Congressman Dennis Kucinich is a good guy. There, I said it.
I was reminded of this fact Wednesday evening while watching what might have been his one great shining moment in his 2008 race for the presidency, his appearance at Soldier Field in Chicago at the AFL-CIO Democratic presidential forum.
Labor loves Dennis. He’s passionate, he’s articulate, and he’s right on almost all the issues. He’s right on the war; he’s right on healthcare; he’s right on the environment; he’s right on immigration; he’s right on education; he’s right on Fair Trade; he’s right on almost everything. In fact, a pretty good case can be made that Kucinich, more than any other Democratic candidate, is guiding the Democrat’s path on policies and issues throughout the campaign, probably toward a Democratic victory in ‘08. He’s so “right”.
So why does he go “so wrong” every time he runs for president?
My theory, based on my predilection to see the world in terms of community organizing, is that Kucinich fails because, for all his passion, integrity and intelligence, he consistently, almost organically, violates two of the most important and most accepted and most inviolable rules in all the world of community and political organizing:
Rule #1- Relationships- Every real organizer knows that everything, that’s spelled “EVERYTHING”, is based on relationships. Contrary to popular myth, great movements aren’t built on great ideas; they are built from the ground up by personal relationships. You can have the greatest, most noble, most virtuous, and most intelligent ideas and platforms and plans for the future, but if you can’t enter into meaningful relationships with your fellow travelers you will fail. Dr. King knew this. In Montgomery and in Birmingham and in Selma the movements were built on the relationships of trust and accountability among both Leaders and foot soldiers. Everyone was connected by their particular relationships, and motivated by their enlightened self-interest.
Power is built on relationships. Campaigns and movements are waged and won from the ground up based on relationships.
For some reason, Dennis seems to be almost constitutionally incapable of creating any personal relationship with the vast majority of citizens. There is little indication that his closest managers are working to foster relationships, and little indication that the necessary cohesion is being built from the bottom up. And for some reason, and I hate to have to bring this up, people don’t seem to like Dennis; he doesn’t “connect”. He seems robotic, like a nerdy gnome; like the little kid you knew in school who you wanted to beat up. Harsh words, my friends, but unfortunately true, as proven by the polls year after year.
Rule #2- “An Activist”- Kucinich is what organizers refer to as “An Activist”. In organizing terms this is not a good thing. In organizing terms, “An Activist” is a well-intentioned, often passionate, but ultimately powerless and often counterproductive individual to have in your organization. They like to be heard, they have a lot of very well-rehearsed opinions on every topic imaginable, and they want you to know about them all. They lack discipline; they are rigid, sometimes self-righteous, and have a hard time operating as a member of a team. They are “solo operators”, often surrounded by other “solo operators” singing their personal arias “canto comunitario”, down a lonely hallway…
Aaron Schutz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and the author of Community Organizing and Urban Education: The Series, characterizes activists like this:
“Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.” (Emphasis mine).
That last sentence is a killer, the kiss of death.
In organizing terminology, “An Activist” is not a “Leader”, because the real definition of a “Leader” is simply “someone who has followers”. “An Activist” is not an “Organizer” because an organizer works behind the scenes, not in front of the microphone, to help develop and create relationships and Leaders. Activists don’t produce the power in numbers created by the Leader and they don’t create the power from tactics and strategies created by the Organizer. So they have no real role to play, at least no real role that they are willing to play. So they become what they are; “Activists”.
Kucinich, God bless him, when you look up “Activist” in the dictionary you find a picture of Dennis. He’s loud, he’s bright, and he’s on fire. He knows his stuff and he wants you to hear all of it. He seems to believe that if he keeps saying these things we will all be finally swept up in the undeniable truths he champions. Hallelullia ‼ But, alas, the Activist’s house is built on sand. The mortar of relationships is missing. And it is populated only by other activists, all singing their righteous tunes, to each other.
So as we witness good Dennis Kucinich wage his quixotic battle for the presidency once more, we should support him and encourage him and urge him to keep fighting the good fight. America needs more idealistic, progressive, and courageous people running for office. We will hope and we will pray and we will support is “rightness” on so many issues that are vital to our country and our world. But we will also understand that he is fatally flawed as a candidate and as a leader, and we will vote another way….
Bully for Dennis! You ‘da man! Vote for Kucinich for the office of “Activist of the United States”.