The Corner


There Is No Duchy of Kennedy

Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy, III (D-MA) speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa. July 25, 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Today, Massachusetts voters get to choose the victor of the state’s Democratic Senate primary. Incumbent Senator Ed Markey is hoping for victory in the face of a challenge against Joseph Kennedy III, since 2013 a member of the House of Representatives for Massachusetts, and since birth a member of the Kennedy clan (he is the grandson of RFK).

There is little hope for a Republican in this race in the fall; in all likelihood, the contest’s winner will keep the seat for Democrats. Markey and Kennedy are, moreover, of little distinction ideologically. Both support Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, for example, and have thus resorted to accusing the other of being somehow insufficiently faithful to progressive ideals. Support within the Democratic Party has divided in unpredictable ways, giving little indication as to which candidate is more “progressive”: Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez has endorsed the far-older Markey, while House speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the much-younger Kennedy. At any rate, for a conservative not from Massachusetts, there is almost no reason to be interested in this race — except in one respect.

It was not surprising that Joe Kennedy decided to eye a Senate seat. The Kennedy clan has been consistently involved in politics for decades; in addition to Joe’s grandfather, two of his great-uncles were senators. But none of them succeeded in getting a law passed requiring that a Kennedy serve in the Senate if one is available. That has not stopped this Kennedy from invoking his family’s legacy against Markey, claiming to have done so only after jabs from Markey against Kennedy’s father (who was a member of the House from Massachusetts) and ads from Markey paraphrasing JFK. So obviously the perception remains that the Kennedy aura remains potent, for those who can successfully appropriate it.

My question is: Why? What is it about what Joe Kennedy’s relatives did that qualifies him for a seat in the U.S. Senate? We hear a lot about their failures nowadays, but one of the underappreciated features of the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution was the abolition of primogeniture and entail the former inspired and the forbidding of titles of nobility that the latter enshrined. These were all social mechanisms that had facilitated familial, inherited aristocracy in the Old World and would have done so in the new. To be clear, some of that made its way over here anyway. But one aspect of the American promise is that it shouldn’t matter who your family is; anyone can become anything here. Kennedy’s hopes depend on Massachusetts voters forgetting all that and turning a Senate seat in Massachusetts into a Duchy of Kennedy. It is, rather, “the people’s seat,” as Scott Brown once retorted to a debate moderator who called the office he was running for (and won) “Teddy Kennedy’s seat.”

Again, Ed Markey is not exactly the best candidate, from a conservative perspective, through which to assert this small-r republican principle. But when there are two candidates functionally indistinguishable from each other and the main case one of them is making for himself is his last name, go with the other one. At one time, it might have meant something different to be a Kennedy — Joe’s grandfather Robert once challenged Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, and his great-uncle JFK cut taxes and was willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” on behalf of liberty abroad — but apparently nebulous appeals to the name itself are all that remain. In which case such appeals should be rejected, as Massachusetts voters seem likely to do today.

Perhaps Worchester voters will play a critical role in this.


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