Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s crusade for unity: A closer look
By Peter M. Williams, Jr.
If someone had asked me a few months ago to describe even the vaguest policy points of independent candidate Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.’s presidential campaign, that person would have been out of luck. However, as election time draws ever nearer, nearly all major polling outlets have revealed a similar trend in voter data: The majority of Americans would rather not have a rematch of the 2020 debacle if there is a viable alternative — an almost unprecedented sentiment among presidential voters. This trend was observed by HarrisX, Gallup and the Pew Research Institute. The polls varied, but the message was clear: Voters today are more open than ever before to a third-party candidate — and Mr. Kennedy is polling close to 20 percent.
But wait — we’ve seen this movie, starring Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein and other devilish vote-stealers. Well, not quite — I submit that Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s decision to run as independent is not only a rejection of the system that keeps the same people at the top of the pecking order and a scathing indictment on the two-party system as a whole — but will his bold indictment play ball with voters a year from now in the general election? Time will tell.
However, before we begin, let’s a take a crash course in RFK, Jr. 101. A scion of the iconic Kennedy family, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was born on January 17, 1954, to Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general and United States senator. From an early age, Kennedy was exposed to the intrinsic value of public service and social justice, instilled by his family’s commitment to public welfare. His professional life has been marked with significant contributions to American politics and public service, most notably through his environmental law career, advocacy work and his recent foray into independent politics.
During the course of our discussion, Mr. Kennedy was polite, confident and thoughtful. I was delighted to speak candidly with politician whose key policy points focus on our individual and communal responsibility to protect our civil liberties and to bring people together from across different social, political and economic ideologies to reach a relic of the not-so-ancient past — a compromise.
Returning to my fanciful encounter in the first paragraph, if that same person had told me that a key figure in one the most influential Democratic dynasties in American history would strike out on his own as an independent candidate a little over nine months after declaring his intent to run as a Democrat, a party that may as well bear his family crest, my blank stare may have turned to incredulity. For as long as I’ve been alive, the Kennedy name has been synonymous with the traditional values of the left side of the aisle. I doubt that I need to give my patient readers a recap of his uncle and father’s pivotal roles in shaping the Democratic Party as we know it (knew it?) as the party that sought to inspire citizens with the idea of American society as a modern day Camelot — a “city on a hill,” built by the same the bravery that would send men to the moon and guided by the type of unflinching leadership that is willing to dust off a 19th century diplomatic doctrine from the time of James Madison to stop a fleet of Soviet Union missiles from threatening the Western Hemisphere — the list goes on.
As countless pundits have pointed out, it seems rather predictable when the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy took up the mantle of the party of his father and uncle. However, as he proved last month by breaking out from the aegis of the National Democratic Party and declaring himself an independent candidate, the proof is in the pudding: Bobby Kennedy is anything but predictable. When I asked him about this decision, his response was honest and almost novel in its simplicity, refreshingly devoid of the constant finger-pointing and pervasive “us versus them” mentality that dominates modern politics on both sides of the aisle.
“My experience with running within the Democratic Party made it clear to me that the donor base of the Democratic Party is hostile to any progressive candidate who would challenge this corrupt merger between state and corporate power. So, you know, the same thing that happened to me, with the same things that happened to Tulsi Gabbard, that happened to Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb and other candidates who were talking about the corporate domination of America’s political system. And … there’s a longer-term issue, which is the way that system stays in place, roads and amplifying the polarization so that Republicans are always fighting Democrats. It’s black against white. It’s native against migrant … It’s like the jangling keys strategy: Everybody is looking at the jangling keys while the bank is being robbed … if a king and queen look out over the balustrades in their castle and they see their subjects fighting, they go back to the banquet and pop champagne corks, because they know nobody’s coming over the wall. [My] hope during my campaign is to quiet these disputes by focusing on the values that we all have in common, which are much larger and much more important than these little issues, these cultural issues that are used to keep us at each other’s throats.”
That’s a key part of his message and one element that will likely stick with voters — it neither assigns nor absolves any blame, but focuses on a constructive way forward together.
