John Buell

Tilting at Windmills

A longtime Democratic Party activist, who had worked with Sens. Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell, recently sent me an intriguing e-mail. Despite his connection with these legendary mainstream Democrats, he was going to send $100 to the Dennis Kucinich campaign. His note leads me not merely to follow suit, but to ask the more difficult question of why Kucinich enjoys the support of only a tiny percentage of likely voters in next year’s Democratic presidential primaries?

When his name is mentioned, words like unelectable or radical come immediately to the lips of many people. Yet how do voters know he is unelectable? Why should our support for a candidate, even before the primaries, be premised merely on whether he or she can win that primary? I am fully aware that in our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system, there is a tendency for both parties to converge on the “middle.” But middle of what? Even when one considers all voters Kucinich’s demand for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is the majority position. A late September ABC/Washington Post poll asked voters: Do you think the US should keep its military forces in Iraq until civil order is restored there, even if that means continued US military casualties; OR, do you think the US should withdraw its military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further US military casualties, even if that means civil order is not restored there?” Respondents gave withdrawal a 54-43 majority, a commitment that surely would be far stronger among likely Democratic primary voters.

Polling data also suggests that Kucinich’s views on other important issues resonate with large numbers of citizens. He advocates extending a Medicare like health benefit to all Americans, and he would have the US withdraw from and renegotiate NAFTA and other trade agreements that have disproportionately benefited corporate interests. Kucinich’s health-care bill has 84 co-sponsors in the House, and his concerns about the biases in Clinton era trade policies are, as even many Republicans admit, now typical of a large number of voters.
If voters and candidates are “triangulating” in quest of a middle position, it is not the middle of the electorate that they are seeking. The goal of most Democrats seems to be to keep some symbolic touch with the activist base of the party while staying within the good graces of both major media and wealthy contributors. The established media punditocracy has decided that anything other than a long withdrawal from Iraq, to be followed by maintenance of support bases, is “irresponsible.” (This in spite of the fact that a majority of the citizens in this nation that we wish to democratize want us out and smaller majorities even support the use of violence to remove the US presence.) Thus even John Edwards, who admits his vote for the Iraq war was a mistake, cannot promise to remove troops before the end of the next presidential term.

The media with whom the first-tier Democratic candidates seem to be triangulating have an immense stake in who becomes president and even in how campaigns are conducted. The major media profit from health insurance and prescription drug ads, corporate trade deals that protect “intellectual property” but not their workers rights, and relaxation of rules on media consolidation. Any candidate with the least challenge to these norms can easily be labeled “extreme,” a label too easily taken seriously even by citizens who often distrust the same media that hurl such labels.

The media also contribute to the inordinate focus on elections as about winning and losing. How much major media time is devoted to the horse race aspect of campaigns versus the time devoted to explaining candidates’ positions? In addition, the most recent election cycle has been noteworthy for one other unfortunate feature, the “money primary.” I have seen far more reports on how much money the top three Democrats have raised than on their programs. The implication of course in that money is a sign both of “seriousness” and “electability.” Since media benefit from the expenditure of all this money on ads, they have little incentive to spend time exploring the implications of the money primary or helping citizens understand candidate’s stands.

Perhaps a $100 contribution to Kucinich is tilting after windmills, but triangulating toward the corporate center did not elect either Gore or Kerry. And if the result of the election is to give us a president eager to prove that she or he can be as tough as their predecessor, we may only be further along a road to disaster. Basing a vote on the electability of a candidate, as determined in part by the media and the wealthy, is to play the role of spectator rather than political actor. Contributions to a candidate whose views represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party might lead to unexpectedly positive results. These results might force top tier candidates to move closer to the base of the party, redefine the political center, and even make them more electable. We will never know if we don’t try.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

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