Establishment Democrats have long viewed Dennis Kucinich with a mixture of scorn, mockery and condescension. True to form, the establishment liberal journal American Prospect gave Kucinich a little kick on the way out, comparing his political views to the 1960s musical “Hair” (the Ohio loser talked about “Harmony and understanding”!), deriding him as “a favorite among lefty college kids and Birkenstock-wearers around the country,” and pronouncing him “among the wackiest members of Congress.” Yes, I said The American Prospect, not The Weekly Standard.
Revealingly, two days after the Prospect article crowned Kucinich “among the wackiest members of Congress,” TPM featured this article, the day after Eric Holder advocated the view that the President has the power to target American citizens for execution without charges:
So let’s recap the state of mental health in establishment Democratic circles: the President who claims (and exercises) the power to target American citizens for execution-by-CIA in total secrecy and with no charges — as well as those who dutifully follow him — are sane, sober and Serious, meriting great respect. By contrast, one of the very few members of Congress who stands up and vehemently objects to this most radical power — “The idea that the United States has the ability to summarily execute a US citizen ought to send chills racing up and down the spines of every person of conscience” — is a total wackjob, meriting patronizing mockery.
Both the Prospect and Post recite the trite case demonstrating Kucinich’s supposed weirdness. He’s friends with Shirley McLaine, who believes in reincarnation, and he once (according to McLaine) claimed to have an encounter with a UFO. Is any of that really any more strange than the litany of beliefs which the world’s major religions require? Is Barack Obama “wacky” because he claims to believe that Jesus turned water into wine, rose from the dead and will soon welcome him to heaven? Is Chuck Schumer bizarre because he seems to believe that there’s some big fatherly figure sitting in the sky who spewed fire and brimstone at those who broke the laws he sent down on some stones and now hovers over him judging his every move? Is Harry Reid a weirdo because he apparently venerates as divine the “visions” of a man who had dozens of wives, including some already married to other men?
Neither the Prospect nor the Post would ever dare mock as “wacky” the belief in invisible judgmental father-figures in the sky or that rendition of life-after-death gospel because those belief systems have been deemed acceptable by establishment circles. ”Wacky”, like its close cousin “crazy,” is a term of establishment derision exclusively reserved for those who deviate from such conventions. And that’s the point worth making here: the real reason anyone with D.C. Seriousness, including many establishment liberals, relished mocking Kucinich is because he dissented from the orthodoxies of the two political parties. That, by definition, makes one wacky and weird, even when — as is true for the Obama assassination powers and so many other bipartisan pieties — the actual wacky and crazy beliefs are those orthodoxies themselves (we’ve seen this repeatedly with those who stray from two-party normalcy). In reality, the actual crazies are those who fit comfortably within that two-party mentality and rarely challenge or deviate from it, while those who are sane, by definition, dissent from it (just today, the Super Serious Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, a prime co-sponsor of the indefinite detention bill passed late last year, called for a naval blockade of Iran).
In a 2010 Newsweek article, Conor Friedersdorf perfectly described how this “crazy” appellation is used by the small-minded to enforce bipartisan beliefs and limit the realm of sanity to the suffocatingly narrow range of opinions permitted by the two parties:
Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. . . .
I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode. . . . are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all. . . .
[I]s it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? . . . [C]razy, kooky, extreme actions are perpetrated by establishment centrists far more often than by [those typically derided in mainstream circles as crazy].
The current President not only has seized the power to assassinate American citizens with no charges, but also to imprison people indefinitely with no charges, to bomb six different countries where no war is declared and where civilians are routinely killed, to invoke extreme, self-parodying levels of secrecy to hide what he does, and to prosecute wars even after Congress votes against their authorization. His cabinet is filled with people who, while in public life, advocated an aggressive attack on another country on the basis of weapons that did not exist, including his Vice President and Secretary of State. His financial team is filled with the very same people who implemented the Wall-Street-subservient policies that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Despite all that, it would be unhealthy in the extreme to hold your breath waiting for the Prospect or the Post to mock any of them as crazy or “wacky,” because what they advocate — as crazy as it is — fits comfortably within the approved orthodoxies of establishment Washington.
Meanwhile, the crazy wacko, Dennis Kucinich, has been an outspoken opponent of all of that. In a rational world, that would make him sane and those he opposed crazy. But in the world of Washington’s political and media class, it’s Kucinich who is the crazy one and those who did all of that are sane and Serious. Put another way, the chickenhawk warmongers at The New Republic are normal, while the anti-war Kucinich is “among the wackiest.”
It’s not difficult to see why Democrats, including progressives, often took (and continue to take) the lead in demonizing Kucinich as a wacky loser. After his Party leaders decreed that impeachment of Bush was “off the table” — both because they feared it would jeopardize their electoral prospects and because top Democrats were complicit in Bush crimes — Kucinich defied their orders and introduced articles of impeachment against Bush for the Iraq War, his chronic lawbreaking, and his assault on the Constitution: exactly what impeachment was designed to prevent and punish. He was one of the very few people in Congress who vehemently denounced the assaults on the Constitution with equal vigor under the prior GOP President and the current Democratic one. He was one of the very few people in Congress with the courage to deviate from the AIPAC script, opposing the Israeli blockade of Gaza, condemning Israeli wars of aggression, and repeatedly publicizing the oppression of Palestinians with the use of American funds and support. He repeatedly insisted on application of the law to the Executive Branch’s foreign policy when all of Washington agreed to overlook it. He repeatedly opposed bipartisan measures to intensify hostility toward Iran. When the Democrats won Congress in 2006 based on a promise to end the Iraq War, only to turn around and continue to fund it without restrictions (thus ensuring that this politically advantageous war would be raging during the 2008 election), Kucinich continuously demanded that they follow through on their promises.
