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Joe Kennedy and the Precarious Promise of "Moral Capitalism"

Kennedy may not be the messiah Democrats seek for 2020. But he could make a good John the Baptist

Joe Kennedy III

Joe Kennedy III speaks during a Remembrance and Celebration of the Life & Enduring Legacy of Robert F. Kennedy event at Arlington National Cemetery on June 6, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for RFK Human Rights )

We are a nation that was founded in opposition to hereditary rule. The founders rejected the notion of a king and embraced the principle that there were to be no royal families who generation after generation governed on the assumption of divine right.

In recent decades, we have made two notable exceptions to this democratic disdain of dynasties. And no, the Kardashians don’t count.

True, members of these two American dynastic families didn’t officially inherit office like kings and queens. They were elected, and to their credit, usually have embraced the concept of public service—albeit often in the tradition of a patrician noblesse oblige, which can translate as making lofty decrees from a pedestal while letting other “lesser” people do the dirty work.

And like so many crowned heads, money has been involved. Lots of it, and much of it ill gotten, the profits of war, resource depletion, and the exploitation of humankind’s pleasures and sins. One of the sons of privilege joked after a primary victory that his father sent a telegram: “Don't buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

This past few days we’ve been reminded of one of the two families with the death of ex-President George Herbert Walker Bush: blue-blooded son of a U.S. senator; father of one son who served as president and governor of Texas, another who served as governor of Florida and unsuccessfully ran for the White House; and grandfather of the Texas land commissioner—which may not sound like a big deal, but if you live there, is.

The other political dynasty is, of course, the Kennedys. Start with “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, congressman, mayor of Boston, and maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Bobby and Ted. He was a champion politician, master, according to one historian, of the so-called “Irish switch”—which involved “chatting amiably with one person while pumping another’s hand and gazing fondly at a third.”

Honey Fitz passed along his DNA for deft political machinations. We all know the legends of Jack, Bobby, and Ted. Some of the current Kennedy generations—children and grandkids, etc.—have held office, too, although more of them have worked diligently for a variety of non-profits, some of them bankrolled by the family.

Prime among the Kennedy cousins and siblings these days—and touted as a potential White House candidate—is Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, 38, grandson of Bobby, representing the Massachusetts Fourth District and just elected to his fourth term in the House.

He says he’s not a candidate for the presidency in 2020, but he’s sure talking like one. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Joe Kennedy spoke to the New England Council, which describes itself as “the nation’s oldest regional business organization.”

Kennedy echoed the words of his grandfather Bobby, who spoke out against “the other America” of poverty and despair, and even those of highborn President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the so-called “class traitor” who famously declared that he welcomed the hatred of the business and financial cabals, and warned that “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.” FDR knew that without capitalist reforms, revolution might be inevitable.

Joe Kennedy’s speech was about what he called “moral capitalism,” and while he may not quite have reached the height of FDR’s or his Kennedy forebears’ rhetoric, it was an impressive and eloquent shout out against the vast income inequality and greed that threaten the republic, “this deep sense of unease that Americans are working harder and harder for less and less.”

...They live in cities and towns more likely to be medically underserved, educationally ostracized from today’s job market, plagued by inadequate infrastructure, burdened by crumbling housing or homes no one can afford.

They disproportionately shoulder the hard words that make life hurt—eviction, addiction, bankruptcy, violence.

They hail from the places where polling locations suddenly disappear; where the biggest economic engine is a payday lender; where lead poisons children’s water; where injustice and insufficiency fester for generations before government thinks to step in.

Kennedy said he believed that in recent years the left had failed to come up with a viable economic alternative and so “a brutal force stepped into that void. Donald Trump picked up our economic story and gave it a bold, new re-write for modern times. His version doesn’t just lean on that age-old conservative theme that success is a treasure some haven’t figured out how to find. He takes it a step further and says success is a privilege some don’t even deserve.”

His is a country of bitter rivalry between fellow citizens, forced to endlessly spar over the scraps of our system. My wages can’t grow unless your food stamps go. Your medical bills can’t fall unless my insurance gets taken way. So Americans spend their days fighting each other over economic crumbs—while our system quietly hand-delivers the entire pie to those at the top.

The top 1 percent owns 40 percent of our country’s wealth, Kennedy noted. “The average CEO makes 361 times what their average worker makes. Payouts to shareholders after the GOP tax bill will hit $1.3 trillion this year while wages still hover at the lowest they’ve been in over half a century.”

Kennedy told the assembled businessmen and businesswomen of the New England Council that unlike many, he still believes in capitalism but that it needs to be rebuilt, the current system stripped “to the studs.” And he called for bipartisanship.

Good luck, Joe, with both those capitalist and bipartisan things. God help us if the gulf between the super rich and the rest of us gets any wider. Unless big business and the wealthy follow Kennedy’s lead and start to rethink their covetousness, any promise of “moral capitalism” could prove as empty and oxymoronic as George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” To his credit, Kennedy is working to make it otherwise.

What’s more, the Republican Party still doesn’t seem to have perceived the lessons of the midterms. You’ve read about the attempts to further voter suppression and strip the powers of incoming Democratic governors in Wisconsin and Michigan, but in addition, the GOP-dominated Michigan state legislature has taken advantage of a lame duck session to gut new minimum wage and paid sick leave laws. (They had passed the bills earlier to avoid ballot initiatives that would have been harder to reverse, then stuck in the shiv after the election. Classy.)

Same goes for Congress. While Democrats have a big, new hard-won majority in the next House for at least the next two years, the GOP-held Senate will block any legislation that tries to establish economic equity.

But as Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation and others have noted, House Democrats can take advantage of their oversight and investigative powers to expose corruption and greed, teeing up strong legislation down the road.

Vanden Heuvel writes:

A systematic review of the efforts by former corporate lobbyists who are now in the executive branch, busily rigging the rules against working people, would provide the basis for comprehensive legislation to empower workers and protect their rights; raise the minimum wage; crack down on wage theft; use government procurement contracts to reward companies that treat their employees decently; and begin to allow workers to share in the rewards of the recovery. It would also supercharge movements like the Fight for $15 and the teachers’ strikes, which are already making progress at the state and local levels.

The House incoming freshman class is young, exciting, and diverse, a well-deserved jolt to the system. Still, they would do well to honor and learn from such incumbent progressives as Joe Kennedy who over the past years in the wilderness managed to hold out against daunting and extreme Republican opposition.

It’s a delicate balance. Kennedy may not be the messiah Democrats seek for 2020. But he could make a good John the Baptist, laying the groundwork, spreading the word, and preaching the gospel of change, yet all the while, in Kennedy's case, keeping his head.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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