Above Photo: A member of the United States Air Force keeps watch over the runway on Sept. 9, 2017, at Kandahar Air Field in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images.
Anti-war positions used to be possible within the Democratic Party.
There was once a wing of the Democratic Party that stood up to the war industry. J. William Fulbright, George McGovern, Gene McCarthy, Mike Gravel, William Proxmire, and, of course, Dennis Kucinich. But that was largely decades ago. The new Democrats, especially with the presidency of Bill Clinton, became shills not only for corporate America, but the arms industry. The massive military budget, $858 billion in military spending allocated for fiscal year 2023, is an increase of $45 billion over the Biden administration’s budget request, and nearly $80 billion more than the amount appropriated by Congress for the current fiscal year.
What happened to the Democratic Party? Why has it become impossible to question war and the massive expenditures on arms? Why is such questioning political suicide? Why can’t a Democrat ask, especially at a time of economic hardship and huge deficits, how much we are going to divert to the war in Ukraine, which has already consumed some $60 billion? Former presidential candidate and eight-term Congressperson Dennis Kucinich joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss the past half century of the Democrats, and how the war machine conquered the party.
Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Eli Ben-Yaacov
Chris Hedges: There was once a wing of the Democratic Party that stood up to the war industry. J. William Fulbright, George McGovern, Gene McCarthy, Mike Gravel, William Proxmire, and of course Dennis Kucinich. But that was largely decades ago. The new Democrats, especially with the presidency of Bill Clinton, became shills not only for corporate America, but the arms industry. No weapons system is too costly. No war, no matter how disastrous, goes unfunded. The massive military budget, $858 billion in military spending allocated for fiscal year 2023, is an increase of $45 billion over the Biden administration’s budget request and nearly $80 billion more than the amount appropriated by Congress for the current fiscal year. It just keeps growing. When 30 members of the party’s progressive caucus recently issued a call for Joe Biden to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, they were forced by the party leadership and a warmongering media to back down and rescind their letter.
What happened to the Democratic Party? Why has it become impossible to question war and the massive expenditures on arms? Why is such questioning political suicide? Why can’t a Democrat ask, especially at a time of economic hardship and huge deficits, how much we are going to divert to the war in Ukraine, which has already consumed some $60 billion, as much as we spend on the State Department and AID, with no end in sight?
Joining me to discuss the extinction of the anti-war Democrat is Dennis Kucinich, a former presidential candidate who served eight terms in the House of Representatives before the Democratic Party gerrymandered his district to ensure his defeat.
Dennis, you were consistently one of the very few Democrats who harkened back to that great era, of those I mentioned, McGovern, G. McCarthy and others. Proxmire, who stood up to the war industry. You paid a very heavy political price for that, not only being pushed out of Congress, but even when you were in Congress I believe you were not allowed to caucus with the Democrats, if I have that correct, courtesy of Pelosi. But let’s go back. There was a moment in time when the Democratic Party had fierce peace candidates, anti-war candidates. Of course, in 1972, McGovern becomes the nominee. What happened?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, first of all, thank you very much for the opportunity to be on your show, and I think this is the perfect show for me to do, because it’s not just a matter of having a conversation with the choir. It’s about taking the discussion to a higher level to try to describe for people what’s actually happening, what can happen. With respect to the Democratic caucus, though, I found my way into the meetings.
Chris Hedges: Uninvited?
Dennis Kucinich: Yeah, and there wasn’t really an attempt to shut me out, as much as it was, who brought this guy in? But really, I will say this about Speaker Pelosi, that we may have had a difference of opinion on some of these spending issues that helped to fuel wars, but the thing that I always did was I always let the leadership know ahead of time, I don’t agree with you. I’m taking a different approach. I’m going to go to the floor. This is what I’m going to say whether you like it or not. And they appreciated the warning. They didn’t appreciate my speeches. They, I’m sure, didn’t appreciate my votes for the most part.
