Sixteen years ago, after a campaign event in New Hampshire, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich talked about what happens in politics if voters can be convinced to spend more time worrying about polls than ideas.
“Unless we’re motivated by principle in our voting, we walk into a mirrored echo chamber, where there’s no coherence,” he said.
Kucinich ran for president in 2004 and 2008 and aroused indignation among campaign pundits and party strategists for his stubborn pursuit of “fringe” politics. The few headline news stories about him tended to involve harangues about his “miniscule vote tallies” and gripes about his presence in debates.
Years later, the Kucinich platform — it was simple enough to fit on a playing card-sized pamphlet in 2004 — is progressive mainstream. He preached universal health care, a repeal of NAFTA, an immediate pullout from Iraq, same-sex marriage, slashing the defense budget, and the decriminalization of marijuana.
The Washington Post two years ago ran a feature noting how his campaign predicted the “future of American politics,” and credited him with being tuned into populist undercurrents that later exploded in both the Sanders and Trump campaigns. In the 2020 cycle, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, and Tulsi Gabbard (whom he endorses) also sound Kucinich-like themes of corporate exploitation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the failures of American military policy.
This week, I asked him if he felt validated that his ideas are no longer dismissed as “fringe.”
“When I took all those positions years ago, I knew I wasn’t going to win any friends,” he says. “I didn’t care because my obligation was never to the party.”
For that reason, he looks at the recent changes in public attitudes with caution. “I’m glad to see the party accepting a number of things that I had been talking about then,” he says. “But… political parties can never be trusted. There are always some factors that are not consistent with the public interest.”
I ran into Kucinich often on the campaign trail in 2004 and 2008. He presented an obvious, almost comical contrast with other politicians, who were either onstage, on TV, or at fundraisers, i.e. always talking to somebody.
Kucinich I would frequently see bent over a book in between events, writing furious notations to himself in the margins. I remembered this with amusement when John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in 2007 were caught in a hot-mic moment complaining that Kucinich was “not serious.” His actual problem was that he was serious.
He spent a lot of time thinking about the broader philosophical picture, which was reflected in ideas like a Department of Peace, another concept that attracted ridicule at the time. He saw the promotion of “nonviolent conflict resolution” as a way not merely to counter militarism, but also to help prevent domestic violence and mass shootings.
In this area in particular, he ran up against the orthodoxy of the two political parties, which both were and are heavily funded by defense contractors. He says he understood his brand of politics could therefore never win approval.
“The parties are straitjacketed by interest groups that make their money off war,” he says. “Why would they want a candidate who is opposed to war?”
When I tried to ask him if it’s difficult for candidates with his politics to succeed, given his party’s awkward relationship with the antiwar movement, he cut me off.
“It’s not an awkward relationship. It’s no relationship. Let’s start with that,” he says.
Nonetheless, he kept hammering the same message, during and after his presidential runs.
“I did 341 speeches [on the floor of congress] against the Iraq war,” Kucinich says. “I gave 155 speeches against war with Iran. I spent the better part of sixteen years dedicated to trying to protect America from the tragedy of going to wars based on lies. And I’ll tell you, it’s exhausting.”
With tensions in the Middle East again dominating the news cycle and a presidential race, Kucinich worries about the lack of progress in reversing America’s addiction to conflict. This week, he wrote an open letter to President Trump, urging him to avoid making the same mistake George W. Bush made.
In a tone that some Democrats might not like, he suggests Trump was given bad advice, and urges him to ignore it going forward.
“While President Bush was ultimately responsible, he was driven toward war by key advisers who had financial and ideological agendas,” he wrote. “I believe you are similarly being played.”
The Washington Post describes current-day Kucinich as living at a “curious crossroads” where the politics of Sanders and Trump intersect, but Kucinich is not a Trump booster. He’s antiwar to his core and not terribly interested in partisan politics, which he believes “does violence to cognition.”
This is one reason he endorsed Gabbard, whom he encouraged to run for Congress years ago. “She’s consistently demonstrated her capacity for independent thought,” he says, adding she “has the ability to look at things” without being hampered by the “desire to be blessed by the party.”
Kucinich was the same way. In some respects, the party has forgiven him for it. In other areas, particularly on issues of war and nonviolence, validation will have to wait.