Dennis Menaced

One news story in the past week that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves is the defeat of Dennis Kucinich in a Congressional primary. His old seat had been eliminated, forcing him to run against incumbent Democrat Marcy Kaptur in a new district. That we’ve lost such a stalwart progressive champion is quite bad enough; that he was defeated by an anti-choice Democrat during a time when reproductive rights are under such ferocious assault is even worse.

But what really rubs salt in the wound is the unmitigated glee with which his defeat has been celebrated by so-called liberals; for example, see this smug little piece by Abby Rapoport in The American Prospect, and this particularly nasty “preemptive eulogy” by the latest generation of New Republic wankers.

Glenn Greenwald and Digby say most of what needs to be said about the distressing tendency of many left-of-center types to eat their own, but I have a few things to add. Kucinich’s main sin, according to the Church of the Savvy establishment liberals who had it in for him, was his “weirdness.” And sure, some of Dennis’s New Age rhetoric and beliefs were pretty goofy.

But they were also completely harmless. Members of the Christian right like Rick Santorum have beliefs that not only at least as weird, but that are also quite malevolent, particularly where women and LGBTQ folks are concerned. And yet, you never hear their own political comrades-in-arms on the right taking them to task for that kind of weirdness. Conservatives tend to see, correctly, that what matters most is having a good soldier in the fight, and they generally don’t engage in bitchy, self-defeating behavior like attacking a comrade-in-arms because of his or her personal quirks. They realize that that’s a distraction from more important goals and that it hurts their movement’s effectiveness.

Liberals, not so much. I’ve heard establishment liberals go after Kucinich which a ferocity that I could only wish they’d unleash on conservatives — or on Blue Dog Dems, for that matter. There was never any substance to their complaints that I could see, beyond their own personal discomfort with some aspect of Kucinich’s personality — his eccentricity or (in one case I remember) his “ego.” (Like he was the only dude in Washington with an ego? Stop the presses!). The fact that he was a progressive champion who for so many years strongly and consistently fought for working people, against war, and against the egregious civil liberties abuses that have been carried out by presidents of both parties went unremarked. That he was often willing to stand up for unpopular but righteous causes should have made him more valued by his comrades on the left, but for establishment Dem types, this was seen as all the more reason to mock him.

Here’s a prime example: one thing that Kucinich always gets a bad rap for is his tenure as mayor of Cleveland, when the city defaulted on its loans. But what his critics don’t point out is that the reason the city was forced to default is that Kucinich stood up to the banks and refused to sell the city’s publicly owned electric utility, a stance that was strongly in the public interest. It was a courageous act — the Cleveland mafia even put out a hit on him for his trouble. But his courage in this episode is cited by his critics as yet another example of ol’ Dennis just being weird, for some unfathomable reason, rather than standing up for an important principle.

Personally, I’ll always remember the one time I saw Kucinich in action. It was in 2004, during his campaign for president. He came to the University of Chicago as part of some event and gave a speech. He arrived late, and didn’t get there until something like ten o’clock at night. Apparently, he’d been up since five in the morning, campaigning all day long. You’d think that anyone, and especially someone his age, would be exhausted. But it was quite the opposite: the man radiated energy and charimsa. He gave a passionate speech on the importance of fighting for progressive values, especially in dark times — and lest we forget, 2004, the height of the Bush years, was a very dark time indeed in our history. He was nothing less than inspiring, and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me some hope during one of the more depressing periods, politically, in my lifetime.

The sniping against Kucinich is symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction among progressives and the Democratic party. To the degree we treat perfectly decent and effective progressives like Kucinich with abuse and derision rather than respect, we give ammunition to the other side, and end up doing untold damage to our own cause.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee