Reactions to Joseph Kennedy III’s response to President Trump’s State of the Union address highlight ongoing divides within the Democratic Party.
After President Trump delivered one of the lengthiest State of the Union speeches in recent history, Joseph Kennedy III gave the Democratic Response in an auto shop at the Diman Regional Technical School in the economically downtrodden town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Though there were some complaints about his delivery and demeanor, unlike many Democrats since the 2016 defeat he appears to have gotten the memo for what might just work for a nationwide victory.
Against the backdrop of a city that at times has been described as the kind of ‘down on your luck’ place with plenty of the ‘forgotten Americans’ Trump spoke of in the 2016 Presidential race, Kennedy wove together poetic odes to these very same forgotten Americans – using those exact words – along with odes to immigrants, people of colour, transgender Americans, and more.
At times, he sounded like an oddly serendipitous combination of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, echoing themes that helped fuel a surge in popularity for both candidates.
Like many American hometowns, Fall River has faced its share of storms. But people here are tough. They fight for each other. They pull for their city.
It is a fitting place to gather as our nation reflects on the state of our union.
This is a difficult task. Many have spent the past year anxious, angry, afraid. We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country. We hear the voices of Americans who feel forgotten and forsaken.
We see an economy that makes stocks soar, investor portfolios bulge and corporate profits climb but fails to give workers their fair share of the reward.
At other times he echoed all of the hallmark themes of Democratic politics of diversity and inclusion, central to the epistemology of the Democratic activist base and utilised expertly early on by Hillary Clinton to sweep her to decisive primary victories.
It continued with every word of our Independence — the audacity to declare that all men are created equal. An imperfect promise for a nation struggling to become a more perfect union.
It grew with every suffragette’s step, every Freedom Riders voice, every weary soul we welcomed to our shores.
And to all the “Dreamers” watching tonight, let me be clear: Ustedes son parte de nuestra historia. Vamos a luchar por ustedes y no nos vamos alejar.
You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away.
America, we carry that story on our shoulders.
…You proudly marched together last weekend — thousands deep — in the streets of Las Vegas and Philadelphia and Nashville.
You sat high atop your mom’s shoulders and held a sign that read: “Build a wall and my generation will tear it down.”
You bravely say, me too. You steadfastly say, black lives matter.
And in a nod to what must happen if Democrats are to achieve victory, he tied them together seamlessly.
As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals, rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top.
As if the parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son will be beaten and bullied at school is any more or less legitimate than the parent whose heart is shattered by a daughter in the grips of opioid addiction.
So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: we choose both. We fight for both. Because the strongest, richest, greatest nation in the world shouldn’t leave any one behind.
After a year or so of loud strum und drang in the wake of the defeat in 2016 – during which time some pointed to data showing that Democrats really do have a white working class problem, while others declared that even recognising it as a problem is “dumb” – Kennedy’s speech was the marriage of the two sides of the Democratic party we have needed well-articulated for some time. The party needs a candidate who can speak to the narrative of identity and inclusion to mobilise Democratic activists (some of whom think even using the term white working class itself is a ‘racist dog whistle‘) in the primaries. Simultaneously, this same candidate must be able to speak the broad economic language of Bernie Sanders to convince the necessary proportion of rust belt white working-class voters – a portion of which made the Obama coalition functional in 2008 and 2012 – to pull the lever for a Democrat.
It is a strategy that mirrors what Richard Nixon described as a pendulum – one must pivot to their base to win the primaries, then pivot back to the centre to get the critical votes to win the general election. In the Democratic party, one must play to our religion of diversity, but not drink so hard from the fountain of checking white privilege so as to alienate too many of these rust belt voters. In the Republican party, one must first pivot to the core evangelical Christian base during the primaries, then pivot outward in the general election to those who may be moved by other issues, which in 2016 turned out to feature the economy, jobs, but also immigration and terrorism.
Hillary Clinton, learning from her defeat in 2008, spoke to this identity narrative like a pro in the 2016 primaries – but lacked credibility on the basket of broad economic issues in the eyes of many voters as the candidate of the establishment. Bernie Sanders claimed the mantle of credibility on these economic issues as the outsider candidate, and was very popular with independents in states like Michigan and Ohio, but was near hopeless on the identity issues that matter to Democratic activists. By the time he realised this in the last cycle, the crucial southern primaries were already over. It was only when he climbed into the hands of the devotees of this new religion – including regrettable figures such as Linda Sarsour – that activists came to his side, a day late and a dollar short to turn his fortunes around.
