This fall, Massachusetts seems poised to vote into office yet another member of the prominent Kennedy clan.
Joseph P. Kennedy III, grandson of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy ’48 and Democratic frontrunner for the 2012 Massachusetts Fourth District Congressional race, boasts a progressive political platform typical of politicians that hail from his family. Among Kennedy’s campaign promises is a tax code that benefits lower- and middle-class Americans and a sustainable energy policy; this is an agenda that is no doubt favorable to liberal voters, including the better part of Harvard’s undergraduate population. But perhaps most significantly, the thirty-one-year-old candidate’s rapid political ascendancy is indicative of the troubling hegemony held by the Kennedy family in local and even national politics.
That one family has exercised such enormous political clout in the state of Massachusetts for over half a century seems inconsistent with American political values. The United States, a liberal democracy and a quintessentially meritocratic nation predicated on individual achievement, should possess a political culture in which bright, capable individuals from modest backgrounds are as likely to be elected to public office as individuals from politically and economically distinguished families. Yet six members of the Kennedy family have held high political offices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including former President John F. Kennedy ’40 and former Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’56. Many others have occupied notable (if less prominent) offices, such as former Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, Joseph P. Kennedy III’s father.
So influential are the Kennedys that they are sometimes referred to as “America’s royal family,” the obvious implication being that they are not held to the standards of other Americans and not expected to achieve prominence solely on the basis of their personal capabilities. That the young and inexperienced Joseph P. Kennedy III can be considered a serious political contender is a clear indicator that our supposed meritocracy is not functioning as it should.
Unfortunately, the instance of the Kennedys is not anomalous. Indeed, the entrenchment of this particularly renowned dynasty is only one example of the way in which influential families can maintain power in the American political system. Joseph P. Kennedy III has undoubtedly also benefited from the undue influence that money and wealth have in modern American politics. For liberal Democratic voters, who should favor a more egalitarian and meritocratic political culture without such a high spending barrier obstructing entry, this latest Kennedy’s rapid rise ought to seem especially problematic. By so fervently embracing yet another Kennedy, liberal Democrats perpetuate a culture that they, and we, oppose.
Of course, the Kennedy family has contributed much to both American and Massachusetts politics in the last half-century. President John F. Kennedy ‘40 and Robert F. Kennedy ‘48 both helped facilitate the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and campaigned for racial equality in America. In addition, the Kennedy family includes a large number of influential environmental and human rights activists. With all else equal, Joseph P. Kennedy III may follow in this illustrious tradition and indeed prove himself an admirable and effective Democratic Party leader.
Nonetheless, Kennedy should not win an election simply of the basis of his last name. As a fairly young and inexperienced candidate, it seems likely that he has cultivated Democratic Party favor primarily on the basis of his family connections and the strong legacy of his surname. Continuing to support blindly the Kennedy family simply on the basis of historical precedent is bad politics and harmful to the integrity of American democracy.