You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

RFK, Civic Republican

What a Bobby Kennedy presidency could have meant for American political life

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Throughout his 2003 book RFK: A Memoir, which recounts the last years of Robert F. Kennedy’s political career, Jack Newfield puzzles over how to summarize the heterodox political views Kennedy espoused during his pell-mell 81-day campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. Newfield repeatedly tries to imagine his subject’s politics—noting that Kennedy “became a new kind of liberal, leaping over the old liberalism he thought was obsolete”—but tacitly concedes defeat in specifying it: “Kennedy never developed a systematic liberal ideology.” Previously, in a 2000 talk titled “Robert F. Kennedy’s Promise,” Michael Sandel resolved the question the other way: Bobby Kennedy “was not,” he said, “by temperament or ideology, a liberal.”

There’s a reason Bobby’s interpreters have either struggled or refused to identify him with liberalism: His politics belonged to a tradition that had receded from it all but entirely since the Progressive era: civic republicanism. Within the context of civic-republican thought, Bobby’s apparently disparate political stands become perfectly sensible and coherent.

A key concept in civic republicanism is citizenship: If people aren’t empowered to govern themselves as citizens, no matter what liberal rights are codified to protect them from tyranny, they aren’t truly free. In keeping with this ethos, Kennedy was acutely skeptical about the remote, centralized, bureaucratic social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society—on the grounds that they minimized, if they didn’t preclude, citizen participation. Kennedy’s intolerance of crime, even when committed by legitimately angry rioters in the streets of American cities, also had a civic-republican basis: Fear of crime, he thought, compromised citizen access to public spaces and so shrunk the sense of community for everyone. He was meanwhile cynical about what he saw as America’s overweening faith in economic growth per se and its exaltation of gross national product as the measure of human happiness—noting that the country was afflicted not only by material poverty among the disadvantaged but also by a “poverty of satisfaction ... that afflicts us all”—and idealistic about what we could call civic growth: “We know our happiness comes not from the goods we have, but from the good we do together.”

Kennedy’s most controversial, and putatively illiberal, stand was his opposition to the prevailing welfare system. In his perception, dependency on welfare kept its subjects from fully participating in society: Having nothing to do, he argued, meant “having nothing to do with the rest of us.” What America needed, he argued, was jobs—“dignified employment at decent pay,” the kind of employment that enabled people to say, “I helped to build this country. I am a participant in great public ventures.”

At the end of The Machiavellian Moment, the book that almost single-handedly revived interest in civic republicanism in the Anglo-American academy in the 1970s, J.G.A. Pocock defines the titular moment as the historical point when citizens revive the ancient republican virtue of prioritizing the good of the political community over personal interests to challenge the values of modern commercial society. While unlikely to have been aware of ripples in political philosophy from Renaissance Florence, Kennedy wanted precisely to press the American business class to broaden the scope of its self-interest to include participating in the revival of America’s inner cities. This was the significance of his public-private partnership in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. This project prompted IBM to set up a plant in the neighborhood offering 300 jobs, and it reformed the mortgage market in the area enough to provide decent and affordable housing. Under a President Bobby Kennedy, the Bed-Stuy project might have been a beacon for economic revitalization across all America’s inner cities.

A question few have speculated on, to date, is what dramatic social changes America might have seen had Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy both lived, with King pursuing a grassroots campaign for economic and racial justice while a new President Kennedy challenged American business to embrace a more capacious sense of its purpose in society. There has been so little speculation on this subject, I think, because it is too painful to contemplate the radically different America it suggests we could be living in today.

Richard Harwood once wrote about Kennedy’s presidential campaign: “We discovered in 1968 this deep, almost mystical bond that existed between Robert Kennedy and the Other America.” Many who knew him remarked on Kennedy’s uncanny ability to see things from other people’s points of view. A friend once remarked, “I think Bobby knows precisely what it is like to be a very old woman. Cesar Chavez said of him, “He could see the world through the eyes of the poor. He was one of us.”

Native Americans also sensed his identification with their plight. On the day he died, a member of the Seneca tribe in upstate New York wrote to Bobby’s widow Ethel: “We loved him too, Mrs. Kennedy. Loving a public official for an Indian is almost unheard of, as history bears out. We trusted him. Unheard of, too, for an Indian. We had faith in him.” The Indian writer and activist Vine Deloria Jr., the author of Custer Died for Your Sins, wrote that Indians thought him “as great a hero the most famous Indian war-chiefs precisely because of his ruthlessness. ... Indians saw him as a warrior, the white Crazy Horse. ... Spiritually, he was an Indian.”

Rafrer Johnson, a black Olympic athlete who campaigned for Bobby, thought, after the death of Martin Luther King, that no other American could speak to both races the way Kennedy did, or to black militants as well as to black moderates. “Senator Kennedy,” he said, “proved that color doesn’t make any difference. He was—in terms of the Negro—as much a Negro as Adam Clayton Powell. ... As Ralph Bunch or Senator [Edward] Brooke. He was as much Negro as Jesse Owens or Joe Louis because he did right by people.” As Newfield wrote: “The militant young blacks, who wore ‘Free Huey Newton’ buttons as they cheered Kennedy in San Francisco the day before he was shot, and the low-income whites who signed George Wallace petitions in July would have both voted for Kennedy in November. He was able to talk to the two polarities of powerlessness at the same time.”

The socialist Michael Harrington, whose book The Other America first alerted Kennedy—along with millions of other middle-class Americans—to the existence of widespread poverty in the country, and who campaigned for him nonstop in Indiana and California, offered this final, wrenching judgment of his potential: “Bob was the one man who could have actually changed the course of American history.”