[Publisher's Note] | Dynasty Politics, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher's Note]

Dynasty Politics


"The Democrats prefer losing with a Clinton to winning with a Sanders."

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on March, 5, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Back in January, on the night of our loutish president’s first State of the Union address, I refused to watch the live broadcast. I had no desire to sink further into depression. Just having to endure the daily insults of the Trumpian reign is disheartening enough   without submitting oneself for more than an hour to the words and images of a raving lunatic dressed up in the guise of respectability.

Around 11 o’clock that evening, convinced that I’d successfully avoided Donald Trump’s masquerade, I turned on the television to watch the news. And so it was that I happened upon the Democratic Party’s official response to the sneers and lies served up by our head of state. In the midst of a perhaps unprecedented moral and ethical crisis—and despite the fact that the national ship is being steered by a rabid plutocrat—I saw that the opposition party had chosen as its spokesperson Joseph Kennedy III, an aristocrat descended from a political dynasty that is as well known for its moral corruption and arrogance as for its success in electoral campaigns and financial affairs. And what this young, handsome lad had to say plunged me into despair.

Until then I actually had been unaware of his existence, but I have since learned that he’s the grandson of Robert Kennedy, one of the two legendary brothers who became martyrs after their assassinations in 1963 and 1968. This younger Kennedy has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2013, having used his heritage to his advantage and gotten himself elected in one of the family Massachusetts fiefdoms. It may be that Joseph Kennedy III, who was apparently a gifted student (Stanford, Harvard Law School), deserves his position as a rising star on the national scene. His work for the Peace Corps, a program founded by his great-uncle, President John F. Kennedy, is a testament to his interest in improving the status of poor people, at least in the Dominican Republic, and I admire any American who takes the trouble to learn to speak fluent Spanish. Furthermore, this Kennedy is a non-drinker and seems to be making an effort to move beyond the often sleazy tradition established by his great-grandfather, the businessman and investor Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., and carried on by JFK, by his other great-uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, and by his father, Joseph Kennedy II, a former congressman.

Nevertheless, I observed something that sounded false in this Kennedy’s alleged passion for justice and equality. On the one hand, the text of his speech, no doubt written by committee, was crammed with progressive clichés, albeit ones that hewed to the anti-Trump sentiments shared by every individual of sound mind. On the other hand, Kennedy lacked ardor. He seemed to be playing the role of man of the people in rather unconvincing fashion, maybe because he comes from a background as privileged as Trump’s own. And when he spoke briefly in Spanish to demonstrate his solidarity with the “Dreamers”—illegal immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as very young children—who now are threatened with deportation by Trump’s anti-immigrant program, I thought I detected a certain condescension, perhaps unconscious, toward those potential victims of the president’s policies: Dreamers, for the most part, speak and understand English as well as native-born Americans.

But I could have excused Kennedy had he shown more combativeness, which I’m sure was out of the question for someone who embodies the Democratic machine, the same machine that prevented Bernie Sanders from winning the party’s presidential nomination and supported the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton instead. For Democratic Party regulars, it’s always preferable to lose with a Clinton than to win with a Sanders, because the Clinton apparatchik types never upset the patronage system and the collection of funds from Wall Street that dominate the “party of the people.” Rendered free and independent by hundreds of thousands of small donations, Sanders could, for example, oppose NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement (Bill Clinton’s flagship project, attacked to good effect by Trump), without having to take into consideration large contributions from the financial oligarchy.

I’m not the only one who distrusts Kennedy’s smiling face. Joan Vennochi, a columnist for The Boston Globe, recently noted his refusal to serve on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in order, presumably, to avoid offending some of his Republican colleagues. Kennedy expressed a bizarre ambivalence regarding the Democrats’ possible victory in the 2018 midterm elections. Yes, he told Vennochi, he’d like to see the Democrats win back a majority in the House. But he wondered, “Is there a way to do that without targeting individual [Republican] members I have relations with? . . . Unfortunately, some Republicans have to lose. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t poison your ability to work with Republican colleagues.” With a strategy like that, one can foresee the Republicans holding on to their majority in the House of Representatives at least until 2020.

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