Why in the Hell Is Clay Aiken on CNN?

While Trump is legitimately terrifying, I would argue that the rise of outside politicians like Trump and Sanders may ultimately be a good thing for our country. Maybe these aren't end times after all. Maybe it's a beginning.
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Just when you think this political season can't be any more ridiculous, you turn on the TV and who is sitting on the panel to weigh in on the politics and political climate of the country?

The gay guy from American Idol.

A 74-year-old socialist is running for president, Donald Trump is talking about setting up a registry of Muslims in the U.S., and Clay Aiken is talking about politics on cable news.

Surely these are end times.

I know that seeing reality stars in the political arena must be jarring. But then again, maybe not. Donald Trump is, if nothing else, a reality star -- one whose growing influence over millions of voters is a bit terrifying. I know and like Trump as a person but let me be clear: I would never vote for him.

No matter -- I still respect where he's coming from. That's because Trump and I have more in common than our time on reality shows. We've both run for office as outsiders appealing to the increasingly vocal voters who are fed up with Washington and the politicians who seem like they no longer represent ordinary people.

During my 2014 campaign for the U.S. House seat in my North Carolina home district, I spent my time trying to convince remarkably Republican voters to vote for me despite my decidedly progressive views. In a district like mine, a Democrat must win over conservatives to even have a prayer. In fact, if every Democrat in North Carolina's 2nd District had voted for me, I still would have needed some Republicans to cross over and give me a chance.

And that meant rubbing shoulders with plenty of Tea Party voters. So there I was, gay as Christmas, campaigning at a pig pickin' where the raffle giveaway was a semiautomatic rifle and the local state senator insisted on calling our president by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama (jingoistic emphasis on the "Hussein").

Throughout the campaign, though, I came to discover that many voters on the right and left in my district (and I daresay the country), despite having very different political beliefs, shared one thing in common -- their disdain for politicians.

To be clear, I also don't want my Tea Party friends from North Carolina to keep winning elections and voting people into office. But I appreciate their involvement in the process. I appreciate that they have joined the conversation as outsiders, as voices that don't necessarily represent the norm or the expected or the typical. I certainly don't agree with them, but I think their participation should be respected.

Which brings us to 2016. What we're seeing on the national stage is basically what I experienced in my little corner of North Carolina but writ large.

Primary voters are saying loudly and clearly that they are fed up with a system that rewards those who play the political game at the expense of their constituents. On the left, we're seeing that in the surprisingly resilient campaign of Bernie Sanders, who, despite being written off as dead by the mainstream media, keeps winning more states. On the right, we're seeing it in Donald Trump's seemingly unstoppable march to the Republican nomination.

And while Trump is legitimately terrifying, I would argue that the rise of outside politicians like Trump and Sanders may ultimately be a good thing for our country.

Maybe these aren't end times after all. Maybe it's a beginning.

Maybe it's the beginning of the movement that Bernie Sanders talks about -- where power starts being taken away from the Washington politicians and put back into the hands of the people. Maybe it's the beginning of a shift in politics where those running for office are more willing to speak unscripted and unapologetically, like Trump does, because they aren't worried about the money they need to raise from lobbyists.

Maybe it's just the beginning of a real and serious national conversation about this important issue. If that's all it turns out to be, it's still an important step ... and the conversation will have gotten started by two very unexpected voices.

This is a real and important conversation, and one I've tried to be a part of for the last two years. So if you see me on CNN, rest assured I'm not there to sing. I'm there to use my unexpected voice in a different way, to speak for the outsiders. There are more of us every day.

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