Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | Despite his family name, Kennedy can’t break up the two-party system

CW / Jennifer Strou
Presidential candidate visits the campus during his campaign on Jan. 24 at the Bryant Conference Center.

“Dude, he could be like the most powerful man in the world one day,” one awestruck student said on their way out of the selfie assembly line.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would certainly like you to think so. Luckily for him, the last name really helps. 

At least one Kennedy has been in Congress or the White House for 73 out of the last 77 years, an American political dynasty rivaled in scope only by, say, the Lees of Virginia or the Adamses.

And waiting in Bryant Conference Center for him to begin his speech, it was impossible to forget that fact. Free buttons, stickers and hats all read simply “Kennedy 24,” or “Alabama for Kennedy,” with the occasional accompaniment of the candidate’s toothy visage.

The ghosts of his uncle and his father haunt every speech Kennedy gives. “I was with him when he died,” he says of his father, or, “My uncle, when he was in the White House …”

The subtext always seems to be that of course he’s capable of being the first independent president — don’t you know that he’s a Kennedy?

When the Kennedy charm fails him, his frustration is equally obvious. Baby boomers, he gripes, were “alive during Camelot. They love the Kennedys, but they don’t like this Kennedy.” 

If baby boomers aren’t buying it, then who are the 21% of registered voters thinking about pulling the lever for a Kennedy? Well, as Kennedy frequently touts, he’s been pulling ahead of both Biden and Trump with young voters in several polls.

Maggie McKay, a junior majoring in public relations, was one of the Kennedy campaign’s on-campus point people for the campaign stop. She met Kennedy last summer helping to produce a borderline hagiographic interview of the candidate for the Charleston Mercury that was later reposted to the Kennedy campaign website.

McKay said she supports Kennedy because she wants to live in a world that is “debt-free, with affordable housing, and less corruption in all aspects of our lives.”

An attractive pitch for sure. Kennedy’s frequently repeated claim that the “average income in this country is now $5,000 less than the cost of basic cost of living” does inspire moral outrage (even if it’s hard to figure out how everything keeps humming along if the average family really can’t afford food).

But most of Kennedy’s potential supporters aren’t policy wonks paying attention to the latest reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The archetypal committed Kennedy supporter is someone who doesn’t believe in any ideology nearly as much as they believe in not believing: not believing that vaccines work, not believing the mainstream news, not believing the Warren Commission.

By and large the attendees of his speech last week weren’t diehard fans, with the exceptions of one man who arrived already wearing a camo “Kennedy 24” cap and an older woman who complained to me about being unable to afford the $1,000-a-plate donor dinner.

Instead, most were Democrats or Republicans united by their dread of the probable Trump vs. Biden rematch in November.

“I don’t know if I like him or not,” said Lisa Raseo, a local Democrat. “I just know I don’t like Trump. That’s all I know. And Biden, he needs to be bubble wrapped, but at least Biden knows politics.”

Kailey Mooney, a third-year political science major, said she grew up “very holistic, anti-vax and everything because of the influence that Kennedy had on my mom and my dad.” But as a self-identified Republican, she still wasn’t sure whether or not she could seriously consider voting for an independent candidate.

“I was kind of hoping that Nikki Haley would become the presidential candidate for the Republican Party and not Trump, so I’m not exactly sure,” Mooney said. “I’m going to have to do some more research.”

Mooney’s distaste for the presumptive major party nominees isn’t unique. According to one 2023 poll, 79% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they completely or somewhat agree with the sentiment that there need to be more political parties. For that matter, so do I.

Kennedy constantly pitches his candidacy as the best choice for everyone who wants to break the Republican and Democratic parties’ iron grip over American politics.

However, with an electoral system characterized by first-past-the-post elections and a winner-takes-all presidency, overturning the political duopoly requires more than just one flash-in-the-pan-candidate. Another vain eccentric proved that over 30 years ago.