Now, this plan is all well and good on paper, but recall that it has been tried by various players before Mr. Kennedy. When I asked him for a few specific policy reasons why the average Republican voter should follow him down his path towards a unity ticket, essentially hurling their vote into a world of fringe politics that exists outside of the established two-party political system — precisely the situation our founding fathers sought to avoid when designing our three-branch system of government — his response characterized America as a place where people really aren’t that different: “What I’ve found is that, on most issues, Americans agree. Whether Republican or Democrat, everybody wants to support veterans; everybody wants a staffed education system in the country. Everybody wants a voting system that has integrity and where everybody gets to vote. Everybody is in favor of ending the chronic disease epidemic and reducing [citizen’s] exposures to toxic chemicals in our food and our medicines, in our air and our water.”
The obvious issue with this is that it fails to take into account basic behavioral economics and glosses over several significant sociopolitical divisions that are clamoring to be addressed. Although he is confident that while these common interests surely exist and can and have been used to unite America, something in his choice of words seems to concede that it’s not as easy as a few spirited rallies and clever campaign slogans punctuated by verses of “Kumbaya.” So I pressed further. What are these issues that are so innately valuable to Americans that it would inspire them to reject their respective party in favor of what Europeans might call a “coalition government.”
His example of the importance of responsible use and conservation of our natural resources as an issue that all Americans — or at least most of those with an IQ score in the double digits — led seamlessly into my next topic.
Those of you who have watched Mr. Kennedy’s professional trajectory are probably aware that he is one of the most prolific and effective environmental lawyers in U.S. history. His dogged dedication to conservation in all forms is something of paramount importance to those of us lucky enough to call the Lowcountry home, and it’s being spoiled (or outright destroyed) at an unprecedented rate. The foundation of the policy is as simple as it is abhorrent to any major corporation: Hold them accountable. Or Mr. Kennedy states plainly, “I would force companies to internalize their costs and the environmentally destructive subsidies, which are responsible for most of the environmental destruction in our country. If people have, if companies had to pay the cost of pollution, they’d have to compete in a marketplace where much more efficiency, more efficient companies would come to dominate, you know. I believe in free market capitalism and a true free market promotes efficiency, and efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste.”
So far, so good. He continued, “A true free market means that as people, that we would have to think that the destruction of natural resources and it’s the undervaluation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. In a true free market, you can’t make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich. But what polluters do is they make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves by lowering quality of life for everybody else, and they do that by escaping the discipline of the free market. You show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay its production costs.”
With that, my colleague Maggie McKay widened our focus of our discussion to domestic economic health of the U.S. as a whole. Readers who have a casual knowledge of Mr. Kennedy’s general feeling toward any big corporations should be able to guess the nature of his response. Although somber, his facts are backed up with years of empirical data tracking home ownership trends over the last half-century. He commiserates with those affected by rising interest rates and the turmoil in the housing market. His response was vague, but not evasive. He astutely recognized the importance of owning a home to our national social and economic wellbeing. “… homeownership is critical for democracy,” he said. “People who own their homes care about their communities. They care about their schools, their roads, their hospitals … the police protection … right now, we are being pushed … from an owner society to a renter society. And if that happens … we’re going to move from being citizens to being subjects.” Inspiring and well argued, but when pressed on the specific policies he plans to enact to turn the tide, he used something I’m going to call the “rich uncle metaphor”:
“ … if you have a rich uncle... We’ll cosign your mortgage. You can get a much lower rate because the bank is basing your interest rate not on your lousy credit rating but on your uncle’s superb credit rating. Well, I’m going to give everybody a rich uncle, which is Uncle Sam. And Uncle Sam is going to cosign your three percent mortgage. If you default, Uncle Sam will end up owning your home, and that’s what happened with Benny May and Freddie Mac, and they now have a 110 billion surplus, which I’m also going to use in other ways to increase the housing stock in our country.”
Although a third-party candidate willing to reach across the aisle, it seems that Mr. Kennedy is relying heavily on his political pedigree and the general sense of voter apathy to draw ballots his way. However, his overall message of unity is a welcome change from the adversarial nature the last two presidential elections. Having said that, what we have here a kind of political prototype that U.S. voters may not be quite ready to embrace. Having said that, Robert F. Kennedy’s conviction, empathy and determination cannot be overstated. He’s a man who has stared down polluting corporations, overcome personal struggles (while in the national spotlight) and established himself as one of the foremost experts in Southern politics (he has written two books on the subject, including a children’s book about our own Robert Smalls). His policies may be a little too out of the mainstream for the average voter, but they are worthy of hard look before we head to the polls.
Peter is the managing editor of the Charleston Mercury, the Carolina Digital Daily and associated publications.