As the curtain was set to fall on the final debate between Senator Ed Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy III ahead of their September 1 primary face-off, the latter made his final pitch to the people of Massachusetts: “My family taught me that leadership isn’t about power. It’s about humanity. It’s about the messy stuff. The hope and the hurt. The common currency we share in a world that gives and takes far too much far too often.”
Though the moderator had given him forty-five seconds, Kennedy could probably have said the same thing in only one or two. Much like his utterly pointless campaign for Senate, most of the spiel was needless adornment for what everyone, including the congressman’s own supporters, already knows, the first two words more or less summing up the stakes of his primary challenge without need of further exposition.
Anyone actually paying attention probably found the rest of what Kennedy said difficult to parse, all of it taking the form of evocative-sounding rhetorical binaries carefully crafted to mean nothing except whatever the audience chose to make of them: humanity not power; hope and hurt; a world that, somehow, both gives and takes in excess with too much frequency (the question of what exactly the world is respectively taking and giving being perhaps best left to philosophers).
Coming with visibly rehearsed sniffles and a treacly delivery to put even the most seasoned bullshit artists in American politics to shame, Kennedy’s cul-de-sac of fatuous verbiage summed up the spirit of a campaign that was until a few weeks ago poised to carry the man at its center into the Senate with ease.
No one named Kennedy, after all, has ever lost an election in Massachusetts.
Kennedy’s victory was supposed to be a cakewalk, the inevitable triumph of youthful dynamism over an ossified incumbent who first entered politics in the early 1970s. This, at any rate, was the script many expected the contest to follow — not least the thirty-nine-year-old grandnephew of John F. Kennedy himself, who has struggled to offer any compelling reason for his challenge, a difficulty born of the fact that there isn’t one. As a report in the Atlantic put it earlier this month:
Kennedy is betting that rank-and-file Democrats, especially those who don’t follow every policy battle or vote in the Senate, will…see a choice between two good progressives, including one who is younger, more vigorous, and more famous than the other.
With a privately-commissioned poll last summer showing Kennedy some fourteen points ahead of the incumbent in a head-to-head matchup, a degenerated political dynasty evidently saw an opportunity and pounced.
As sheer opportunism goes, this calculation wasn’t necessarily misplaced. American politics has regularly rewarded the superficial appeals of celebrity and nostalgia, and so much the better if the two can be deployed in tandem.
With a brand consolidated around the candidate’s youth (or rather Youth™) the campaign had in theory the perfect vehicle for an easy victory in the erstwhile Kennedy heartland. A run for president, similarly leveraging the family crest and little else, would probably follow in due course.
Until a few months ago, the gamble looked certain to pay off. Polling throughout much of the race, in fact, has been so slanted in Kennedy’s favor there was briefly speculation that Markey might retire by his own hand to avoid an embarrassing defeat. But the senator, who won the seat seven years ago after a lengthy stint in the House of Representatives, has built what appears to be a formidable coalition that includes both mainstream Democratic groups and those aligned with the party’s left.
By helping introduce the most potentially transformative piece of environmental legislation in US history, Markey has staked out clear ground as a progressively oriented figure, despite a mixed record that includes an indefensible vote to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
With the backing of the Sunrise Movement, endorsement of fellow Green New Deal champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a campaign vastly more in sync with the moment than the one Democrats are currently running nationally, the seventy-four-year-old senator has successfully turned an all but certain Kennedy victory into a competitive race — a recent University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll actually put him ahead by fifteen points. In a delicious irony, Markey reportedly now leads the supposed candidate of youth among actual youth voters 71 to 21.
It’s as sure a sign as any that Kennedy’s “voice of a new generation” schtick hasn’t worked out as planned, and that his transparently opportunistic pivot to the left ahead of the primary isn’t convincing young voters in Massachusetts. Much like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, his closest analogues during the recent presidential primary, Kennedy III attempted the hallowed election season rebrand as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive hip to social justice, despite a recent past as a fairly bog standard centrist Dem.
Though a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Kennedy voted against its proposed budget two years in a row. In 2018, he backed a House “Blue Lives Matter” bill intending to make it a federal penalty of up to ten years for assaulting a police officer — a charge criminal justice advocates say is often used to silence victims of police brutality. As recently as two years ago, he could be heard complaining about the decriminalization of marijuana.
Though Markey is certainly no Bernie Sanders (he’s been endorsed by the dull-as-ditchwater Chuck Schumer as well as AOC), Kennedy’s bid to posture as an enemy of “the establishment” easily ranks as one of the greasiest maneuvers attempted by a liberal politician in an election season that’s already seen oleaginous sound bites taken to the level of Olympic sport.
If the feigned victimhood of billionaire-backed politicians whining about “Bernie Bros” hasn’t done so already, the risible claim of a pampered aristocrat that his campaign has suffered “cyberbullying” from Markey supporters should hopefully put the tactic to rest.
In a sense, there’s nothing particularly notable about Kennedy’s challenge beyond the sheer fact of its existence. Garnishing the status quo with a phony veneer of novelty, after all, is more or less centrist liberalism’s ur-form. But, thanks to the brazen entitlement of the candidate himself, it has become the year’s ultimate test case for whether the emptiest kind of elite dynastic politics remain viable in a world of melting ice caps and resurgent fascism.
On September 1, Democratic voters in Massachusetts can reelect a cosponsor of the Green New Deal or send a third generation Habsburg prince to the United States Senate. Let’s hope it’s the former, and that the Kennedy clan is handed the humiliating defeat on home soil it so richly deserves.