ballot.
Not one progressive had dared oppose the incumbent. His tenure in office was marred by admitted “inappropriate and regrettable” behavior, yet he ran unchallenged.
The blinking cursor thumbed its nose at me, keenly aware that whatever name I wrote in—be it “Johnny Appleseed” or “Mr. Smith”—could not prevent the Republican candidate’s barbaric political agenda from proceeding unchecked another two years.
That’s when I started thinking about running.
November 2014 came and went.
I again considered running for office. Who am I kidding, I thought. I live in South Carolina. The Confederate Flag flies indignantly upon the State House grounds less than one block from where I work.
This is the land that Strom Thurmond built. The (Appalachian) trail that Mark Sanford blazed. Every other car still has a McCain/Palin bumper sticker.
No one would take a dyed-in-the-wool-Bernie-Sanders-progressive candidate seriously.
Thousands gathered for days upon the grounds of the South Carolina State House.
That damned flag: we took it down.
Hmm. I wondered.
The air in Columbia was politically electric. Bernie Sanders was hosting a town hall meeting just down the street from my home. As the 1,000-plus attendees filled the Medallion Center, we gazed curiously at one another: “You? And you? Hey, neighbor, I had no idea about you! There are so many of us! But this is South Carolina.”
Senator Sanders spoke off the cuff that night for an hour. He railed against Walmart and oligarchy, against Wall Street and Super PACs. He presented a plan to increase access to higher education in an unprecedented manner. He vowed to be a candidate of civility, peace and progress; a candidate of the people—answerable to the people:
“What we need is a serious discussion about serious issues facing our country!”
That discussion occurred, and thus far, 3 million Americans have contributed financially to Bernie Sanders’ vision of a Compassionate Political Revolution.
At the same time, another discussion has been occurring—not so much a discussion as a tempest toss’d. Across the fruited plain have blown the bloviating winds of an egomaniacal billionaire, calling unto himself the pitchforked masses with crude jokes about menstrual cycles and Mexicans, with undignified impersonations of disabled reporters and Republican opponents—and, worst of all, with unthinkable threats against our fellow Muslim citizens.
One by one, candidates have been torn to pieces by the comb-over carnivore. And with each crass joke and vacuous declaration, the billionaire beast has gained soapbox bully strength.
Then, on February 26, 2016, Donald J. Trump appeared to cross the Godwin Line in a speech celebrating the endorsement of New Jersey Governor and freshly-crushed candidate Chris Christie. Before an aroused crowd in Ft. Worth, Texas, Trump upped his rhetoric to near-Fuhrer levels and vowed to destroy the New York Times, the Washington Post, Amazon, and anything else that bothered him. In kindergarten fashion, Trump sprayed a water bottle upon the stage and mocked the physical appearance of Marco Rubio, then in the next breath vowed to crush America’s enemies, whoever they happen to be.
Meanwhile, November 2016 approaches. And my July 2015 “hmm” grows more and more into a moral imperative: To run.
And I wonder: Are there others out there like me? Men and women inspired by Bernie Sanders (and Hillary Clinton) to run, men and women who increasingly sense an obligation to stand up for the republic in the face of would-be tyranny.
Because, let’s be blunt: there is no other way to interpret a possible Trump Presidency.
I keep dreaming about that empty ballot space. Literally. It wakes me up at night.
Dark days are falling upon our nation. We are the boiling frog. The republic itself is threatened by a true demagogue—a crude megalomaniac who will, I have no doubt, isolate the United States from the civilized world and pulverize a century of progressive accomplishments in the blink of a runway model’s eye.
Whether or not Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, one thing the Good Senator from Vermont has done is plant the seed inside me that not only can I run for public office, but that perhaps I should run for public office—that I may have a moral imperative not to let some bully conservative trundle off to Washington acting like he has a lifetime membership to Congress.
Whoever wins, be it Bernie or Hillary, the Democratic Nominee will need my voice in my community, in my district, in my state.
And the Democratic Nominee will need your voice too. They’ll need our voices.
Strong voices. Determined voices. Voices that will call out Trump’s claptrap and all the other widely scattered Republican rot.
Maybe you find yourself in a similar situation. Maybe you’re an up-and-coming community leader and find yourself wide awake at night thinking about empty spaces on local, state or national ballots.
I have one word for you.
I spent several years researching and writing a screenplay about the life and tragedy of Hans Litten, a German attorney who worked tirelessly for justice, and who put Hitler on the witness stand and nearly put him away in 1931, two years before the burning of the Reichstag. (Click here to watch a screenplay teaser.)
During my research, I purchased a book by Irmgard Litten, Hans Litten’s mother, entitled A Mother Fights Hitler. Most of the Litten family fled Germany after Hans’ arrest, but his mother stayed behind to fight for her son’s freedom. Following Hans’ murder in 1938 at Dachau, Irmgard fled to England, where she published A Mother Fights Hitler.
When my copy of A Mother Fights Hitler arrived, I removed the dust jacket to place it in a preserving wrapper. I was shocked to discover that the endpaper was inscribed by Irmgard Litten. The inscription reads:
Fight Hitler while you still have time. Irmgard Litten. July 22, 1942.
Irmgard did everything a mother could do to keep her son alive. And then she spent the rest of the war exhorting others to fight tyranny with everything they had.
“Fight Hitler while you still have time.”
It’s a message with meaning today. I have no doubt that Civilization hangs in the balance this election. In November 2016, let those who can, run.
The prospect of running for office can be intimidating. But we shouldn’t fear. For progressives never run alone. We run in the company of thousands of heroes of Civilization. And we run with the banner of MLK’s “audacious hope.”
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