Resurrecting Robert F. Kennedy

This post, written by Chris Bowers, originally appeared on Open Left
Of the 1968 candidates, only RFK gave all his energies and risked all his chances in dealing with [the issues of poverty, race and crime]. RFK builds a new coalition of the poor, the black and the young... Momentum lost after 1968.
The above quote is taken from a 1974 review of The Presidency on Trial: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Campaign and Afterwards by Stuart Gerry Brown (review written by Fred Greenstein and published in the American Political Science Review. Lexis-Nexis access is required to view the article). I quote it here because, even though I was born well after the fact, I believe it expresses the sentiment of many in the progressive movement forty years ago as to the type of electoral and governing coalition they were seeking to forge.

Certainly, there was no unanimity among progressives of the time, as RFK's main rival in contested primaries was Eugene McCarthy, who certainly fomented a lot of excitement among the younger, liberal, anti-war activist class of the time. Also, anti-electoral radicalism was, as I understand it, quite prevalent among the left at the time, and I imagine there was also a lot of liberal / progressive affinity for Hubert Humphrey, as well.

Before I am crucified for my weak understanding of the election of 1968, let me first freely admit that I am neither a historian, nor a political scientist. The reason I present the quote, "RFK builds a new coalition of the poor, the black and the young," is not to debate the accuracy of the statement, or debate the potential electoral power of that coalition had RFK not been assassinated. Instead, I wish to discuss the similarities between that vision of a governing progressive majority and the one we face as progressives today. As a descriptive term, "the poor, the black, and the young" welded together the major areas of leftist activism of the time. A coalition of "the poor," connects to the New Deal and Great Society form of governance, "the black" connections to the great civil rights struggles of the time, and "the young" connects to the huge wave of youth activism and culture that exploded in the 1960's as the Baby Boomer generation came of age.

Whether or not this coalition would have been successful in 1968, and the degree to which it actually existed under RFK's campaign, are not nearly as relevant to our own time as much as the attempt to bring these constituencies, and great centers of activism, together under a single umbrella. This is because today, in the contemporary "fourth wave" manifestation of the progressive movement, we face a similar challenge in forging a coalition of the non-white, the GLBT, the unionized, and the non-Christian that, in different terms, comes close to the slogan used to describe RFK's 1968 coalition.

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