To many Democratic voters, Kennedy has been largely unknown until now. A wealthy son of one of the most enduring political dynasties in America, he may seem like an unlikely messenger for this. On issues such as marijuana, and single payer healthcare, there are some bumps in his record that would give progressives some pause, not without genuine concern.
But naturally, given that most Democrats knew next to nothing about his record or his beliefs, and their only window on the candidate was this speech, the identitarian wing of the Democratic party immediately went for the obvious rhetorical kill – too male, too pale. Morgan Baskin for Splinter magazine wrote seemingly seconds after the speech was over
It’s an interesting look coming from a party that seems constantly ready to sell out the people of colour in its base. Given that, in nearly every single report announcing Democrats’ decision, Kennedy is described as a “rising star,” it seems the party has shown its hand in settling on a strategy for beating Trump in 2020: Get an unoffensive white man who’s young and pedigreed to urge America that we don’t need radical change as long as the party of “equality” is in the White House.
Before anyone even had time to google what Kennedy’s actual voting record was, woke Twitter already weighed in on his very important melanin and genitalia record.
Why ever a white, male, Kennedy? What about this political moment says the left’s ideas will be most impactful coming from a white man from an entrenched political dynasty family?? https://t.co/SHcmoy6ubq
— Valerie Lewis (@valeriealewis) January 31, 2018
Must we dredge up a 50-year old, white, male Kennedy ghost to win back the presidency??
— HCBruner (@hcbruner) January 31, 2018
Who approved replacing a
STRONG Black woman’s VOICE
With that of a privileged
— Mauricio Escobedo (@mauricioescobed) January 31, 2018
I have nothing against Joseph Kennedy III. I am just sick of silencing Black and Brown voices. We would rather a white male speak about the issues. It’s brave for white men and women to talk about how they stand with the oppressed. But it’s race baiting for us to speak about it?
— Sam Pree-Stinson🌻✊🏽 (@preefor3) February 1, 2018
The concern Democrats should have about this identitarian article of faith within the party isn’t important insofar as Joseph Kennedy is concerned. Reports indicate Nancy Pelosi in part picked Joseph Kennedy III because he apparently does not have any immediate presidential ambitions. But this posture within the party could have dire implications – potentially knee-capping a candidate more likely to defeat Trump in the critical states in the primaries, and handing us a less electable candidate in the general election.
This is exactly what happened in the 2016 cycle. I wrote about this phenomenon just before the southern primaries, in which prominent black intellectuals like Ta-Nahisi Coates were making social justice articles of faith the vehicle by which to hurt the Democrats, and activists were interrupting Bernie Sanders rallies with charges of ‘white supremacist liberalism’ directed at arguably the most progressive base of voters in America.
Will Coates and others effectively “Nader-ize” Sanders…? Will they hand the Democratic Primary to the candidate who is less in tune with the hugely simmering emotion of working class grievance than Donald Trump is, effectively handing the election to the most openly racist President we’ve seen in generations?
I hope I’m wrong and this concern is unwarranted. I really hope Coates and others, in the name of righting wrongs, do not end up perpetuating the wrongs they seek to right. We can’t afford Regressive Social Justice.
We now know how this movie turned out. And if the reaction to Joseph Kennedy III is any indication, we may be poised to repeat these mistakes yet again. Sure, Joseph Biden might have easily beaten Trump if he had decided to run, but don’t count on his ability to survive the primaries this time around if the woke activists in the party have their say. Don’t count on their opposition to Biden to be based on his record or his prescriptions in a well-thought-out way, despite a voting record that isn’t so drastically different from Hillary Clinton’s. Sanders, who appears likely to run again, has been spending months now trying to play his hand with the identitarian wing of the party more carefully – but often with the same failed results on the same account of his melanin and genitalia (America Jews as an identity still don’t seem to merit any serious concern from many activists through the prism of intersectionality).
That’s not to say that a candidate of color couldn’t successfully utilize this seamless weaving of identity and populism necessary for Democratic victory. Kamala Harris appears to be cautiously and shrewdly courting the Bernie wing of the party while exciting the identity activists. But we also could end up with a candidate like Cory Booker, who might be hard-pressed to convince a winning proportion of white working-class Obama voters that see his consistent advocacy for big pharma and private equity as albatrosses they don’t want sinking them further.
In any case, the reaction to Joseph Kennedy III’s speech shows that for the time being, identity is still king among Democrats. And the Democrats may be poised to sink themselves yet again if they cannot manage to see beyond it.
Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News. Lucas is also a writer and podcaster, with interests in science, religion and politics.