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Robert Kennedy and the Future of American Democracy

Fifty years ago this week, at the age of eight, I learned that life was tragic and political hope could be fleeting.

The graphic images of Bobby Kennedy’s death in June 1968 still resonate in my memory—his last speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the chaotic scene in the kitchen where he was shot, a picture of him lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, and the funeral train that took him to his resting place. At such a young age, I could only comprehend his passing through a simplistic prism: my parents were active in the civil rights movement in our home town at that time, and they told me how Bobby Kennedy stood for justice and equality. Later on, I was able to connect his civil rights advocacy with his anti-war stance as well. The loss of hope that his candidacy represented still resonates in my gut.

Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was more than just a devastating loss for his family and his presidential candidacy. It also was a direct assault on democracy in this country. On the heels of other political assassinations of the sixties, this event showed that the will of the people, as expressed through their votes and their social actions, could be thwarted.

Here’s the thing about democracy: Left on its own, it struggles to sustain itself. Any political system requires certain key elements. A monarchy thrives on pomp and circumstance, on the trappings and mystery of royalty. A fascist dictatorship relies on terror, cult of personality, and strict control over state secrets. As for democracy, its life blood is based on checks and balances, a secure and respected judicial system, equal rights under the law, norms of behavior toward political friend and foe, and stable, predictable succession of power. The bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Sirhan Sirhan cut this stability to its core, and we had no say before these killers forever changed history.

As a child, I was haunted by Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but in the following years I put it behind me and developed a political consciousness. I watched the country survive Watergate, and I learned the basic principles of how our government worked: Congressional representatives write up bills, committees hold hearings, members of the public weigh in, compromises are made, and sometimes the bill makes it to the president’s desk for a signature. Other times, you don’t get what you want, and the other side wins. But there is a process, written in the Constitution and built on years of norms and practices.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats, but I learned that little could be done without reaching out to the other side. When I served as an intern for Robert Garcia, a liberal Democratic congressman, he was co-sponsor of a bill with Jack Kemp, a renowned conservative Republican. I recall attending meetings with staff members from both Democratic and Republican representatives.

What I describe certainly sounds like a relic of bygone days. If this kind of bipartisanship is happening, you don’t hear about it much. Rather, our democratic norms are being threatened by extremism and political intolerance. I can cite two current examples:

Our current president has no respect for or belief in democracy or public decency. That is simply his nature, and for the time being we are stuck with him. The problem is that so few people from his party even question such behavior. Those who challenged the current president are doing so from the safety of not running for reelection (Bob Corker, Jeff Flake) or the knowledge that they are not seeking any further political gain (John McCain). But Republicans running for House or Senate seats can either unquestionably support the current president or not run for reelection. Anything else risks riling up his angry "base". So they go along. Sometimes, in the case of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, they grin (or sneer) and bear it. Other times, as in the case of Devin Nunes, they actively support and share intel with the administration.

Keep in mind that the Constitution says nothing about parties. It does, however, outline the powers of the legislature, setting one up as a check against the other. Those in Congress who are unquestionably supporting the current president have abdicated their role in this equation. In doing so, they have whittled away at a core pillar of democracy and thus made its other features somewhat weaker.

A second example is what I call whiplash politics. In the absence of bipartisan policy making, presidents take action through executive order. This leads to outcomes that lurch from one extreme to another. Dreamers were protected under President Obama, until the current president was elected--and then they weren't. Environmental regulations seeking clean air and water were in force, until Scott Pruitt became EPA Administrator--and then they weren't. The US was part of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement--until the current president decided otherwise. We were part of a multi-country coalition to the Iran nuclear agreement--until we dropped out. Obama's team fought predatory lendors and for-profit colleges; the current team seeks to protect them.

These are unquestionably bad ideas being implemented by an administration that says it’s for the common Americans but is really not; however, the point goes beyond policy making. Whiplash politics make it impossible for other countries to deal effectively with us, for businesses to plan, or for citizens to know where our government is heading.

I'll be honest: I think Republicans started all this through targeted culture wars. President Nixon demonized his opponents and used racially coded appeals. President Reagan did similar things, though with a kindly and avuncular style. Newt Gingrich actively fought an all-out war with Democrats. Mitch McConnell clearly stated he would not work with President Obama and was the first Senator in history to refuse a vote on a president's Supreme Court nominee. Obama tried to take the high ground; it didn't work.

Going back to someone who I believe did take the high ground—Bobby Kennedy—I wonder what he was thinking as he felt his life drifting away on that hard kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel. Did he realize how the shots that felled him would undermine the core of our democracy? Could he even foresee that, 50 years later, his successors would be so cavalier in guarding democratic principles?

Folks, the democracy that we grew up with is in trouble. In honor of Bobby Kennedy, and the Democrats and Republicans who led us honorably in years past, keep that in mind when it comes time for you to vote.

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