But to me, what’s happened with the Democratic Party, I think as soon as the Democratic Party made a determination, could have been 35, 40 years ago, that they were going to take corporate contributions, that wiped out any distinction between the two parties. Because in Washington, he or she who pays the piper plays the tune, and that’s what’s happened. So, there isn’t that much of a difference in terms of the two parties when it comes to war except, notably, partisan reasons or not, there were over 50 Republicans who voted against the last tranche of money that went to fuel the war in Ukraine. And I felt that was notable, and of course, the potential speaker of the house should the Republicans win will be Kevin McCarthy, who has made it a point to say that he’s going to look at that funding.
Chris Hedges: Well, let’s talk about the past. So, you had significant opposition to the Pentagon budget, weapons systems were questioned. Was it, in essence, corporate money that was the factor in essentially driving, Wellstone driving these figures out of the House and the Senate, or were there other reasons?
Dennis Kucinich: Certainly plays a part. I mean, let’s face it. Right now, the arms industry is making money hand over fist with the expansion of war. That’s how they make their money. And of course they can put money into certain campaigns, but that’s not all it’s about. The request to fund a war goes into the larger, heavily mediated environment which supports a war. And if you stand against the funding, then your constituents, who may be great Americans, look at that and they say, well, why aren’t you supporting America? And I think that members of Congress are always concerned about being caught betwixt and between what their constituents think as opposed to the doubts that they have. And so, with respect to the Democratic caucus, this event, a retraction of the letter by a significant caucus within the Democratic Party, is a new benchmark of a slavish obeisance to the status quo within the party, which then supports war. And a majority of Republicans at this point are supporting war. So you have Congress supporting a war, and this is the way it’s been.
Chris Hedges: Seymour Melman writes about the distortion of the economy by the war industry. He points out that one of the crucial tactics that the war industry uses is to diversify where weapons are made. I believe F-35s are made in Vermont. And this really ties the hands of House and Senate members because it becomes, at a constituent level, a debate about jobs.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, it is a factor. Can’t ignore it. So, what happens is, when the Pentagon budget comes up, there is a parade of various businesses, small and large, who will make appointments with the congressperson or staff and lay out how many jobs are in the district and how important it is to a district business to have this budget passed. I mean, I had that happen to me. I invariably had to inform my constituents that I didn’t support the war that this was going to be fueling, and so I wasn’t going to vote for the budget. I’ll tell you this, Chris, that I may have, once, when I first started in Congress, voted for a budget that went to the Pentagon. But it didn’t take me long to figure out what the racket was. I had a hearing I went to as a member of the government oversight committee in which an inspector general testified there are over $1 trillion worth of accounts in the Pentagon that couldn’t be reconciled. That they had over 1100 different accounting systems, deliberately, I suppose, constructed so as to make obfuscation rule the day.
So, from that moment on, I just said, wait a minute. They’re not keeping track of how this money’s spent. Why in the world should I vote for this budget? So from that point on, right through to the conclusion of a 16-year service in the United States Congress, I didn’t vote for a single budget of the Pentagon or any of the supplemental appropriations to keep wars going because I knew it was a racket. I knew there would be billions of dollars thrown away. And I can cite chapter and verse, inspector generals’ reports. Once the money goes out of this country overseas, whether it’s Iraq or whatever adventure we were in, the money’s blowing. The thing that I was always concerned about even more than the money was the fact that we were committing American servicemen and servicewomen, in the case of Iraq, to a lie.
And the constituency that I had in Congress, Chris, primarily working class men and women, many veterans’ halls, people who really believed strongly in America, served the country themselves or their fathers and grandfathers served, and they support the United States of America. So, I’m in Congress and I’m seeing what actually is going on, and I’m going, wait a minute. I’m not a sucker. And I’m looking at this and I’m saying, no, this is wrong. And then I have to go home and explain my vote. And I had some people who were unhappy because they thought I wasn’t being patriotic enough, and that’s what a congressperson is supposed to do. But the truth is the members of Congress are always under enormous pressure locally from their constituents, from contractors within their constituency, from the mediated environment, and the party. And so, it’s a rare individual, and I’m not doing this to elevate myself, but it’s a rare individual who will go against that, because you risk, at times, you may risk your political career.