In the domestic policy area, Kucinich typically defended the values which the Democratic Party claims to support even as it assaults those very values. As Progressive wrote this week, “Kucinich was fearless in standing up to corporate power, in denouncing NAFTA and GATT and the WTO and the fallacy of free trade, in criticizing the Federal Reserve Board for not doing more about unemployment and for bailing out the banks” and he “campaigned mightily for universal single-payer health care” (though, under heavy pressure and threats, he supported Obama’s health care bill at the last moment). Kucinich vocally criticized President Obama for proposing substantial cuts to Social Security. He became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Drug War. The Nation‘s John Nichols this week praised him as “one of [Congress'] steadiest critics of corporate power.” Those noble fights were often waged against his own party’s leadership, with risk to his own political fortunes, and with very few allies.
One criticism of Kucinich that is not unreasonable per se is that he has no real legislative accomplishments to show for his 9 terms in Congress. Citing that criticism, Andrew Sullivan this week branded him “A Forgettable Ideologue”and quoted from an anti-Kucinich post in The New Yorker (yet another Serious, Sane magazine that played a key role in fueling the flames of war against Iraq). The New Yorker post is entitled “Why Kucinich Won’t be Missed,” in which Alex Koppelman argues:
For all of his advocacy for liberal issues, Kucinich got almost nothing accomplished. He’s one of those legislators who becomes a favorite of the base — this happens on both sides; look at Michele Bachmann — by talking a lot while doing very little. Effective legislators build coalitions, they work to persuade their colleagues, they even compromise, if that’s what’s necessary to get legislation passed (or blocked, if that’s the goal). Not Kucinich. Liberals may miss him, briefly, but they’ll forget him soon enough. After all, he left nothing to remember him by.
I find this unpersuasive on multiple levels. For one, enacting legislation is not the only way to have an important impact on our political culture. Shining light on otherwise-ignored issues, advocating rarely-heard political positions, using one’s platform to highlight the corruption of those in power and to challenge their warped belief systems are all vitally important functions. Advocacy of that sort may not produce immediate, tangible successes, but it is a prerequisite for changing prevailing political mores and persuading citizens to think differently. “Talking a lot” is a synonym for persuasion, advocacy and debate. It’s far from “doing very little.” Those are all critical steps in changing a political system. It’s true that Kucinich cannot point to any law he passed that, say, guts the National Security State or corporate-lobbyist control over Washington, but that hardly means his work was inconsequential. Those types of changes often take years, even decades, of advocacy, and urgently need those with public platforms to amplify the underlying views to change how citizens think.
But more important: Kucinich’s animating belief was that both political parties often embraced extremist, destructive policies due to a combination of cowardice and malignant views. He usually resided outside of the bipartisan mainstream. He was often right when the Sober Centrists and Party leaders were dreadfully wrong: on Iraq, on the extremism of the Bush assault on the Constitution and rule of law, on America’s self-destructive and immoral blind support for Israel, on the subservience of Washington to a corporatist and Wall Street agenda. He was one of a tiny handful of people willing to bravely challenge those orthodoxies and the imperatives of lobbyist rule. It’s not his fault that most of his colleagues and the broader political class clung to those destructive pieties and cowardly served those who own and control Washington.
Would it have been better if he had won more fights? Sure. Could he have been a more shrewd and calculating political operative? Probably. But his failure to get Washington to see the wretched errors of its ways reflects far more on them than it does on him. Faced with a militarized and corporatized state and a cowardly political and media class that enables it, Kucinich did what he should have done: opposed it loudly, courageously, consistently, and passionately.
In sum, Kucinich was one of the those rare people in Washington whose commitment to his beliefs outweighed both his loyalty to his Party and his desperation to cling to political office. He thus often highlighted the severe flaws, deceit and cowardice of his fellow Democrats and their Party as well as the broader political class. That’s why he has to be vilified as crazy and wacky. He’s long been delivering an unpleasant message about the Democratic Party and Washington generally, and like all unwanted messengers, has to be dismissed and marginalized so that this criticism disappears. Thus, those who brought us the Iraq War, Endless War in general, citizen assassinations, the systematic incineration of the Constitution known as the War on Terror, the financial collapse, the destruction of the middle class, and the financial and political supremacy of banker-criminals are sane and respectable. Those who most vehemently opposed those assaults, like Dennis Kucinich, are the “wackiest.”
Such self-affirming pronouncements will make those who passively acquiesced to all those policies and who support the politicians who brought them to us feel much better: sure, Kucinich stood stalwartly against them all and warned us of their dangers while I cheer for politicians who bring us these things, but he believes in UFOs and impeachment and a Department of Peace. What a wackjob. That’s what the “crazy” insult enables and why it’s so popular in the halls of political and media Seriousness.