Before Bernie, there was Dennis

Changing society’s entrenched views on anything usually takes a long time and the people who first propose new progressive ideas that advocate for major social changes are treated with casual dismissal, if not outright ridicule. But over time, if other people join in and take up the mantle, change can happen.

We have seen that with Bernie Sanders. Many of the things that he proposed in the 2016 election campaign such as Medicare for All, reducing the outrageous levels of inequality by imposing much more progressive tax rates, and the need to get rid of the corruption of politics by big-moneyed interests, were dismissed as outlandish even by members of his own party. But now those are mainstream within the party, with all the presidential candidates signing on to one or the other form of them, varying only in the details and in their desire to retain some of the status quo

But as Matt Taibbi reminds us, some of the groundwork for the rise of Sanders’ ideas were laid by Dennis Kucinich who in his time was also dismissed as a flake and a gadfly.

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.

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?”

This is an example of what legendary journalist I. F. Stone said a long time ago.

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

While Kucinich and Sanders are high-profile examples of Stone’s message, the real exemplars are the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who have fought for so long to advance issues such as health care for all, civil rights, criminal justice reform, equal rights for minorities and the LGBT community, and other social justice causes. Many of them did not live to see the fruits of their labors that we now enjoy, just as some of us will not live to see the realization of the issues being fought for today.

But if justice is on your side, you must continue the struggle because the cause you are fighting for will ultimately win, even if the prospects for success in the short term are bleak.


  1. Holms says

    Which is part of why Bernie deserves plaudits ahead of any other D candidate -- he was pushing for his current policies the entire time he was in politics, rather than waiting for the winds of popular opinion to change.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Once Kucinich left (was gerrymandered out of) Congress and announced he would become a Murdoch Minion®, I declared him dead to me forevermore.

    Not sure what happened, but I find it gratifying that the public and the media somehow apparently agree.

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