Chris Hedges: Well, if you won’t take their money, there’s always someone else who will, and they will throw a lot of that money at a candidate to take you down.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, that’s true no matter if you’re talking about the arms industry, the oil companies, the healthcare industry. There was a congressional candidate in 1972 who ran against a darling of the AMA. And he told the AMA when they came to him as, look, give the other guy the money, because I’m not going to help you. Well they did, and this young congressional candidate lost a close race. That was me, by the way. So, I understand the price that you might have to pay for not going with the crowd. But my feeling is that public office comes and goes. Who are we if we won’t take a stand? Who are any of us if we’re not willing to put it all on the line in any given vote and say, look, this isn’t only what I believe in. This is who I am?
I’m someone who, I don’t feel I know more than anybody else. I do my homework, Chris. I make sure that any vote that I take is informed, as I did when I led the effort against the war in Iraq. And that’s not the way it goes in Congress. A lot of people are flying by the seat of their pants, or they look at the vote board to see how everyone else is voting, because Congress is a place of tremendous peer pressure. And the votes go right up on this. Most people don’t know this, but, imagine a big gym, and the votes go up on this big wall, okay? The lights go on. Green light for yes, yellow light for, I’m not sure, and red light for no. And everybody can see how everybody else is voting. It helps enforce party discipline and it helps to feed the herd instinct inside the Congress. It’s a lot of pressure there.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the effect of unchecked militarism on our civil society and our democracy.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, we live in a time where there’s an acceleration of polarized thinking. It’s us versus them, whoever they are. And the government helps to feed that. The government generates perceptions. And people think, well, there must be a reason for the government’s position on this war. The truth of the matter is that we’re in a heavily militarized society driven by greed, lust for profit, and wars are being created just to keep fueling that. It moves right into this idea, this old idea of a manifest destiny. And then you leap into the 21st century where there are still people who believe, as in the Project for the New American Century, that it has to be that America must rule the world, that it is our destiny. I mean, that is such old thinking, but that’s where we are.
See, we don’t always consider that we’re inheritors not only of a physical world, but we’re inheritors of a consciousness. We’re inheritors of thought structures. And the thought structures that we’ve inherited no longer serve a practical purpose in this country. We move into a false consciousness of fear, of separation from the rest of the world.
See, I see the world as one. I think that human unity is the truth that surrounds all of us. And when we start separating ourselves, and we engage in this polarized thinking, polarized thinking is a precursor of war. And so, we need to try to go back to, it’s really a spiritual principle that says, look, we’re all one, we’re interconnected, we’re interdependent. And the world is one. We may have different races, colors, creeds, but there’s a oneness. And if you look at the first model of the country, e pluribus unum, out of many, one.
It’s the paradox of a unity in multiplicity. And many people can’t handle that, but that’s the truth. So, when we go to war, we’re living a lie. We’re separating ourselves from part of humanity. It’s a belief that we don’t have an ability to be able to solve things, and somehow the power of our weapons is greater than the power of our reason or, even deeper, the power of our heart. And so, that’s where I’ve gone away from the orthodoxy which is now part of politics that says, well, keep that war going for whatever reason. We’re going to beat the Russians. We’re going to beat the Chinese. What? We’re beating ourselves.
Chris Hedges: To what extent are these conflicts, and I would include the expansion of NATO, driven by this lust for greed on the part of the war industry and the arms manufacturers?
Dennis Kucinich: When I was in Congress, I put in legislation to forbid the United States to go into any war that NATO was operating because I felt that it was a subversion of the Constitutional principle in Article 1, Section 8, which is that Congress of the United States has the power to take our country from a condition of peace to war. That was in the Constitution. NATO has evolved. It was first a defensive organization. Then after Clinton it turned into an offensive organization. And it has become now a kind of sock puppet for Western powers, notably my own dear country the United States. And as a result, NATO punches above its weight, makes statements that are ridiculous. Look, I will make a prediction right here that as a result of NATO and the EU’s role in helping to fuel this war in Ukraine, give it a couple years, but there won’t be a NATO and there won’t be an EU as a result.
