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.