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The Fire This Time:
Why Kucinich May be the Right Guy at the Right Time
Daniel Patrick Welch
Released June 29, 2003
Of course, political parties have never been comfortable with movement politicians, and the Boy Mayor of Cleveland is no exception. But these, of course, are no ordinary times, and along the political spectrum, from Chomsky to, say, Chenoweth, people would be hard pressed to say the old rules will work this time around. Along with positive notes from Chomsky, Studs Terkel, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's, Lynn Woolsey of the Progressive Caucus, and left/liberal websites like Democrats.com and Citizens for Legitimate Government, the Kucinich campaign crossed new threshold when he took second place in the Moveon.org online primary, itself a fascinating exercise in online democracy.
It's a remarkable surge in just a few days, and with the resultant influx of sorely needed cash, it is only a matter of time before people start voting where they really want to--the buzz is that Dennis is people's "I would, but..." candidate. And all the notables who take note of Kucinich, even some who overtly or implicitly endorse him, concede that he doesn't have a chance.
I think they may be selling their man short. My answer to those who say we can only win by playing the same game is that--what seems completely logical to me--it's the only way we can lose. The money and the media will always favor the right--unless we can learn to run an insurgent, Kucinich--type candidate and campaign and win successfully, we are screwed. Why is this news? Why should U.S. elections be so special--they are some of the most corrupt and money-polluted scams in the world.
We need to look elsewhere for models and quit whining and focusing on old-school gamesmanship. It is nothing new for progressive populists to run against moneyed candidates with "only" the Truth and the People on their side. Why should this be a losing proposition? Lula did it in Brazil. Chavez did it in Venezuela. Allende did it in Chile before the CIA mowed him down... Not only is it possible--it may be the only way to win, especially as time goes on and the demographics further favor such insurgency. It's still Jackson's model: without bringing millions of new people into the process, by energizing and mobilizing base constituencies, the left is suicidally following the right's game plan and ignoring its own overwhelming strengths. The Emerging Democratic Majority may well be ours--but we have the power to blow it by convincing future generations of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others that their growing numbers are not of interest to us and they have nothing to gain by participating. The right is quite justifiably following a smart strategy which is the only way they can win. They have even succeeded in getting most Democrats to follow a strategy which is the only way they can lose.
The last insurgent populist campaign the Democrats dispensed with was Jesse Jackson's, and his math is still sound. Consider this equation from his 1984 convention speech (still a great read - isn't it amazing what you can find online? :
"If Blacks vote in great numbers, progressive Whites win. It's the only way progressive Whites win. If Blacks vote in great numbers, Hispanics win. When Blacks, Hispanics, and progressive Whites vote, women win. When women win, children win. When women and children win, workers win. We must all come up together. We must come up together."
Those who think that campaign never set off alarm bells in the halls of power need only remember the Newsweek cover four years later, when Jackson managed to break 50% in the Michigan primary by mobilizing tens of thousands of African American youths to vote in their first electoral experience. Somebody found a fairly scary close-up of Jackson in the throes of an intense speech, face contorted and sweaty in a way reminiscent of Hitler or Sun Yung Moon. The one-word caption, in large-type yellow letters, served as headline, heads-up, and horrified call-to-arms: Jesse?! It was apparently the moment when the establishment, although still dismissive, actually considered that he might win, and began to contemplate what it might mean.
The math, stripped of its eloquence, looks something like this: If minority constituencies could be inspired to vote in proportionate numbers and in line with their historical preferences, a populist candidate would need less than 40% of the white vote to constitute a majority. In other words, in a 100 million vote election, 12% Black at 90%, 12 Latino at 65%, Asian at 60%, White Women at 53%...leads to only 25% of white men needed. Before you get out your calculators, remember this is only a rough sketch. The theory is that by truly energizing the progressive base, we can further effect this shift to the left.
The problem, of course, is that Kucinich isn't Black, and it remains to be seen whether he could mobilize the necessary base constituencies in sufficient numbers. Jackson had a special charisma, which Sharpton and Braun seem to lack in the same quantity. It may not only be about race, though white progressives have been saying this for generations. The difference is that the African American community still has a cohesive political consciousness: Black voters enticed to vote can largely be relied on to support progressive causes. The same can not be said for the alienated white votership, who occasionally sneak out in record numbers to vote for David Duke or worse.
And these tendencies aren't changing, much as we are led to believe otherwise. For one thing, the right would not be pouring money into vote suppression if they were. Anecdotal insights may also be instructive. A Latina friend of mine, recently naturalized, sought my advice on voting, since we often discussed politics. One caveat, she said, was that she couldn't vote for any candidate who supported abortion. I cautioned her that, given her other beliefs, she would probably find that pigeonholing along these lines might cause her to vote for some ideas she rejected with greater vehemence. Some time later, it has become apparent that she is horrified by the right wing, furious at what she felt was a GOP coup in 2000, and poised to support progressive candidates despite their reproductive rights stand. Similarly, in California, Pete Wilson and the state GOP's ugly support for anti-immigration legislation has virtually guaranteed the further entrenchment of these gains. And it can only get worse for the right if the left wakes up soon enough.
Even white people are getting the message. The Nation ran a piece in May quoting the likes of former Silicon Valley moguls on how they may have changed their minds about the need for unions, limits on corporate power and the like.
The Kucinich campaign seizes on one of these transformations, maybe with a little too much hope of Things to Come (but who's to say?), a disaffected voter who, after 22 years of being a libertarian, just switched to Democrat because he finally found "someone to vote for: thank you Dennis Kucinich!"
The notion of elections actually reflecting the popular will is at the root of radical democratic thought, and provides the ground on which elements of radical democratic, anarcho-socialist, libertarian and anarchist ideas intermingle. Expanding democracy can only be a good thing. If the people's voice were truly free to be heard, would people really be against such things as raising the minimum wage? Providing health care and education? Limiting the influence of corporations, and the intrusive power of government in private lives?
The real trouble, of course, to advancing a people-focused, progressive agenda, is that democracy isn't really in the offing. The money-drenched, corporate-fixed "process" we stomach has little in common with the Greek ideal, unless you consider that women, slaves, and the poor are not included. Even before the end of American Apartheid, the hypocrisy of exporting "democracy" was a staple of the American self-perception. Florida is only the latest chapter in our national self-denial. It may seem ludicrous to many to think in terms of obtaining change through a major party candidate in the current system. Without structural changes like proportional representation, instant runoff voting and other reforms that would encourage independent and third-party participation-as well as abolishing the electoral college and other undemocratic forms of skewed representation-the bar is that much higher, and the dream recedes.
But there is no need to choose
one path over the other. The fight is now, and it has never been more important.
And Kucinich just may be the Right Guy at the Right Time. To paraphrase
Jackson, who paraphrased Lazarus, who couldn't have said itbetter: "Give
me your tired, give me your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe
free, and come next November there will be a change because our time has
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