Chris Hedges: Why?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, first of all, look at what’s happened. I think the way this unfolded in Ukraine, we all know from 2014 how the US engineered a coup and knocked out the Ukrainian government and put in one that would serve the US interest, which was to nullify the power of the constituency in Eastern Ukraine, which was Russian-speaking. And they wanted to basically, by any means necessary, keep that out of influencing the policies of the region, which they did. I mean, 14,000, by some estimates, Russian-speaking Ukrainians were killed from 2014 until 2021. Most Americans have no idea about that.
But anyhow, once the US, once the intelligence started to say, hey, we can knock Russia out like that, okay? We’ll crush Russia economically. These sanctions are going to put Russia away. And the EU bought into it. What’s the result? Well, the war goes on. But in the meantime, the sanctions have created a dramatic increase in the cost of energy. Plus they blew up the pipeline. That’s another increase in the cost of energy.
So, I’ve heard from people in Europe where they’re seeing increases in basic energy costs anywhere from six to nine times of what it used to be. Businesses can’t survive that. Individuals are under hardship. The pressure’s going to go back on the government. This is going to cause a lot of problems with the EU. And NATO is there as a cat’s paw for war. And frankly, people are going to say, well, who’s NATO, making decisions for me? I would imagine that already you’re starting to see protests in Europe where people are saying, get out of the EU, get out of NATO, because they’re paying an economic price right now for the misjudgment of the European officials who were coaxed into it by the US.
And this ends up being a nightmare. Not only for Europe though, but we’re getting visited with it somewhat here. You’re seeing an increase in food prices, increases in gas prices, the accelerant knock-on effect on inflation. Interest rates have gone up, mortgage rates have gone up. There’s a cycle of economic violence which is visited on the people of this country who really don’t have a straight story about what happened in Ukraine. I represented Ukrainians in the United States Congress, and proudly so. I went to Ukraine. I met with people. I stood in the square in Ukraine in defense of journalists who were under attack there, one of whom was killed, Gongadze. And so, I just felt that Ukrainians have a right to exist. They have a right to their own country.
And what’s happened is this is being twisted, and suddenly Ukraine becomes a bloodbath of a chess board where these innocent people are just being used as pawns in a game of nations. And I resent that. I mean, I resent that on behalf of every decent person who’s trying to keep their family together in Ukraine and who doesn’t want to be dominated by anybody, US, Russia, anybody, and they just want to live their lives. But because there’s a game of nations going on and the US was concerned about Russia’s pivot to Asia, well, guess what? This whole thing is blowing up in the face of the West. We forced Russia to pivot to Asia, and now Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. There’s a whole new world being formed, and the catalyst of it is the misjudgment that occurred about Ukraine and the effort to try to control Ukraine that began in 2014 that most people aren’t aware of, I would say.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the press, because you spoke about going back to your constituents as an anti-war candidate and feeling blowback. But isn’t that because, essentially, we have a press that has locked out anti-war critics?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I think it was a librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote a book about the media being spear carriers for the government. And that was true generations ago, and it’s true today. And that’s a problem. When you don’t have many alternatives that present a different point of view, you’re locked into a worldview that might be based on a falsity. And I’ll give you a great example, go back to Iraq, because I was really involved in challenging the narrative right from the beginning. And I did my homework and I gave Congress a memo on Oct. 2, 2002 that said, look, there’s no proof that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. But moreover, Iraq didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, with Al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11, didn’t have the intention or capability of attacking the United States. So what is this about? And I talked to hundreds of members of Congress about it. But the drumbeat in the media, war, war, war. From the White House, war, war, war. And this is what so many people heard. It was just drowned out.
And so, I’ve seen this dynamic before. And the media, we have a heavily mediated society, even more so today than 20 years ago. And we also know that the government can have legions of people working computers, sending out messages that praise those who are for the war and attack those who aren’t. We’re living in a hall of mirrors here when it comes to trying to find out what is really going on. And so, how do you figure it out? Well, you do your homework, but you also have to trust your gut, your intuition too. And when I looked at what happened in Iraq, that led me to understand what was happening in Libya, what was happening in Syria. And then I do some more homework. William Blum, Chalmers Johnson and others who did the studies. Case after case after case of US interventions that were all about lies.
