Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, inspired an important debate with his recent report “The Inclusive Populism of Robert F. Kennedy.” In The New York Times, he argues that Kennedy’s 82-day 1968 presidential campaign provides a model for liberals who seek to recapture the allegiance of white, working-class voters and “forge a powerful coalition” based on a “liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.”
The debate has two components: First, is this really what happened in 1968? And second, does the campaign really provide a road map a half-century later? Kahlenberg, like many before him, posits the contest as a battle between two manifestations of populism: the inclusive, liberal economic populism of RFK and the resentful, racially driven right-wing populism of George Wallace. While strongly supported by black voters, Kennedy succeeded in places like Indiana by poaching Wallace voters with appeals to patriotic symbols and “law and order” policies. He did this so aggressively that Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate for president, worried that “people think Bobby is more a law-and-order man than I am!” And then–California Governor Ronald Reagan was pleased to note that “Kennedy was talking more and more like me.” Yet, in addition to those who were openly racist, Kennedy dominated among black and brown voters. As the Times noted in 1968, Kennedy was able to assemble “an unusual coalition of Negroes and lower income whites,” and he did well “with blue-collar workers in the industrial areas and with rural whites.”
Can liberals do the same today? Did they ever do it in the first place? As the historian Garry Wills has pointed out, Robert Kennedy’s coalition was not exactly stable. It required the candidate to say things in one place that would have lost him votes in another. Had Kennedy sought to challenge Hubert Humphrey for the support of big-city bosses in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, which would have been necessary to win the nomination, he would have had to alienate black supporters in those places, who lived with the discrimination and oppression the bosses enforced. Once the national media began to point out these contradictions, the coalition quite likely would have imploded.
Robert Kennedy was a unique candidate in many respects: He was charismatic, dramatic, inspiring, deeply Catholic, and, perhaps most important, the brother of the then-sainted slain president. Additionally, a successful coalition is a matter of knitting together not just black and white but a genuine “rainbow” of complicated self-defined identities. Yet Kennedy did not do well with what is today the backbone of the Democratic Party: urban and suburban, college-educated, well-to-do voters—those so frequently demonized as “liberal elitists” by Trump supporters and cable-news pundits. (In the ‘68 primaries, they largely voted for Eugene McCarthy, who ran on an anti–Vietnam War platform.) Given the fact that they—dare I say “we”?—are now considered Public Enemy No. 1 by “populist” Trump voters, it’s fair to say that the differences between 1968 and 2018 may matter more than the similarities.
Historians tend to be wary of instructional historical analogies, for good reason: History has too many unknown variables that interfere with useful lessons. But with or without a 50-year-old “usable past,” the political quandary of attracting white, blue-collar voters is a crucial one. According to the pollster Guy Molyneux, 35 percent of so-called “white working-class” voters—about 23 million people—are potential swing voters in the 2018 and 2020 elections. That’s too many people to write off and still win elections. But the question that liberal Democrats face is how to appeal to that segment without driving down turnout among core constituencies and betraying the principles that made them liberals in the first place. Yes, income inequality has significantly increased since 1968, and this should help entice “populists” away from the party of plutocrats. Yet even reaching these people requires that they are somehow informed of the actual policies proposed to address their concerns. This problem has been made infinitely more difficult—I am tempted to say impossible—by the rise of Fox News, Breitbart, Infowars, and the countless projects of the Koch brothers and the Mercer family (including Cambridge Analytica), to say nothing of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and all the bots and hackers (Russian and otherwise) who love to exploit them. These are the folks who have succeeded in turning the word “liberal” into an epithet among these same white, working-class voters whom liberals hope to reach. Robert Kennedy, moreover, at least had his speeches accurately covered by a media that did not yet consider outright lies as “alternative facts.”
One of the rarely discussed effects of the rise of so much right-wing media has been its success in converting our political discourse to reflect its linguistic biases. Nowhere is this clearer than with the word “populist,” which, despite the inroads made by Bernie Sanders, has come to imply Trump-style racism, sexism, and xenophobia among white men. But as the leading historian of the topic, Georgetown’s Michael Kazin, observes, while the language of populism has historically been up for grabs among those battling elites, “the right captured it in the late 1960s and 1970s with its praise of ‘Middle America’ and attacks on ‘limousine liberals.’ The left has struggled to reclaim populism with talk of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, which the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party expresses with vigor. But in our politics, cultural divisions usually carry more weight than economic ones.” That being said, after the Parkland shooting, gun control has now become an urgent demand for a wide swath of America. With hundreds of thousands filling the streets demanding reform, we can honor Robert Kennedy—together with the young people he likely would have admired and doubtless inspired—with a genuine and sustained commitment at least to helping them save their own lives.