Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Kucinich and "the Issues"

No one quite understands how issues become issues, but the general contours of an explanation are clear enough. Media play an important, sometimes decisive, role – especially in filtering potential issues out into the margins of public life and in dumbing down political discourse. But media can also turn potential issues into actual ones. Watergate is the most important late twentieth century example. Whitewater and then Monicagate was another. That issue was manufactured by the extreme right wing; given how little they had to work with, it is remarkable how successful they were. Meanwhile, potential issues – for example, the mass incarceration of black youth – go unnoticed. In certain circumstances, social movements play a crucial role in bringing issues to the fore. Organized political pressure groups are important too – acting independently and in conjunction with media and social movements. How else explain the fact that abject support for whatever Israeli governments deem best for Israel is taken for granted throughout the political culture? Anti-Castro Cubans do nearly as well as the Israel lobby for much the same reasons.

Presidential campaigns can play a role too. Since it matters enormously in our not very democratic democracy who the Chief Executive is, and since our political culture is so thoroughly depoliticized, nomination contests and then general elections do more than anything else to focus the mind of the electorate. Presidential campaigns can therefore play a vital “educational” role. This can be important in its own right; it can also help determine what the issues are. In the 2004 contest for the Democratic nomination, Howard Dean made the Iraq War more of an issue than it would otherwise have been. [He fell into that role because the other “electable” contenders were so complicitous and therefore compromised, and because the more principled anti-war candidates, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, were marginalized by the press.] In the current electoral cycle, John Edwards has had some success in making poverty an issue. But, for the most part, candidates are issue-takers, not issue makers.

As such, Edwards is pretty good on domestic issues; Bill Richardson is good on the issue of withdrawal from Iraq (he’d leave no soldier behind); Chris Dodd is good on environmental issues. Joe Biden is good for nothing. Barack Obama is vague on everything, though he does emit vibes that suggest that his positions on the issues, if he had any, would be decent. Hillary Clinton, true to her family’s traditions, is dreadful on everything, though she may seem OK from time to time, depending on the constituency she’s pandering to. Mike Gravel, one of the two media non-persons, bests all the main contenders on the Iraq War and on foreign policy generally. But, in the end, there’s no contest: Dennis Kucinich, the other media non-person, is the best by far – on everything, domestic and foreign. Should he therefore be the candidate of choice?

Not necessarily – and not just because he isn’t electable. [It was that kind of thinking that gave us John Kerry in 2004 and that may give us Hillary Clinton in 2008. When Democratic voters make electability their prime consideration, prepare for defeat.] If Kucinich has a coherent analysis of why America is in dire straits, at home and abroad, he has kept it a secret. But he is uniformly and consistently on the side of the angels. There’s no harm in that; niceness is good. But then neither are his positions, creditable as they may be, of much educational value. Still, it is important that he remain in the campaign and that his voice is heard in those increasingly pointless candidate forums. However pertinent or not the issues may be, getting them right is valuable in itself; it is also important for bringing the other candidates, the more “electable” ones, into line. No doubt, those more electable candidates would like him and Gravel gone. For them, those two are just nuisances. But there’s little danger that they’ll get their wish. So long as Gravel adds diverting colorfulness and Kucinich brings along his wife (a demonstrable camera magnet), the press corps want them there, if only as an antidote to the boredom of listening to the other candidates’ sound bites. So long as neither Gravel nor Kucinich appear threatening to the interests of the press corps’ bosses – a sure thing given how adept they are at marginalizing dissent – the bosses are unlikely to pull the plug.

Campaigns may focus the mind, but when it comes to governance, style -- charisma even -- matter more than positions on issues, especially in a political culture in which serious political education is out of the question. JFK was lousy on the issues. But, by being the figure he was (or was presented to be) – and by being assassinated when he was – he helped to make “the sixties” (and the seventies) possible. In right-wing circles, Ronald Reagan played a similar role. Unfortunately, Reagan had a more lasting effect than Kennedy; for this, blame the main implementer of the Reagan Revolution, Bill Clinton! The last quasi-progressive charismatic figure in recent decades in the United States was Robert Kennedy, though he only found his voice in year or so before his own assassination. Obama is hyped as a charismatic figure. So far, though, he has been charismatic more in the manner of Mick Jagger than of FDR or the Kennedys. Edwards has more promise. Can he take up where RFK left off? Probably not. For one thing, the Washington press corps doesn’t seem to like him; perhaps they think he’s a phony. Thus the $400 haircut won’t go away; neither now does the gotcha moment when they exposed his investments in private equity funds connected to predatory lenders in New Orleans. [He says he was unaware of the connections.] Like FDR and the Kennedys, he’s a rich guy claiming to be on the side of the poor. Could the difference be that FDR and the Kennedys were born to wealth, while Edwards made his money as a trial lawyer? Or is it that the Bush family has caused the whole idea of noblesse oblige to fall into disgrace; taking down nouveau riche oblige with it? In any case, Edwards should use a little more of his considerable charm on the boys in the press bus. It shouldn’t be that hard. If they could fall in love with John McCain, they can love anybody.

It may just be the lull of summertime and the fact that the Democratic leadership is out of Washington and therefore doing no harm but, at this point in time, I wouldn’t rule out the prospect of a Kennedyesque Restoration were John Edwards to become President of the United States. Kennedy was bad, very bad, on foreign policy too. Neither of them comes close to Kucinich on the issues. But, even so, a Kennedyesque revival would be a vastly more estimable outcome than a Clintonite Restoration, with or without a Clinton in charge. That’s why I think Edwards deserves “critical (and instantly revocable) support,” even though Kucinich beats him hands down on the issues. At this point, he seems our best hope for ridding the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, of the plague of Pelosiism and, the issues notwithstanding, for moving the country onto a better track.


Lee Loe said...

Clinton, Obama and Edwards have ALL told the Israelis that NO OPTION IS OFF THE TABLE FOR HANDLING IRAN. Not One of Them can turn this country away from its militaristic, empire building path. Kucinich will at least begin the process. Think how great it would be to have Col. Ann Wright as Secy of Defense. Why not? Kucinich believes in the US; the others don't really.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...


What the corporate media elite in DC hate most are middle class guys who make it to their level and think they can be or are president: Truman, Nixon and Clinton have one thing in common: The DC villagers hated them.

Edwards falls into this category, which is why he is best hitting back at them. As Gore learned all too late, ignoring them is the worst thing you can do, and next worst is being nice to the villagers.

As for Kucinich, he is the best of the Democratic Party candidates for president. So why bother with holding him to a standard that none of the others can reach? Corporate media propaganda has conditioned us to accept Kucinich as unelectable, and yet, he fits most within the mainstream of American thinking in poll after poll--and among those who claim to hold various positions and values.

Corporate media and the DC villagers are not a conspiracy. They are, as Vidal once or twice tried to explain to Hillary Clinton, a structure and a system.