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RFK Jr could learn from his father Bobby Kennedy forged a path between America's extremes

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world' (Rowland Scherman/Getty Images)

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world' (Rowland Scherman/Getty Images)


June 5, 2023   6 mins

An insurgent Democrat with a famous last name announces a primary challenge against his party’s sitting president. He infuriates the establishment, who accuse him of running a vanity campaign and helping the other side to win. Amid widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, however, this candidate draws support from a broad range of Americans. The candidate’s initials are RFK.

The individual who comes to mind today might be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., currently running to unseat Joe Biden. But the description is of his father, Bobby Kennedy, who was assassinated 55 years ago this week. Today, he is remembered as an icon of liberal idealism who seemed, for a fleeting moment, to reconcile the racial tensions of that tumultuous time. In the 82 days of his campaign, there were glimmers of a new way of doing politics, one that stood in opposition to the excesses of both Sixties radicalism on the Left and the reactionary impulses on the Right. These are the same fault lines that score American society today; it is here, as the Democrats attempt to sail gingerly between the extremes of wokism and Trumpism, that RFK Sr.’s campaign is instructive.

His quest for the White House took place at the end of what we now see as the New Deal era. The enactment of Civil Rights in 1964, followed by deep divisions over Vietnam and the ascendancy of the counterculture, carved fatal cleavages within the Democratic coalition. By 1968, the beleaguered president, Lyndon B. Johnson, seemed to personify the exhaustion of American liberalism, as he struggled to maintain support in the face of a failing war overseas and the dramatic splintering of his party between its working-class and liberal activist wings. The white-working class vote in the Northern cities, which formed a core part of the Democratic base, joined the Solid South in drifting toward Richard Nixon’s Republican Party. And that exodus reduced the Democrats to an uneven alliance of affluent liberals and working-class minorities. The GOP ended up with an analogous dynamic, with conservative “country club” business elites commanding the electoral support of downscale whites.

In subsequent decades, American politics would see Democratic and Republican elites converge on a post-New Deal programme of de-industrialisation and hyper-financialisaton that served to benefit themselves, while compensating their respective portions of the working-class electorate with gestures of rhetorical and symbolic affirmation (what Nancy Fraser has called “the politics of recognition”). And this realignment persists to this day. But the Kennedy campaign of 1968 rested on entirely different premises: that an alternative coalition could be forged from the support of working-class white and black voters alike. In part, this strategy was born of a genuine conviction that the races could be brought together on the basis of common material interest and patriotic sentiment — but it was also born of political expediency.

The constituency who could most readily be enlisted in a fight against LBJ — the largely white, and ultra-liberal college-educated youths who powered the anti-war movement — had already spoken for themselves. They had come out for Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had beaten the indecisive Kennedy to the punch in announcing a primary challenge against Johnson in March 1968. Not only did Kennedy end up forfeiting the college crowd, his late entry had turned many of them against him: in their eyes, he was a power-hungry opportunist bent on stealing McCarthy’s thunder. In order to win, Kennedy would have to court a different set of voters, namely Americans on the lower end of the social-economic ladder from both races. The first test of Kennedy’s strategy would come in Indiana, where he was up against McCarthy and favourite son Governor Roger Brannigan, oldline Democrat and proxy for the party establishment.

In the flurry of speeches he gave to white and black voters in cities across the state, Kennedy would express liberal-sounding views on social justice, economic fairness, and ending the war, but combined them with conservative-sounding positions on patriotism and law and order, the last issue being particularly relevant in light of an epidemic of crime in American cities. As he saw it, rioting was never permissible no matter how morally compelling the underlying cause. This set Kennedy apart from McCarthy, who consistently avoided using the term “law and order”, which (then as now) was widely interpreted to carry racial connotations. Kennedy’s willingness to speak directly to the issue attested to the level of trust he placed in his audiences, refusing to change his message according to the perceived preferences of the crowd.

On 4 April, just as he was set to stump before a mostly black audience in Indianapolis, the news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis. Though his bodyguards advised the he cancel his appearance out of fears for his safety, Kennedy insisted on speaking. What followed was one of the most extraordinary and uplifting speeches in modern American rhetoric: Kennedy acknowledged the bottomless well of anger and resentment that many in his audience felt but nonetheless appealed to the message of peace and brotherhood that King embodied. Indianapolis was spared from the rioting that consumed other cities that night.

Kennedy then won Indiana handily, gaining 42% of the vote to Branigan’s 31% and McCarthy’s 27%, and proving his viability as a presidential contender. He won 86% of black voters but also secured an impressive share of white working-class support. As evidence assembled by RFK campaign chronicler Thurston Clarke and liberal writer Richard Kalhenberg has shown, he won two-to-one among white ethnic, Catholic, blue-collar workers, including in seven of the biggest Indiana counties that voted for the segregationist George Wallace in the previous primary election cycle in 1964. (Wallace was also running again in 1968 and would be competitive with Nixon for the backlash vote in the general election.) Kennedy’s weak spot among Indiana voters had — unsurprisingly — been among affluent white liberals.

The rest of his campaign would follow the same pattern. Kennedy delivered inspiring speeches that synthesised the best of liberal and conservative arguments on many issues, while avoiding extremes and invoking America’s better angels. On welfare, he empathically acknowledged the depth of poverty and despair in the nation but nonetheless recognised the primacy of a commitment to work and family as the foremost solutions to the problem. On Vietnam, he echoed the anti-war movement’s disgust, but did so without disrespecting the flag or the patriotic attachments of everyday Americans; he also opposed student draft deferments that spared the well-off from the burden of the war.

On economic policy, Kennedy was able to match his words of compassion for the dispossessed with an actual record of material improvement, exemplified by his intervention in the poor black New York neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His innovative approach of scouting for new sources of private capital and proactively channelling investment toward organic job creation and community building efforts offered a path that was distinct from both the top-down managerial liberalism of old, and the callous neoliberalism that came to prevail in the Seventies and Eighties.

One wonders what could have been had Kennedy lived to advance this unique blend of cultural and economic stances at the national level. Perhaps the transition away from the New Deal era wouldn’t have been so traumatic: America might have avoided both the ruthless economic displacement experienced by the working class under Reagan and Clinton, and the divisive culture war that turned these same Americans against each other. Instead, under an RFK presidency, a different method of politics, one that acknowledged and incorporated the concerns of ordinary citizens, may well have succeeded.

Of course, it was not to be. Kennedy went on to win lily-white Nebraska but lost Oregon — also at the hands of affluent suburban voters who went strongly for McCarthy. The California primary in June was set to be the campaign’s decisive contest. Here, Kennedy reinforced his multiracial coalition by linking arms with Mexican-American farmworkers, Chicanos in the barrios, Native Americans in reservations, and Asian-Americans in L.A. and San Francisco. On 5 June, he scored his biggest win yet and hoped to convince the party bosses to support him in time for the convention in Chicago. He was shot just after giving his victory speech, while greeting staff at the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. He died the next day in the hospital.

In recent years, too many liberals have come to believe that the best way to beat their conservative foes is by doubling down in defence of cultural progressivism on issues such as crime, immigration, and battles over identity. But this merely encourages and empowers the reactionary Right, further inflaming the vicious cycle of mutual hatred and derision that consumes so many Americans. (The Right, too, has no shortage of unpopular obsessions — such as banning abortion.) Instead, they ought, like RFK, to abandon radical activist positions and aim at diffusing culture war by appealing to values that command the respect of Americans of all races and cultural creeds. Rather than a heedless revolutionary attitude towards institutions, of the kind shared by woke and MAGA fanatics alike, they might consider adopting a more patient and thoughtful reformist disposition, as Kennedy did in his efforts to fight poverty.

Unfortunately, I do not see his namesake as being up to the task: while RFK Jr. has certainly captured some of the insurgent energy of his father’s campaign, his politics don’t appear to be anywhere near as grounded or level-headed. In any event, the original RFK’s example stands as a lesson and inspiration for all Democrats to emulate. “Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” as Bobby said, borrowing from Tennyson. The 2024 election provides the opportunity to break out of the trenches American politics has been trapped in since the Sixties — and re-embrace the brief, electric potential of Bobby Kennedy’s dream.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.
1TrueCuencoism

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Meh essay. The author says of the new RFK; “
his politics don’t appear to be anywhere near as grounded or level-headed.”

