I have not polled subscribers to The Progressive Populist, but I would bet that a large number of them like and respect Dennis Kucinich. I would also bet that most of those readers who admire him will nonetheless not vote for him in upcoming primaries. Like most political professionals, they regard a vote for him as wasted. Nonetheless, there are times when tilting at windmills may be pragmatic politics.
Political primaries are supposed to be the time when a party's activists set its basic course. Political professionals often worry that a party's most fanatical members will dominate primaries and thereby lead it to overwhelming defeat in the general election. They tell us that this is what happened in 1972 with George McGovern. But over the last 20 years the Republican Party has become increasingly the preserve of social conservatives and a hard right economic agenda. A core constituency that felt its interests and concerns had been long neglected relentlessly pushed the party and changed both it and the nation.
Even the activists in this year's Democratic primary appear to have embraced the professional's agenda. Rather than vote for whom they like, their guiding concern seems to be who can beat George Bush. Their conclusion is that the best way to beat Bush is to be a centrist, to cozy up to him on many if not most issues.
That advice did not help Al Gore. Taking that advice allows the center to continue sliding to the right, and with no electoral gain. The Republicans and some of the media can be counted on to portray any candidate even mildly critical of the president as a radical left-winger. Howard Dean was portrayed as far left and as unelectable. Yes, Dean has been an opponent of the war, but he is at pains to suggest that he will maintain a stout military posture. And he supports a balanced budget amendment, a piece of economic fundamentalism that would be worthy of Calvin Coolidge.
There is a strong case to be made for progressive support of Kucinich even if he could not win a primary let alone a general election. For one thing, Kucinich is right on the issues. Health care in the US will remain inequitable, inefficient, and increasingly bureaucratic if we continue on the current road. Conservatives like to rail against government-managed health-care, but bribing private corporations to cover more Americans only invites industry giants to cherry-pick healthy customers or devise ever more creative ways to deny appropriate care for the ill. Privatizing health increases administrative costs and eventually requires intrusive forms of federal regulation. Medicare is not perfect, but it is better than any of the so-called mainstream proposals for bringing the uninsured into the health-care system. Kucinich keeps alive policy options that will be necessary if this nation is to avoid either catastrophic cost overruns or the denial of any care to millions of our fellow citizens.
Kucinich is also right on trade. Current trade agreements are not free trade. Corporations are granted protection for intellectual property and rights of foreign investment while workers are left defenseless. And as the outsourcing of jobs now moves from manufacturing into even many white-collar occupations, a political party that hopes to make any claim to Middle America must seek to redress the inequities in trade policies.
The war may be on the back burner right now, but casualties mount and Iraq is perilously close to civil war. Large numbers of Americans are willing to listen to alternative perspectives on national security.
Dennis Kucinich has been exemplary in defense of his political principles. Unlike the other candidates, he has staked his political career on principle. As mayor of Cleveland he steadfastly opposed the privatization of the city's electrical utilities. For this thankless task the financial markets skewered him unmercifully, eventually costing him his job and casting him into political exile for more than a decade. Yet because of his courage privatization never went through and Cleveland has saved billions of dollars.
One of the most unfortunate and destructive aspects of American politics is our tendency to measure candidates through close scrutiny of their childhood backgrounds, wives and family histories. If George Bush had an exemplary military record, should we support the war in Iraq? But given this propensity, Dennis Kucinich would have a compelling story to tell about his emergence from a working-class background to a position of political leadership. No one could label him a liberal elitist.
Kucinich will not win any primaries. But a strong showing will serve at least two purposes. It will make it harder to argue that moderate critics of the war and the Bush economic agenda are extremists. In addition, it will keep alive issues the Democrats must address if they are to appeal to marginalized and alienated sectors of the electorate.
Political choices based on scenarios of electability often forget that electorates are not static. Primaries that effectively pose alternative views can deepen and clarify voters' understanding of the issue. And success can in turn breed future success, thereby changing the center of American politics.
Kucinich's views may not currently be those of even a majority of Democrats. But these views do resonate with far more citizens than his voting totals suggest. There are many reasons why this candidacy has thus far flopped. The media prejudged it, and lack of money played a major role. But a premature and misguided pragmatism on the part of many activists may damage the Democratic Party even more than it does Kucinich.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.