In 1992, Texas billionaire-turned-presidential candidate Ross Perot got 18.9% of the vote, despite not winning a plurality in any states. Smashing through the FEC’s 5% threshold meant he qualified for $30 million of public funding to run again in ’96 (the equivalent of almost $60 million today).

But because in ’92 he ran as an independent, as Kennedy is likely doing, it was unclear if the Reform Party that Perot founded could actually get those millions with anyone else on the ballot. Not all that surprisingly, the Reform Party chose to nominate Perot instead of former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm.

Perot’s campaign in 1996 was significantly less successful — once bitten, twice shy, voters awarded him only 8.4% of the popular vote. In 2000, Pat Buchanan became the Reform nominee and received a disastrous 0.4% in the general election.

Kennedy chose to repeat Perot’s mistake: If Kennedy gets over 5% of the vote as an independent, which seems quite likely if he can actually get on the ballot, the only man who could benefit from public election financing in 2028 is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

If Kennedy doesn’t feel like running again, or falls ill, or dies, then the exceedingly rare opportunity to build a successful third party with public financing would be completely wasted. Not exactly indicative of a candidate who cares about a movement more than his own political ambitions.

In recent months, though, Kennedy has repeatedly hinted at running as the nominee of the Libertarian Party, a party notably weak to hostile takeovers. Of course, the Libertarian Party may well welcome Kennedy with open arms.

Libertarianism and conspiracism are often kissing cousins. The fear of the state that the Libertarian Party has acted as a vehicle for often coexists with a fear of all institutions: the major political parties, the mainstream news, multinational corporations.

Today, Americans are more afraid and less trustful of all of America’s institutions than they ever have been, something the Kennedy campaign is likely looking to take advantage of.

When then-President Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” trust in the government was at 42%, according to Pew Research. Now it’s at 16%.

Kennedy seeks to provide all of the nonbelievers and the skeptics something to finally believe in: the Kennedy mythos. If Trump won over voters with low social trust in 2016 by running as the reality TV star who could fix corruption because he’d been corrupt, Kennedy is running simply as the American dynast, with everything that entails.

“Make America Great Again,” Trump’s infamous slogan, left Americans asking the question, “When was America great?” In his speeches, ads and podcast appearances, RFK Jr. provides a concise answer: whenever a Kennedy was in charge. 

The dark side of Camelot is now completely airbrushed away. Kennedy will even say that of course “there was good reason” for the three-letter agencies to spy on Martin Luther King Jr. — after all, a Kennedy was in the White House when that decision was made.

By wrapping himself in this freshly burnished Kennedy legacy, however unearned, Kennedy sells himself as everything for all people: a president who will change the world without shaking the boat.

When I asked Kennedy what three things he would do in his first 100 days as president, he said he’d “issue a new set of mortgages at 3%,” “begin unraveling the 800 bases that we have abroad,” and order federal bureaucrats to stop “censoring or propagandizing the American people.”

When I asked him if he felt millionaires and billionaires are paying enough in taxes, he simply said, “I’m not going to raise the tax burden, but I may move it around.”

Setting feasibility aside (a touchy subject for any politician), this just isn’t a compelling alternative to the visions of America that the Biden and Trump campaigns are going to be offering.

Even as he complains about Amazon not paying any taxes, or casts BlackRock as the bogeyman behind the immiseration of the American middle-class, Kennedy, like Trump, doesn’t have a truly populist policy platform to match his posturing. The only distinctive features of his campaign remain COVID trutherism and the simple fact that Kennedy is neither Trump nor Biden.

With each passing day, we grow closer to an election no one is excited for. The Democratic nominee “needs to be bubble wrapped” and the Republican nominee will be a patrimonial insurrectionist.

As one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who believe we need more political parties, I wish Kennedy’s 2024 campaign could kick off a new era of American politics, as the Republican Party did in 1856 or the Populists did in 1892.

But instead of a new vision for American democracy, Kennedy offers merely nostalgia for a perfect 1960s that never was, anger at conspiracy theorists’ familiar bugaboos, and an unwillingness to actually stand for anything.

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