Although he provides a link, which I always appreciate, he needs to itemize at least a couple points illustrating RFK’s groundless policies. I’m not a huge fan of the new RFK – he doesn’t like fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and thinks it’s possible to power the US economy with solar panels out in the desert – but the author needs a little meat on the bone of his critique.

Something else is bugging me too – and it’s not limited to this author. I get frustrated by the use of terms like far right and Trumpism. What does this mean? Am I considered far right? I have no idea.

I’m pretty sure what progressive is, but opponents of this agenda have a wide range of political views. Calling someone far right could mean almost anything. I would consider myself a libertarian who supports some govt intervention in our lives, but in a limited way. I would have likely been a Democrat 15 years ago.

I wish people would be a little more specific when saying far right – it’s become a cudgel to attack anyone who opposes the progressive movement or the Democrat party.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

This is a common observation by people on this site. ‘Far right’ is used too loosely – and too frequently. Always a lazy argument.

Freddie Please Fix
Freddie Please Fix
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“Father, father, father, father, and Bobby stinks…”
Freddie – come on get some real writers. I want to hang in there, but Unherd has lost its Mojo.

Last edited 1 year ago by Freddie Please Fix
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I’m mystified as to why this author continues to appear on UnHerd. The quality of his analysis is 8th-Grade level at best.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I’m mystified as to why this author continues to appear on UnHerd. The quality of his analysis is 8th-Grade level at best.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Pointing out the ideals and vision of RFK’s father does nothing to tell us why this idiot son has fallen so far from the tree.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

RFK junior has advocated some really whacky ideas in the past, but I was prepared to look past that, and I still am to a lesser degree, but I recently heard a podcast in which his solution to the energy crisis was building a bunch of solar panels in the desert. He totally opposed nuclear and his solution was some unserious idea that is unworkable.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Want to maker sure the author knows that I lived through the years he describes, and he has captured what it was about. Wonderful analysis of the decade we lived through, and a nostaligic, hopeful wish for a better tomorrow. RFK Jr right now may be all that we have.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Want to maker sure the author knows that I lived through the years he describes, and he has captured what it was about. Wonderful analysis of the decade we lived through, and a nostaligic, hopeful wish for a better tomorrow. RFK Jr right now may be all that we have.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

RFK junior has advocated some really whacky ideas in the past, but I was prepared to look past that, and I still am to a lesser degree, but I recently heard a podcast in which his solution to the energy crisis was building a bunch of solar panels in the desert. He totally opposed nuclear and his solution was some unserious idea that is unworkable.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

This is a common observation by people on this site. ‘Far right’ is used too loosely – and too frequently. Always a lazy argument.

Freddie Please Fix
Freddie Please Fix
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“Father, father, father, father, and Bobby stinks…”
Freddie – come on get some real writers. I want to hang in there, but Unherd has lost its Mojo.

Last edited 1 year ago by Freddie Please Fix
Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Pointing out the ideals and vision of RFK’s father does nothing to tell us why this idiot son has fallen so far from the tree.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Meh essay. The author says of the new RFK; “
his politics don’t appear to be anywhere near as grounded or level-headed.”

Although he provides a link, which I always appreciate, he needs to itemize at least a couple points illustrating RFK’s groundless policies. I’m not a huge fan of the new RFK – he doesn’t like fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and thinks it’s possible to power the US economy with solar panels out in the desert – but the author needs a little meat on the bone of his critique.

Something else is bugging me too – and it’s not limited to this author. I get frustrated by the use of terms like far right and Trumpism. What does this mean? Am I considered far right? I have no idea.

I’m pretty sure what progressive is, but opponents of this agenda have a wide range of political views. Calling someone far right could mean almost anything. I would consider myself a libertarian who supports some govt intervention in our lives, but in a limited way. I would have likely been a Democrat 15 years ago.

