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Opinion

Oh, So You’re a Kennedy?

On September 21, 2019, Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and great-nephew of President John F. Kennedy, announced his intention to represent Massachusetts in the United States Senate. At the age of 39, with little in the way of any real life experience, Kennedy made official his effort to end Senator Edward Markey’s years of service. Markey, who escaped the horrors of an impoverished youth, has spent his career supporting progressive causes, and had finally made it to the U.S. Senate, must fight for his political life against a man whose main qualification is his last name.

In Kennedy’s campaign announcement, he made no mention of his main opponent in the race. Not because he wanted to avoid contention, but because he was simply unable to do so. How could he have made an effective comparison between Markey, a working class milkman’s son, and himself, the exemplification of dynastic politics, without portraying a unique sort of elitism? Kennedy made the appropriate calculation that it was better to avoid the subject. 

Instead, he tried to link his story to the wider American story, in the vein of such notable recent political figures as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He spoke of his ancestor Patrick Kennedy, an immigrant who arrived penniless on America’s shores and became emblematic of the so-called American Dream. What Kennedy failed to mention, however, in his emotive, empathy-inducing tangent, was that Patrick Kennedy arrived over 170 years ago and that, in the time since, his family has amassed an abundance of economic and political power. Far from coming from a poor family, like Clinton, or being a member of a minority, like Obama, Kennedy is the privileged beneficiary of an entrenched class system. In his opening remarks, Kennedy says that his family has always “believed in the promise of this country.” But when you are destined for incomprehensible wealth and political sway from the moment you leave the womb, how could you not?

There was something quite nepotistic about Kennedy’s career from the outset. Only three years after graduating from Harvard Law School, he was elected to serve as the representative from Massachusetts 4th congressional district. Outside of his education, the young Kennedy had achieved little, bar a brief stint in the Peace Corps (which his great uncle had founded in 1962) and a six month period working on his uncle Ted Kennedy’s reelection campaign. Bereft of any real life experience or qualifications, the experientially impoverished Kennedy relied on the web of nepotism and privilege which, like that which benefits royalty, breathes life into the Kennedy dynasty. 

Kennedy’s campaign announcement amounted to little more than a diatribe against the current president, lacking any criticism of his opponent. The reason the representative’s campaign, like his career thus far, has been so ideologically flaccid, is because the Kennedy name exemplifies America’s problems of inequality and oligarchy, so to denounce that system would be to exhibit an unappetising form of hypocrisy. He is unable to critique America’s corrupt economic system because he is an extremely privileged beneficiary of it. Further, he is unable to relate to the inherent problems of American society because he does not understand what it is like to live a normal life. He knows of little more than his journey from the Ivy League to the United States Congress, yet intends to represent 6.9 million people (many of whom aren’t related to a president). Most importantly, he has no conceptualisation of what it means to be poor. For Kennedy, politics is not a matter of life or death in the way it is for Markey, as it is for America’s working class, it is simply a game. The Senate, by extension, is not a mechanism to enact structural change, but a mere stepping stone on Kennedy’s way to the presidency.

The majority of Kennedy’s campaign announcement was dedicated to the fact that, in essence, Donald Trump is a bad man. The only line that carried even a hint of  justification for his campaign came in his call for a younger generation of leaders to take the lead. In the spirit of failed presidential candidate Eric Swalwell’s “pass the torch,” Kennedy aimed to frame himself as the fresh and optimistic face of the future. It is unfortunate, however, that Kennedy’s politics are better suited to the past, when Markey’s represent exactly the bold future Kennedy advocates for. For all Kennedy’s empty rhetoric about “new ideas” and a “new approach,” Markey is the more thoughtful, ideological, liberal alternative to Kennedy’s stale advocacy of moderatism. It is exactly for this reason that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest and brightest figure in the party, has endorsed the current senator. Even if Kennedy is genuine in his demand for a fresh alternative, he certainly doesn’t have much support among the party’s new generation, or an idea of how to achieve that goal.

The other great irony of Kennedy’s campaign is that it will only help the man he spent most of his campaign announcement railing against. Despite dedicating his speech to attacking the president, every dollar spent by Kennedy and Markey on this unnecessary civil war will be a dollar not used against Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, or any of their cronies. Far from tearing down the system, Kennedy’s selfish, megalomaniacal attempt to fulfill the promise of the Kennedy dynasty will help it stay in place.

Kennedy’s creepily intense desire for high office is similar to that exhibited by fellow Harvard graduate and current presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg: a man who, only two years after taking the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, enlisted in the United States Navy. The career trajectory, from Harvard to Oxford to the deserts of Afghanistan, suggests a certain determination to be president. Pete Buttigieg further demonstrated his rank opportunism when he unsuccessfully ran to be Indiana State Treasurer in 2010 and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Buttigieg’s announcement that he was going to run for president wasn’t the first time he clawed for more power. Now he is running to be the most powerful person in the world, despite being a lowly mayor from America’s 306th biggest town.

Yet, at least for Buttigieg, he didn’t inherit his opportunism. He is not the carrier of some vainglorious desire passed down from one generation to the next like his contemporary, Mr. Kennedy. However much he aspires beyond his ability, at least Buttigieg’s aspiration is based on a belief in his own ability, rather than faith in his family name.

By recent polling, Kennedy is anywhere between 14 to 17 percentage points ahead of his rival. The favorite son of the Kennedy family, who has never worked a proper job in his life, seems likely to best a man who paid his way through college by working as an ice cream truck driver. The oligarchy that has propelled the Kennedys, like the Bushes and the Clintons, into positions of extraordinary power, has rendered the American Dream seriously ill, and seems likely to eclipse meritocracy for good. If, come March 2020, Kennedy wins over the self-made senator, then it will be the ultimate proof that representative democracy in 21st century America is hardly representative at all.