The Democratic Party response to President Trump’s first State of The Union address serves as a laboratory and a public testing ground for new or unknown liberal politicians to see if they have the mettle to make it on the national stage. In choosing Joseph Kennedy III, a three-term congressional representative from Massachusetts and, more obviously, a member of the Kennedy family, Democratic leaders hoped to give this young politician a chance in the spotlight, hinting at looming ambitions for 2020. Before January 30th, Kennedy had only been seen on national television introducing Elizabeth Warren at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and in the occasional viral video clip on Facebook. But why choose Kennedy in the Trump era? What about Kennedy is a response to the Trump agenda?
The Democrats’ choice of Kennedy was capitulation in its greatest, most blatant form. Rather than present a stark alternative to Trump, the Democratic Party has decided to present a complement, whose policies are vague and whose experience is based on performative fame. Trump is a new money real estate developer, while Kennedy is an old elite socialite from a historic American political family; both are members of the distinct ruling classes of American society. Similar to Trump’s outright inexperience and incompetence, Kennedy may project experience from name but has little from service in congress—a mere five years. In what way is Kennedy a look forward when everything about him screams the past? By selecting a man whose name harkens memories of the 1960’s, does the Democratic Party insinuate a fondness for a period whose rough memories have sweetened with age? John F. Kennedy was a great president because he was consequential: his substantive policy and American leadership changed the course of the 1960’s. He gave off a palpable optimism and inspired it in others. In Joe Kennedy, we see none of the same. His speech followed the standard mainline Democratic Party talking points, and while it is important to recognize that no response speech is meant to be extraordinarily momentous, Kennedy’s was painfully melodramatic, his performance overdone and lacking the finesse of tested Kennedy charm. Content was nothing beyond a few overarching axioms, such as “out of many, one” and “you serve, you rescue, you help, you heal.” He showed no leadership beyond being able to lead a crowd in a few unenthused cheers and claps. Where in this is the answer the left demands in response to the radicalization of mainstream politics?
After glossing over some of the moral transgressions and violations of status quo of the Trump administration in the opening lines of his speech, and then deemphasizing Russian interference in the 2016 election, a rollback in civil rights, and a rise in radical right activism, Kennedy proposed no actions on how to respond to these threats other than Obama-era promises of “hope and change.” But Trump is no Bush, and the promise of hope and change holds much less value now to a large swath of Americans who have either been left behind or victimized by the Trump presidency. While these Americans turn to look at politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand as fighters for progressive values and policy in the new radical right epoch, Joe Kennedy’s response offered no indignation at the course of the country, no direct attack on the corrupted values of the Trump administration, but rather meek and muffled cries of protest. To counter radical actions, an equally radical response is necessary. Putting a milquetoast such as Kennedy at the forefront of American liberal politics is, in essence, a surrender to the right that gives them a blank check to continue their dangerous course toward the far right.
In 2008, many Americans saw the election of the country’s first black president as a sign that the Democrats were looking to open their party leadership to the changing demographics of American society. Before, the glass ceiling of the American white male ruling class was too high and too hard to break through for a new diverse array of American leaders. Promoting Joe Kennedy as the face of the party runs the risk of reenforcing the glass ceiling that has only just been broken through after hundreds of years of failed attempts. Why not choose politicians who offer more innovative, more inspired visions of a multiethnic multi-gendered America to be the face of liberal politics? The Democratic Party has a responsibility now, whether it likes it or not, to be the face of identity politics and to embrace the many ways American now define themselves outside of the conventional norms. Kennedy may be the color of southeastern Massachusetts, but he is not the color of America. When many thought the Democratic Party had moved away from a binary view of the nation, the party’s choosing Kennedy as its face affirms that the identity politics of progressive America has yet to completely topple the wealthy white male bourgeoisie of the old party.
Resistance to the Trump administration and its policies requires more than just protesting the actions of the administration and its supporters, but also politicians from the American left who risk becoming complacent by offering vague hints of opposition and strong overtones of placation. These modern appeasement policies and politicians may avert direct conflict in the present, but are a direct victory for the far right, who now face little opposition to the full rollout of their policy and vision for the country. The fundamental principle of any participatory democracy is to bring silenced voices out of isolation into the community to counter the forces of the dominating system. Democrats should be supporting community organization and opposition efforts rather than being part of the system invalidating these voices through politicians like Kennedy.