The Common Good
September-October 2003

Open Letter to Dennis Kucinich

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 2003

A political realignment in this country isn't possible until we heal the cultural breach that afflicts us.

Dear Rep. Kucinich:

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I'm writing to you as an individual who hopes to support your campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. I've followed your career since I was a college student and you were the mayor of Cleveland. I've been heartened in recent years to see you emerge on the national stage as a spokesperson for issues of peace and social justice. I know you are committed to the building of a democratic culture and an economic order that serves the needs of the majority of our citizens. I also know that moral and spiritual concerns lie close to the heart of your political career.

Recently I heard you on National Public Radio laying out your goals for the campaign, and, if I hadn't been driving, I would have stood and cheered. You identified a single-payer health insurance plan and canceling NAFTA and the WTO as the key issues for a revival of progressive politics that is connected to the lives of ordinary lower- and middle-income Americans. And you are absolutely right. I am convinced that we who hope for a rebirth of democracy should stand on those two issues and refuse to budge. The Republican Right did that with their issues—limited government, bigger defense, and lower taxes. It took them 16 years, but they eventually elected Ronald Reagan and enacted most of their program. If we show that kind of persistence with "Medicare for All" and "Fair Trade," we will eventually start winning. It may take a while, but you're still a lot younger than Ronald Reagan was in 1968, when he was first a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

But then the NPR interviewer asked you about abortion. He pointed out that you have supported anti-abortion legislation in the past and that more recently you have changed your position. Your response was waffling and lame. You said that your position has changed because the intent of the anti-abortion forces in Congress has changed. But you and I both know that's not true. Your position has changed because you can't be a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination without the "pro-choice" stamp of approval. Endorsements from liberal interest groups will disappear, the unions will be pressured to stay away from you, and other funding sources will dry up.

THESE ARE THE sad facts of progressive electoral politics in America. The parties have come to be defined by cultural issues rather than economic ones. These cultural issues include gun control and the role of religion in public life, but the greatest of these is abortion. As a result of this cultural cleavage, many working-class Americans who might share your economic views have identified themselves with the Republican Party because it seems to share their religious values, especially regarding the sanctity of unborn life. At the same time the Democratic Party has come to be dominated by a highly educated, bicoastal elite that is anti-union and worships at the throne of free trade, but makes cultural liberalism a party litmus test. For these people, any deviation from support for abortion-on-demand under all circumstances is "anti-choice."

So, as the original free market libertine, Mick Jagger, put it, "What can a poor boy do?" Well, you could do what you do on other issues. Speak from your heart and let the chips fall where they may. You might lose some potential supporters, but you might gain even more. At the very least, you would force a long-overdue conversation about these matters among American progressives. You and I both believe that a progressive populist political realignment in this country is possible in the next 20 years. But I don't believe that we will have it until we have a frank discussion of the cultural issues (including abortion) and find ways to heal the cultural breach that afflicts us. You could still be part of that process, and I hope that you will. Think about it.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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