I wish people would be a little more specific when saying far right – it’s become a cudgel to attack anyone who opposes the progressive movement or the Democrat party.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

The Democrats and their supporters have fallen in to the trap of believing that whatever they do is good – because they believe they are the good guys. The reality is that a lot of things Democrats do these days range from truly awful – (medically transitioning children – creating censorship regimes) – to highly debatable (free drug supplies – forcing energy transition in the name of climate change – wide open borders). I think RFK Jr is going to help the Democrats by blowing open the Overton window inside the party and creating space for moderate party members to seriously discuss these policies.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

The Democrats and their supporters have fallen in to the trap of believing that whatever they do is good – because they believe they are the good guys. The reality is that a lot of things Democrats do these days range from truly awful – (medically transitioning children – creating censorship regimes) – to highly debatable (free drug supplies – forcing energy transition in the name of climate change – wide open borders). I think RFK Jr is going to help the Democrats by blowing open the Overton window inside the party and creating space for moderate party members to seriously discuss these policies.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

Thank you for the reference to RFK Sr.’s speech. I had never heard it and it’s remarkable. A white presidential candidate announces the murder of the most prominent black leader at the time at the hands of a white man to a majority black, urban audience, and uses ancient Greek poetry and the Christian architecture of our common humanity to unify them for peace instead of vengeance.
Could it be done today though? Do we have enough of, as the author says, “values that command the respect of Americans of all races and cultural creeds”? I’d like to think so, but I suspect we don’t. Let’s face it, in 1968, in the midst of the sexual revolution, no one could have ever imagined that 55 years later, we would have major political debates over what a woman is.
Are there things we agree on? Absolutely! But we disagree about so many more fundamental things that this sort of American-unity is a illusion today.

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
1 year ago

I was struck by how no white person could ever give this speech today.

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
1 year ago

I was struck by how no white person could ever give this speech today.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

Thank you for the reference to RFK Sr.’s speech. I had never heard it and it’s remarkable. A white presidential candidate announces the murder of the most prominent black leader at the time at the hands of a white man to a majority black, urban audience, and uses ancient Greek poetry and the Christian architecture of our common humanity to unify them for peace instead of vengeance.
Could it be done today though? Do we have enough of, as the author says, “values that command the respect of Americans of all races and cultural creeds”? I’d like to think so, but I suspect we don’t. Let’s face it, in 1968, in the midst of the sexual revolution, no one could have ever imagined that 55 years later, we would have major political debates over what a woman is.
Are there things we agree on? Absolutely! But we disagree about so many more fundamental things that this sort of American-unity is a illusion today.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

opportunity to break out of the trenches American politics has been trapped in since the Sixties
Great insight. Sadly, I don’t believe American politics has quite reached that point yet. It looks like 2024 will be another faceoff between the two dinosaurs, Biden and Trump. My guess is Biden will win by a slim margin and limp along for another four years.
The current leadership is the last hoorah of an increasingly irrelevant generation of politicians incapable of delivering solutions to the problems that beset the modern world. It’s a painful prospect, but I suspect we’ll have to wait for 2028 before the current gerontocracy have died, or are incapacitated, and we might see a new generation of leaders arise who bring vision and pragmatism to the job. At least a decade of tumultuous times ahead, imo.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I find it hard to believe Biden will make to January 2029, and the end of a second term. He is another ruinous legacy of Obama’s squandered presidency
elected on the basis of hope, but governed entirely on the basis of division.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I find it hard to believe Biden will make to January 2029, and the end of a second term. He is another ruinous legacy of Obama’s squandered presidency
elected on the basis of hope, but governed entirely on the basis of division.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

opportunity to break out of the trenches American politics has been trapped in since the Sixties
Great insight. Sadly, I don’t believe American politics has quite reached that point yet. It looks like 2024 will be another faceoff between the two dinosaurs, Biden and Trump. My guess is Biden will win by a slim margin and limp along for another four years.
The current leadership is the last hoorah of an increasingly irrelevant generation of politicians incapable of delivering solutions to the problems that beset the modern world. It’s a painful prospect, but I suspect we’ll have to wait for 2028 before the current gerontocracy have died, or are incapacitated, and we might see a new generation of leaders arise who bring vision and pragmatism to the job. At least a decade of tumultuous times ahead, imo.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