Our country, I love this country, and it is being done a disservice by people in power who have made book with interest groups who are going forward just to cash in on war. And I think it’s horrific. And in this case, Chris, we’re playing with the flash of World War III. Sometimes I think the people in the White House are something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They’ve taken this broom and they’re moving out chemical forces around that can easily go beyond their control. So, I’m also concerned that things could spin out of control, even now with respect to Russia, with respect to China, North Korea. And what a tragedy. What an immense human tragedy when the truth of the matter is we must find a way to live together. As John Kennedy said, we have to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters or we perish together as fools.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about these pimps of war, these shills for war. I covered the war in El Salvador. I had to deal with Elliott Abrams. Robert Kagan worked for him. They’re wrong about everything. They were wrong about the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria with the so-called moderate rebels, Libya. And now they’re beating the drums, of course, for endless war with Ukraine. It doesn’t matter how mistaken they were in the past, they are perpetuated, their think tanks are perpetuated. They never lose their purchase on the cable talk shows. You’ve dealt with these people. I know some of them, Abrams and others. They are truly human mediocrities. And I would include the generals like Petraeus and others. And yet, they’re like this bacteria or anti-resistant bacteria that we can’t vanquish. Talk about them.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, Chris, see, the way I look at it is that even people with whom I strongly disagree, and you just named a number of them, I think we have to continue to find ways of showing people they’ve gone astray and that we have to make an effort to bring them back. Now, how do you do that? Well, if there ever was a country that was in need of a process of truth and reconciliation, it’s America. We really need to have people come forward and admit that they were wrong, whatever their motivation was, so that we can heal this country. Because we’re divided right now in this whole idea about war and this misuse of power. In some ways a misunderstanding of the material world itself, that we think there’s only so much and we have to control it. If you look at physics, the material world, the universe keeps expanding. But you wouldn’t know that talking to some people, because their physics is a very confined, almost pre-Galileo view of the world.
Chris Hedges: Dennis, just in the last two minutes, I mean, you talked about truth and reconciliation. There was a certain amount of accountability after the Vietnam War. I mean, we did, as a country, ask questions about ourselves that we hadn’t asked before, and there was a brief period of time when I would argue we became a better country. Now there’s no accountability. I spent seven years in the Middle East. Millions of people’s lives were destroyed, not to mention the tens of thousands of families in the United States who are caring for wounded and crippled veterans or lost loved ones. But there’s no accountability at all.
Dennis Kucinich: We must find a path to accountability or it will be our undoing. I made an attempt to follow a procedure, which is one way of achieving accountability through the legislative process, and that is that I introduced articles of impeachment of the president and the vice president.
Chris Hedges: I was with you at the Cannon Building when you did that.
Dennis Kucinich: There were at least 48 articles with respect to President Bush and a smaller number for Vice President Cheney. The Democratic leadership, however, sent those proposals to committee, never to be discussed. See, when I got on the floor of Congress, and I gave hundreds of speeches opposing the war, and after the war started, and proposals to get out of Iraq and other speeches to not go to war against Iran. And each time there was a kind of amnesia that took place. What Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia just takes place, where people forget the mistakes. Not mistakes, the misdeeds of the past. And unless we have some measure of accountability we’re always going to be wearing the stain of war waged against innocent people around the globe.
There’s a point, Chris, where we have to start asking ourselves, what are we about as a nation? Are we about endless war, about being king of the mountain, about telling other nations how they should live? Or wouldn’t it be nice to start focusing on the education of our people, put the resources into education and healthcare, and job creation, and safe cities, and a cleaner environment, and all those things that we can do within the boundaries of what we know as the United States of America? To me, politically, it never made sense to just go all over the world. But with the media, and that was the area of study I had, university, with the media, it’s always been pounding away at America as having to be the vanguard of freedom for the world, and we’re losing it here at home.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, well, we have to stop there. We should also be clear, we’ve lost almost all these wars going back to Vietnam, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
That was Dennis Kucinich, former presidential candidate, served eight terms in the House of Representatives before the Democratic Party pushed him out. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com