MANY AMERICANS FACE the same electoral dilemma that frustrates me. We are outraged by the corruption of our political system, and by the suffering it is causing countless human beings around the United States and beyond. Yet when we look at our own representatives in Congress, we see the same bland, business-as-usual, go-along-to-get-along politics that created this matrix of crisis. We burn with envy of people in congressional districts from New York to Seattle who have elected dynamic legislators blazing with passion to fight injustice at home and aggression abroad.
My own representative, Bourne Democrat Bill Keating, takes campaign donations from arms makers and repays them by endorsing mind-boggling Pentagon budgets. He has cosponsored a bill promoting increased US arms sales to Ukraine, voted to allow the deployment of US troops to Libya without Congressional approval, and called President Trump’s 2017 missile attack on Syria “necessary and proportional.”
Most recently he was one of 129 Democrats who voted with Republicans to fund the network of immigration prisons along our southern border without any requirement that inmates be given water, soap, blankets, or toothbrushes.
The baby boom generation, to which I belong, lived better than any generation in history, but bequeathed to its grandchildren a grotesquely unjust society, a poisoned planet, a collapsing political system based on legalized bribery, and endless conflict with countries that mean us no harm. My representative, also a boomer, has apparently not noticed any of this. All I can do in protest, as Shakespeare put it, is to “beweep my outcast state,/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/And look upon myself and curse my fate.”
Or maybe not. The congressional elections of 2018 and their results have awakened me from my slumber of frustration and resignation. I have adopted a favorite line from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “Not OK.” She came to the orientation session that Harvard stages for newly elected members of Congress and, instead of quietly accepting the fact that every speaker promoted militarism and corporate power, stalked out and asked: “Where’s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?”
She even offered the heretical view that it is “not OK” for legislators to take money from oil companies and then vote on climate legislation, or for lackeys of Big Pharma to vote on health care bills — or, as my representative did, to take tens of thousands of dollars from arms makers and, in turn, endorse the Authorization for Use of Military Force that three presidents have used as justification for bombing countries from Afghanistan to North Africa; support crushing sanctions on Iran; and demand that the US “exert greater influence than we are now” to “diminish countries like Russia.” For years I assumed that these outrages were just immutable symbols of our country’s steady decline. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe there actually is a way out of Washington’s political cesspool.
“We need new leaders,” Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff declared soon after arriving in Washington. “We gotta primary folks.”
That suggestion terrifies some Democrats. They are so eager to hold their party’s majority in the House of Representatives that they oppose all primary challenges to incumbents. But it’s “not OK” to have a Democratic majority if Democrats continue to embrace the idea of eternal American hegemony over the rest of the world. I want a representative in Washington who will join a No Corporate Donations Caucus rather than take checks from companies whose products are blowing children’s bodies apart in Yemen and beyond. My district, the Ninth Massachusetts, is brimming with progressive Democrats who would love the chance to vote for an exciting challenger to our sleepwalking representative. So here is my want ad:
“Urgently Needed: Dynamic activist from Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, the South Shore, New Bedford, or Fall River. Job entails a year of 16-hour days, knocking on doors, and organizing to defeat Representative Bill Keating in the Democratic primary in the fall of 2020. Benefits include the satisfaction of speaking every day about the need to defend human rights, build strong communities, combat climate change, and end foreign wars. No pay, but seat in Congress if campaign succeeds.”
Over the last couple of months I have been visiting elected officials and other potential challengers to my representative, hoping to find someone who will agree to jump into the primary race. I met two who could win — but neither will run. Both gave me the same surprising reason: Being a member of Congress seems like a terrible job and I don’t want it. That shows how far Congress has fallen in the esteem of Americans.
Several weeks ago I delivered an anti-Keating rant to a meeting of Democratic town committee members on the Upper Cape, and asked if anyone in the room would consider running against him. Someone called out, “Look in the mirror!” I did, and discovered that unfortunately I look too much like the incumbent. Old white guys like us have brought this country to its present agony. Change my age, and possibly my gender, race, and/or sexual orientation, and I’ll run. Failing that, I want to help my neighbors do what people across the country should be doing if they’re angry at how they are represented in Congress. Find a Paul Revere — or a Pauline Revere — who will gallop to Washington determined to resist mortal threats to our democracy rather than pretending they don’t exist.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.