“Instead, they ought, like RFK, to abandon radical activist positions and aim at diffusing culture war by appealing to values that command the respect of Americans of all races and cultural creeds. Rather than a heedless revolutionary attitude towards institutions, of the kind shared by woke and MAGA fanatics alike, they might consider adopting a more patient and thoughtful reformist disposition, as Kennedy did in his efforts to fight poverty.”
Oh I see, you’re referring to a time before all of America’s institutions failed it repeatedly and resisted even modest reforms. Wow it is almost like RFK’s time and now have some serious differences. Who knew?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

“Instead, they ought, like RFK, to abandon radical activist positions and aim at diffusing culture war by appealing to values that command the respect of Americans of all races and cultural creeds. Rather than a heedless revolutionary attitude towards institutions, of the kind shared by woke and MAGA fanatics alike, they might consider adopting a more patient and thoughtful reformist disposition, as Kennedy did in his efforts to fight poverty.”
Oh I see, you’re referring to a time before all of America’s institutions failed it repeatedly and resisted even modest reforms. Wow it is almost like RFK’s time and now have some serious differences. Who knew?

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

I hope Americans come to their senses and have RFK Jr. runing against De Santis. I’m not wholly impressed by either but their ideas and politics have some positives and the alternative of Trump vs. Biden is frightening. If there are other better candidates then that would be good but no one with pondus and sufficient backing seems to have put themselves forward. The most negative aspect of RFK Jr. is his voice. I know it sounds trivial but it’s an effort to understand what he’s saying sometimes.

Last edited 1 year ago by stephen archer
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  stephen archer

If you lived in Florida, you’d be impressed with DeSantis. This state is so well-managed towns actually complete with one another on whose can look the most beautiful. If I owned a landscaping company, I could afford an ocean-side villa in Palm Beach.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago

The ticket therefore: RFK @ Desantis, 2024. What else can be done.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago

The ticket therefore: RFK @ Desantis, 2024. What else can be done.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  stephen archer

If you lived in Florida, you’d be impressed with DeSantis. This state is so well-managed towns actually complete with one another on whose can look the most beautiful. If I owned a landscaping company, I could afford an ocean-side villa in Palm Beach.

stephen archer
stephen archer
1 year ago

I hope Americans come to their senses and have RFK Jr. runing against De Santis. I’m not wholly impressed by either but their ideas and politics have some positives and the alternative of Trump vs. Biden is frightening. If there are other better candidates then that would be good but no one with pondus and sufficient backing seems to have put themselves forward. The most negative aspect of RFK Jr. is his voice. I know it sounds trivial but it’s an effort to understand what he’s saying sometimes.

Last edited 1 year ago by stephen archer
Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
1 year ago

Word. A symbiosis can develop between RFK Jr’s campaign and the Braver Angels initiative that seeks to bridge the divide between Red and Blue.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
1 year ago

Word. A symbiosis can develop between RFK Jr’s campaign and the Braver Angels initiative that seeks to bridge the divide between Red and Blue.

John Hellerstedt
John Hellerstedt
1 year ago

RFK is a loose cannon. If you are not familiar with that coin of phrase, ask a military veteran to explain the danger.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Hellerstedt
Susan Scheid
Susan Scheid
1 year ago

I agree with your assessment. What I fear may happen, if the Democrats do not change course on their most absurdist positions, chief among which is gender identity ideology, is that RFK Jr. could, on failing to win in the D primary, run third party, a la Nader in 2000, and we all know how that turned out.

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago
Reply to  Susan Scheid

Would love to see RFK run on a third party of his own making. He would not win, but the power of his presence would set the stages for a viable third party that can oppose the duoploly. Dems and RS are both the enemies that we citizens face

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
1 year ago
Reply to  Susan Scheid

Would love to see RFK run on a third party of his own making. He would not win, but the power of his presence would set the stages for a viable third party that can oppose the duoploly. Dems and RS are both the enemies that we citizens face

Susan Scheid
Susan Scheid
1 year ago

I agree with your assessment. What I fear may happen, if the Democrats do not change course on their most absurdist positions, chief among which is gender identity ideology, is that RFK Jr. could, on failing to win in the D primary, run third party, a la Nader in 2000, and we all know how that turned out.

John Hellerstedt
John Hellerstedt
1 year ago

RFK is a loose cannon. If you are not familiar with that coin of phrase, ask a military veteran to explain the danger.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Hellerstedt